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The Story of Loose Meat Sandwiches

There's nothing better in winter than some cozy comfort food. So, I'm excited to tell you all about Sioux City's signature dish, loose meat sandwiches, along with where to buy them and how to make your own!

in background, browned ground beef and onions and a red serving spoon. in foreground the words "the story of Loose Meat Sandwiches"

What is a loose meat sandwich?

A loose meat sandwich is, at its core, a loose pile of flavorful ground beef, served on a hamburger bun. Many people refer to it as a tavern or tavern sandwich. 

Exact seasoning blend varies by maker, but onion, horseradish, mustard powder, ketchup, pepper, and garlic are common, as is a pickle to top, and it should be loose, not in a patty, and fairly dry rather than saucy like a sloppy joe.

History of the Loosemeat Sandwich

The loose meat sandwich was created in Sioux City in about 1924, although there doesn't seem to be a clear historical record of who made it first. Miles Inn and Ye Olde Tavern were certainly selling it very early on accordingly to local legend, and it's likely the dish was invented at one or the other. Chowhound gives credit to Ye Old Tavern.

Some people credit the invention to Maid-Rite, and with all due respect to the chain, this is incorrect. Maid-Rite was not serving up loosemeats until at least 1926, two years after they were known to be on the menu in Sioux City. 

Fans of the show Roseanne might recognize the loosemeat sandwiches as the specialty dish her fictional diner, the Lanford Lunch Box served. However, Roseanne's version of this Midwest classic was a lot greasier--and cheesier than a classic Sioux City loosemeat sandwich! Star Roseanne Barr and her then-husband, Tom Arnold, even opened their own real restaurant, Tom's Big Food Diner, in Eldon, Iowa which also served up cheesy loosemeats. Unfortunately, it was short-lived, and you won't find it in Eldon today. 

There's also an episode of The Good Wife where a presidential candidate does the "Full Grassley" (visits every county in Iowa to campaign) and has to eat a loosemeat at every stop, which is pretty funny. 

Where to buy a loose meat sandwich

Outside of Siouxland, Maid-Rite is one of few chain restaurants to sell loose meats. But we have no Maid-Rites in in Siouxland, and our locally owned eateries serve up epic loosemeats, so I definitely recommend checking one (or all) of them out. 

The best loose meat sandwiches in Siouxland can be found (in alphabetical order, not ranked by excellence because they're all so delicious!) at:

a loosemeat sandwich of ground beef and pickle slices fill a hot dog bun, next to a single serve paper bag of crinkle fries, and a large paper cup marked Pepsi, from Billy Boy in Sioux City
Loosemeat sandwich meal from Billy Boy Drive Thru. Photo used with permission from Billy Boy.
  • Billy Boy
    • 2328 Riverside Blvd, Sioux City
    • Cool vintage drive-through serving up lots of flavor and charm! Here, a loose meat is called a loose meat!
    • I definitely recommend the onion chips, and fans rave about their ice cream and milkshakes too!
    • For more info, visit the Billy Boy page on Facebook
  • Bob's Drive-In
    • 25 Fifth Ave SW, Le Mars
    • This drive-in has been open since the 40's, and their food continues to delight visitors with its vintage charm and classic flavor. Loosemeats are known as "taverns" here.
    • Open three seasons (closed in winter)
    • For more info, visit the Bob's Drive-In page on Facebook.
  • Miles Inn
    • 2622 Leech Avenue, Sioux City
    • This cozy neighborhood bar is still serving up delicious loosemeats nearly a century later! Here they're known as "Charlie Boys"
    • For more info, visit the Miles Inn page on Facebook.
  • Tastee Inn & Out
    • 2610 Gordon Drive, Sioux City
    • Best known for their drive-through, but also has a few outdoor tables and a walk-up window.
    • Order a "tastee" to get a loosemeat sandwich
    • Get the onion chips too! They're so worth it!
    • Check out their website for more info
  • The Shack
    • 211 4th Street, Sioux City
    • One of Siouxland's newest eateries, serving up big flavor!
    • Check out their Facebook page for more info!

How to make your own loosemeat sandwiches

Whether you're just in the mood to make your own, or you're reading this from beyond Siouxland and can't visit these wonderful places, you'll be happy to know that loose meat sandwiches are actually pretty easy to make yourself. I've poured through several recipes online over the past few years in a quest to find a loosemeat sandwich recipe my family loves to eat, and ultimately, I modified and combined a few to come up with my personal Sioux City loosemeat sandwich recipe. You can leave out whatever you dislike here (onions and horseradish especially can be no-goes for picky eaters sometimes!), but here's how I do it:

  • 2lbs ground beef (the 2# packs from Braunger's work well!)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp mustard powder or about 1tbsp of mustard (I love Colman's mustard powder but have also used all sorts of random brands of yellow mustard. They all work fine so don't stress!)
  • dash of black pepper
  • 1 tbsp horseradish
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1/3 to 1/2c water 

Place all ingredients in a pot or pan and boil, uncovered, until beef is cooked through, onions are soft and clear, and the water is mostly absorbed or evaporated. You don't have to stir constantly but do stir regularly during the cooking process--remember you want the meat loose!

a homemade Sioux City loosemeat sandwich on a hamburger bun with crinkle fries visible behind

Serve on hamburger buns, and if desired, top with a small amount of mustard and a couple pickle slices. Best eaten with crinkle fries and/or onion chips/rings and served with some cold Sioux City Sarsaparilla. 

Bon appetit! 


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