Archie’s Waeside in Iowa: citadel of American beef cookery

PHOTO FROM ROADFOOD.COM

In a modest residential area – near farmland, railroad tracks and tall grain storage silos – is an almost-full parking lot at 5:30 p.m. on an average Thursday.

When doors open at 5, sometimes the lineup of customers is as long as the driveway. Especially on weekends.

To say that Archie’s Waeside has loyal patrons is an understatement. But now strangers drive hours to eat here too.

The destination is Le Mars, population 9,900, between Sioux Falls, S.D., and Sioux City in northwest Iowa.

The James Beard Foundation refers to the third-generation, family-run restaurant as “a citadel of American beef cookery” and in 2015 deemed it an America’s Classics winner. Only five businesses nationwide get this lifetime achievement award per year.

“We’re just a restaurant in a small town,” says owner Bob Rand, but now hardcore foodies go out of their way to visit, so “there’s pressure to perform.”

He appears more psyched than psyched out by this fact.

Rand mentions a couple who drove 250 miles, from the Minneapolis airport. “They ate here two nights in a row.”

And the phone call from a cabana in Jamaica: “When we land in Des Moines, we’re coming to see you,” he was told. That’s 225 miles away.

The dinner-only business walks the thin line between steakhouse and supper club. There are relish trays, perfectly golden hash browns, hand-breaded onion rings. What feels foreign? Mexican Cheese Balls (Monterey Jack and a little jalapeno heat inside a wonton skin) for appetizers. Sides of fritters or pickles for the entrees. The Southern Peach, an ice cream drink made with vodka and white crème de cocoa.

And the bar is empty because all those customers are at their tables. Rand says that changes on weekends.

Archie’s accommodated a max of 60 diners upon opening in 1949 and has five times the capacity today. Gone is the dance floor. A former garage is a private dining area that seats 12.

Founder Archie Jackson was the czar’s meat buyer and escaped Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. He landed in Chicago in 1914, was hired by stockyards and eventually moved to Sioux City, whose stockyards used to be the world’s largest.

“He loved it here” because of the friendly people and the meat quality, Rand says. When a day of stockyard work ended, boxing matches began. He wanted to be a pro boxer, says Lorrie Luense, the family historian and Rand’s sister.

Their grandfather smelled opportunity when the Waeside, a simple roadhouse, went up for sale. So he bought it, and the first menu was simple: steaks, barbecued ribs and chicken. No vegetables, says Luense, who runs front-of-house operations at the restaurant.

Their mother, Valerie Rand, was 19 years old when the restaurant opened. She took over after her father’s death in 1973, and upon retirement she sold the business to Bob, her youngest son. Little of consequence has changed, except for the growth of choices for wine and fresh seafood, which is delivered at least twice a week.

“I always felt Archie’s was ahead of its time,” Rand says, because his grandfather “really knew what people wanted” from the start: excellent beef cuts.

“The finest beef around is right here in northwest Iowa and northeast Nebraska,” Rand believes. Archie’s serves cornfed, certified Angus raised within 75 miles of Le Mars.

Steaks are dry-aged inhouse for four weeks. Porterhouse is the most popular of the dozen meat cuts. Available but not on the menu is The Benny Weicke, an 18-ounce filet named after the cattle buyer who ordered it.

Rand learned the trade early: He was trimming beef at age 7 or 8. Luense was 9 when she started washing dishes at Archie’s. They and three siblings were raised in a house attached to the restaurant.

With time, the family has gained generations of loyalty from customers, and some employees stick with Archie’s for decades. But now a majority of business comes from outside of the Le Mars-Sioux City area.

What stays the same? The commitment, quality and identifiers. One example is Russian dressing: The salad dressing is a toss of vinegar, oil, garlic and salt, served with onion on the side. Just like when it was introduced in the 1950s.

For more: archieswaeside.com

Street banners proclaim “Life is Sweet” in Le Mars, and you can take that literally. The community, which turns 150 years old in 2019, bills itself as Ice Cream Capital of the World because of Blue Bunny products.

The biggest attraction is the downtown Blue Bunny museum and ice cream parlor, where the 40 flavors include a few (like Mocha Almond Fudge) not available in stores.

Around town are giant ice cream cone sculptures, painted by local artists, who also add snazzy color with building murals outdoors.

Manufacturer Wells Enterprises Inc. asserts that no family-owned and privately held maker of ice cream products in the nation is larger. Production began in 1913, and the company also believes no one in the world makes more ice cream at one location. bluebunny.com/our-story/blue-bunny-parlor

The Wisconsin Badgers play their first Big Ten conference away game against Iowa on Sept. 22. Our group of 18 will make the road trip to Iowa City, an easy drive under normal circumstances.

How to decide where to eat along the way? A “99 Restaurants” promotion from the Iowa Tourism Office will help. Why 99? That’s one restaurant for each of the state’s counties; in the mix are casual to upscale dining choices.

“When people travel for any reason, they’re also interested in authentic dining experiences,” says Shawna Lode, state tourism manager. “Iowa’s diverse ethnic communities, range of small towns and urban centers, and a strong agricultural industry combine to make our state home to some of the most interesting and memorable breakfast, lunch and dinner opportunities in the nation.”

Her office chose restaurants with widespread categorical recognition (such as best burger), historical significance or well-known for a signature item. Online consumer testimonials and ratings were considered too.

Learn more at traveliowa.com/99restaurants.

You can bet that some of these destinations serve excellent pork tenderloin sandwiches, which I wrote about for Iowa tourism this year. The tenderloin to Iowa is what the bratwurst is to Wisconsin. More at traveliowa.com/getinspireddetails/iowa-s-tenderloin-trail/258/