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Canteen Lunch in the Alley

112-1/2 East 2nd Street, Ottumwa, IA - (641) 682-5320
Posted By Chris & Amy Ayers on October 1, 2009 12:11 AM
Some call them taverns, others Maid-Rites, but those hungry for loose-meat sandwiches in Ottumwa are more likely to ask for a canteen instead. Canteen Lunch in the Alley has been around since the 1920s, serving up loose-meat sandwiches, rich milkshakes/malts, and homemade pies to hoards of hungry patrons at noon. Walk in the front door and you are instantly face-to-face with a small group of women chatting around the large meat steamer like folks around a fire. Almost as soon as you answer the question of "how many?," sandwiches wrapped tightly in wax paper (no plates here!) are passed across the counter. Try as you may to keep your sandwich contained within the confines of the paper, this is called a loose-meat sandwich for a reason--the bun is heaped with more crumbled ground beef than it can contain. If you still have room after a canteen or two, allow your gaze to wander to the dessert menu board. With nearly as many homemade pie choices (including both creams and fruits) as you have fingers, it can be hard to choose. I tried the strawberry rhubarb on this particular visit and savored every last tartly sweet bite.

With only a dozen or so stools lining the horseshoe counter, eating here feels almost like a family dinner, as conversations float across the room and quickly engage anyone who wishes to participate. This is the type of place that you visit as much for the atmosphere as you do for the food. Although the Canteen has always been a local favorite, its notoriety spread beyond the boundaries of Wapello County when it served as the model for Roseanne’s Landford Lunch Box restaurant on the ‘90s sitcom (Tom Arnold grew up eating loose-meats in Ottumwa).
3 star rating
Overall Rating
Canteen
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Chocolate Malt

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Posted By Slakingfool on August 7, 2011 2:14 PM
Canteen Lunch in the Alley, or simply known to the folks in Ottumwa as The Canteen, is in a small, painted brick building located just east of Court, facing an alley between Second and Main. Open since the 1930s, The Canteen has been a local institution famous for their signature loosemeat Canteen sandwich. Similar in build to a Maid-Rite, the meat is unseasoned save for a sprinkle of salt before serving. The sandwich also sports a coarser grind of beef, and is built on larger tenderloin-size buns.

For years, local leaders and the city government tried to get The Canteen to move to another location so the building could be razed for development. Eventually they capitulated to The Canteen’s popularity and built a parking ramp over and around the restaurant, even putting up a sign for the Canteen on the side of the ramp facing Second.

The predominant feature inside The Canteen is a classic horseshoe-shaped counter, with fixed stools encircling it. Within the horseshoe stands a large meat steamer where the ground beef is cooked. One or two ladies (and I use the term accurately) usually work behind the steamer, depending on how busy it is, one to tend to the meat, and another to build sandwiches. Sometimes a third helps dispense the obligatory glass of water, take orders, serve up pie, and haul the occasional saucepan of liquid fat away. This task is usually punctuated with the warning cry of “Hot Grease!”

Canteens are made to order with your choice of condiments: ketchup, mustard, onion, pickle, salt. Cheeseburgers offer a spatula's schmear of thick cheese sauce, akin to Cheez Whiz but more spreadable. I would advise ordering it only if you pass up most other condiments as the flavor of the cheese sauce is easily overpowered. Canteens can also be ordered wet or dry, depending on how deep into the steamer the meat comes from.

Aside from the loosemeat, homemade pies are a popular item at The Canteen. The most unusual item offered is the egg sandwich, a fried egg nestled in a bun with your choice of condiments normally reserved for Canteens. Afters years of curiosity, I ordered one with onion and pickle on a recent visit: cheap, weird, a fun surprise.

Resolving on this visit to also stray from my usual order (two Canteens with everything and extra pickle and onion, and a bag of Sterzing’s) I opted for only one to save room for a chocolate malt. It may not have been the most chocolaty, or malty, but it was surely the most homemade shake I’ve had in a long, long time. This malt featured soft chunks of store-bought ice cream, along with the occasional grit of malt. Slightly frothy with milky bubbles, it came to me in a large metal tumbler. I poured my serving into a classic paper cone in a metal stem. Being solo, I poured many portions.

Along with the lone Canteen, a fine, clean taste of cooked ground beef with just a hint of salt, I was, as the Norwegians would say, stüffed.
3 star rating
Overall Rating
Canteen
Chocolate Malt
Egg sandwich

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