The seasoned, crumbled beef sandwich known to some as loosemeats or taverns, to others as a Maid-Rite, is called a canteen in Ottumwa, Iowa. Canteen Lunch in the Alley has been around since the 1920s, and has a fine reputation not only for canteens, but also for rich milkshakes/malts, and homemade pies.
Walk in the front door and you instantly encounter a small group of women chatting around the meat steamer like folks around a fire. Almost as soon as you answer the question “How many?” sandwiches wrapped tightly in wax paper (no plates here!) are passed across the counter. Try as you may to keep that sandwich contained within the confines of the paper, this is known as loosemeats for a reason: the bun is heaped with more crumbled ground beef than it can contain.
If you still have appetite 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 tart-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).