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What’s Wright with Iowa? Magic Mountains, Czech Village, Cedar Rock, and Loose Meats

This Foodie Adventures Road Trip has been plagued with instances of extreme bad luck, and moments of sheer fortune.

Finding not one, but three street side parking spots in downtown Chicago right in front of the pizza parlor we planned on visiting was a stroke of good fortune. Waking up to find a tire flattened by an errant nail was not.

Car trouble could have derailed our plans for the day, but we were in Iowa where people seem to go above and beyond to be helpful.

Long before AAA’s estimated an arrival time of a towing service, our flat tire was completely fixed (not just replaced with a spare!) and all the tires were fully checked. Soon, we were on our way in search of cinnamon rolls and magic mountains.

Ross’ Restaurant: Cinnamon Rolls and Magic Mountains


Jane and Michael Stern’s 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them lists the cinnamon rolls in Davenport, Iowa, but it doesn’t tell you where to find them. A little investigative journalism turned up a restaurant whose decrepit exterior belies it’s impressive story.


Our server, Rylan Ross, third-generation member of this family-owned business, told us about the day earlier this summer when President Obama stopped by. The president dropped by, unexpectedly, to make good on a campaign promise to visit the diner and sample the Magic Mountain, a pile of loose hamburger meat, cheddar cheese, onions and fries or hash browns piled on Texas toast. And he did, ordering both the Magic Mountain, and the Volcano which adds a spicy topping of hot chili.


Although the Secret Service agents scoped out the venue previously, the Ross family didn’t know about the impending visit until minutes before the arrival – too late for Rylan to get there in time.

Of course, we had to try the Volcano ourselves. It’s a huge portion, but manageable when split between four adults. The cinnamon rolls, however, were just ridiculously huge – each is as big as a birthday cake! The kids insisted in getting their own, while I shared mine with the rest of our party. But the cinnamon rolls were so huge that despite working on them for a couple of days, we still ended up dumping quite a bit.


Czech Village

On our way to our next foodie adventure, we spied a sign for the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids, IA. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but given that my husband is from the Czech Republic and that this is our children’s heritage, we had to drop by.


I was surprised to discover that it really is a little village, with a main street devoted to the arts and crafts of the region and a bridge that vaguely resembles Prague’s Charles Bridge. And at the center, there is a story of survival.

The first Czechs in Iowa were the homesteaders who came in search of land, and stayed to build a community remarkable for its longevity. But this was tested three years ago when the Cedar River floods destroyed many properties, driving away residents and businesses. Now, some are returning, and at the center of it all is the new location, and expansion, of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.

It’s an ambitious project that calls for moving the original building and adding 50,000 square feet, but it’s been fully funded in record time and the construction project seems to be moving forward despite rainy day setbacks.

In the meantime, we were able to visit a temporary exhibit space that was entertaining and informative despite it’s small size. My daughter insisted in adding her grandmother’s story to the Oral History Scrapbook, while I admired the artistry and craftsmanship of visiting lace makers who replicated the bobbin lace found in a Czech lady’s trunk from long ago.


Cedar Rock

Our next stop was at Cedar Rock, a modest “Usonian” home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Walters family. But our plans were nearly derailed when we arrived to find the gate closed.


We were there on a Tuesday, only to discover that schedules had changed since the guide book was published and now the park was only open Thursday-Sunday, preferably with an appointment.

I didn’t know that when I found the gate pulled shut. Thinking that this was an oversight, I pulled the gate open and drove in to the Visitor’s Center. There, by chance, we discovered a very knowledgeable young man who was there to water plants, but who was willing to give us a tour. If we had been there any earlier, or later, we would have missed him, but we were lucky – again.


The home and boat house are small, easily viewed in short order, if not for the clever design elements that had us puzzling over Wright’s genius: green roof, interlocking and convertible dining set, and the incredible living room that appears to be one with the garden. It is one of Wright’s most complete designs: all the furniture, and even housewarming gifts, were approved by the architect; earning the home one of the coveted red tiles, a limited edition set.

Frank Lloyd Wright Red Tile

Loose Meats

Our last foodie adventure in Iowa was neither fortuitous, nor especially lovely. Again, on the recommendation of the 500 Things To Eat book, we stopped at Tastee Inn & Out, a drive-in restaurant with a passionate following of fans (and detractors.)


Tastee Inn & Out is loved (and hated) for its old-fashioned milkshakes, onion chips (deep-fried breaded onion slices) and loose meats, a somewhat spicy amorphous ground meat concoction that mostly stays within a bun.

loose meat

It’s OK. Fine, even. I had just reached my limit of heavy, meat-based foods after three days of foodie adventures based on the 500 Things To Eat book. I don’t know how the authors survived a steady diet of high-fat foods, but we’re done. For the rest of this road trip, we’re going to look for our own culinary delights.

Where We Stayed

Our hotel in Iowa wasn’t actually in Iowa. Just across the Missouri River from Sioux City, Iowa, is the Marina Inn Conference Center in South Sioux City, Nebraska. It’s a swanky hotel that would usually be out of reach of our road trip budget, but we arrived during recent flooding.

While the floods are a disaster for the area, it did not affect our stay. My kids enjoyed the lovely indoor pool and even the exterior gardens, and we all benefited from a night in luxury accommodations.

There is always a silver lining.

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