UPDATED Wednesday, January 14, 2015
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 loose-meat Canteen sandwich. Similar in build to a Maid-Rite, the meat is unseasoned save for a sprinkle of salt before serving, 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 is in employ to help 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 is dredged from.
Aside from the loose meat, homemade pies are a popular item at The Canteen. The most unusual item offered is a fried egg nestled in a bun with your choice of condiments normally reserved for a hamburger. Afters years of curiously, I ordered one on a recent visit with onion and pickle. Cheap, weird, a fun surprise.
Resolving on this visit to also stray from my usual order – two Canteens everything with extra pickle and onion, and a bag of Sterzing’s – I opt 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. Banished to Graham’s – Ottumwa's ever-popular ice cream stand – is the soft serve. 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, with the classic paper cone in a metal stem to pour your serving into. 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.