Now, the Chuckwagon Restaurant, also in Adair, has earned honors as the 2016 Best Burger in Iowa.
“That’s pretty amazing for a town of less than 800. We’re all pretty excited,” says Kim Reha, owner of the Chuckwagon and the latest winner of the annual contest sponsored by the Iowa Beef Industry Council and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.
More than 6,000 Iowans weighed in on nominations from 311 restaurants across the state to pick the best burger. The winner was announced last month.
“I was speechless when they told me,” says Reha, who learned of the award two weeks prior to the formal announcement. “They tell you ahead of time so you can order supplies to handle the additional business.”
Reha double-ordered supplies when the Top 10 announcement was made, and again when told she was the winner. Accommodating the increase in business means more than extra beef. More customers mean more ketchup, napkins, onions, pickles and buns. The latest potato order was 1,000 pounds.
“We’ve definitely been busy,” she adds. “This is a great opportunity.”
The Chuckwagon Restaurant sits on the south edge of Adair next to Interstate 80, just off Exit 76, the perfect place to promote beef to local customers and hungry travelers. Its menu features a dozen burger combinations, all made with Certified Angus Beef and seasoned with a special house spice blend.
“We’ve had people ask why we don’t use a cheaper meat, but we like the way this tastes and cooks,” Reha explains.
The 6-ounce burger patties (you can upgrade to one-half pound for a small fee) are handmade, as are the French fries, also seasoned with the house spice blend and served as an “endless” side. The patties are cooked on a flat grill and served on a grilled bun or toasted bread.
There is a BLT Burger, a Chili Burger, and a Dunk Burger for dipping in au jus. The Fire Pit Burger is loaded with pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. The Jack Daniels Burger and Kickin’ Bourbon Burger both feature special sauces. There’s even a Sunrise Burger — with bacon, tomato, and egg on a croissant — to round out the breakfast menu.
And of course, there's a Chuckwagon Burger that comes with two cheeses, grilled onions and mushrooms, bacon, tomato and Thousand Island dressing.
Adair is known for its historical ties to famed outlaw Jesse James. His gang carried out the first moving train robbery just west of town in 1873. The site is designated with a marker and is a tourist attraction in its own right.
The town’s annual Jesse James Chuckwagon Days provided the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
The Chuckwagon also features a Jesse James Burger — a two-patty bacon cheeseburger with all the fixings, BBQ sauce and mayo. “We wanted to tie into the town’s history,” says Reha.
Reha began her restaurant career at an early age. She started waitressing at age 14. By age 17, she was working at the local Happy Chef. She left briefly to pursue a career as a surgical technician, but the call of the order bell overpowered her other plans and she returned home — to Adair and to the Happy Chef.
“That’s how strongly I felt this was my true calling,” says Reha. She became the restaurant manager and started to inquire about buying the place. She knew what she wanted to do. “I had a great banker who had faith in me and shared my vision.” At age 20, she set about purchasing her dream.
The purchase was complete in 2008, just as Reha was turning 22. The restaurant remained a Happy Chef until 2014, when she changed the name and the menu. She remodeled the interior in 2012, adding an outdoor patio just last year where diners can enjoy the Iowa countryside and watch Interstate traffic pass by on the highway ribbon below.
The menu offers more than burgers. There’s a classic hot beef sandwich with real mashed potatoes, strawberry shortcake made with biscuit-type shortcake, thick homemade chili, milkshakes, a Friday night fish fry and breakfast all day long. “The travelers especially like that,” says Reha.
Twenty-plus employees keep the 116-seat diner humming through the array of coffee klatches, local lunchers and travelers looking for a hearty dinner. Reha puts in long hours, while her 1- and 3-year-olds put in a lot of grandma time.
“My daughter Emma likes to come to work with me sometimes. She has a little apron she wears and trots around pretending to waitress. Her tips always go into her piggybank.”
That was before the Best Burger announcement. “Our goal now is to get through the summer without running out of anything and keeping customers satisfied,” says Reha, with the excitement only a true restaurateur can know. Her business is about serving hungry people, and she’s welcoming the chance to expand her reach.
“We get a lot of Interstate traffic,” she says, “but we really owe our success to the local customers. They’re the ones who keep us going. Still, it’s great to be part of promoting beef and putting Adair on the map. This is a great honor. We’re proud to be a part of it.”
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