My Grandpa and I spent a lot of time together when I was a kid, which created so many great memories. One of the most frequent and best memories I have was him taking me to Tastee Inn and Out in Lincoln, Ne. ‘Tastee’s’ as we called it, offered loose meat sandwiches, onion chips, and a special dip for said chips. I’ve been making this Tastee Copycat Recipe at least once a year since 2008 when I left Nebraska.
Even in the late 80’s, as you approached the Tastee Inn on N. 48th Street in Lincoln you felt like a time traveler going back to the 50’s. The drive-thru was a bit quirky allowing the driver to place the order but as you pulled around, it was the passenger that would receive the grease soaked bag of sandwiches, a bucket of onion chips, and small Styrofoam containers of dip. With no option for indoor dining, the drive-thru was the only option.
My Grandpa would jokingly ask as we pulled up to the 1950’s drive-in style speaker, “You want a six pack, Jerm?”. Of Course, much like my answer would be to this day, “YES…PLEASE!”
What’s a Loose Meat Sandwich?
A loose meat sandwich has many names including Tastee, Maid-rite, Tavern, Steamer, and Nu-Way sandwiches. No matter what you call them they’re all very similar in recipes. Made of ground beef that’s steamed and simmered down with finely diced onion and a ‘sauce’ of sorts.
The sauce typically uses ketchup, mustard, Water, salt, and pepper. Each recipe will have a couple extras that may or may not be noticeable in the finished product.
Loose Meat Sandwich vs. Sloppy Joe
I’ve always ran across the same problem when explaining what a loose meat sandwich actually is. Most people reply with “Oh, so a sloppy joe?” and slightly annoyed, I reply, “No, not a sloppy joe.”.
If you’ve never had a Loose Meat Sandwich, the above description probably still sounds like a sloppy joe . However, the biggest difference is that the sauce isn’t tomato based or ‘saucy‘ at all and is cooked into the meat which becomes a very fine texture.
Given the option between a loose meat sandwich vs a sloppy joe, I would personally opt for the Looses Meat Sandwich any day of the week.
History of a Midwest Classic
Despite growing up in a neighboring state, it wasn’t until I researched the history of loose meat sandwiches that I learned these nostalgic handhelds are an Iowa staple.
The first Maid-Rite restaurant opened in 1926 by Muscatine, Iowan butcher, Fred Angell.
According to the Maid-Rite website, in Fred’s off time he was perfecting a mixture for this sandwich. He offered one to a delivery man who responded by saying “This sandwich is made right.” and a tradition was born.
It wasn’t until 1955 when the first Tastee Inn & Out opened its doors. This was the first fast food style restaurant to hit Sioux City, Iowa and was opened by Vincent and Marie Calligan. Checkout their full story on their website!
I have yet to find any correlating stories between the location in Lincoln, NE and Sioux City, IA despite having the same name. I would love to learn more about this and as I do will keep this post updated.
Loose meat sandwiches had a moment of pop culture fame when Rosanne and her sister Jackie opened the ‘Lanford Lunch Box’ in the show Rosanne. Read the full history of the fictitious restaurant by clicking here.
Loose Meat Sandwiches Today
If you’re ever traveling through the heartland, I highly recommend stopping to take in a part of the history. Below is a list of restaurants still serving this Midwest classic.
Maid-Rite – With thirty-two locations spanning 5 states you shouldn’t have a hard time finding one! Especially in their home state of Iowa consisting of twenty-one locations.
Tastee Inn & Out – The original location for this restaurant still stands in full operation in Sioux City, IA.
Canteen Lunch in the Alley – Located in Ottumwa, IA. this restaurant also features the classically made Loose meat Sandwich.
Loosies – Loosies seems to get excellent reviews and is located in Cedar Rapids, IA.
The Tastee Trailer – The Tastee Trailer is located in Nebraska and serves Lincoln and Omaha. Checkout their facebook page to find out where they’re set up when you’re in town!
How to make Loose Meat Sandwiches
In a large stockpot over medium heat begin by sautéing onion for about 10 minutes or until turning translucent.
Next, add the ground beef breaking it into sections and immediately begin stirring to break up the meat.
Now, in a mixing bowl, combine all of the other ingredients mixing well to form a ‘sauce’ and pour the mixture over the cooking meat. Mix it all together and bring to a boil continuously stirring to ensure all the meat cooks down.
Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
If you’re cooking loose meat for a crowd transfer the mixture to a slow cooker set to low or warm and you’re good to go!
To serve, using a slotted spoon scoop out the meat pressing it against the side of the pot to release extra juice and place the scoop on a hamburger bun. Top with a couple swirls of mustard and a few dill pickle chips.
For the full Tastee Inn and Out experience, pair the sandwiches with deep fried Onion Chips and Onion Dip!
No matter what you call them or where you’ve heard of them, loose meat sandwiches are a huge part of midwesterners culinary history. If you plan on traveling through the heartland I highly recommend trying out one of the restaraunts above and when you do, You’ll definitely want to start making these at home!
OR….Just start by making them at home right now! It’s a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to feed a big party or the whole family for a few days!
If you love this recipe you’d also enjoy this recipe for another part of Midwest history, The Runza!
I would love to hear your best memories of loose meat sandwiches in the comments so don’t hesitate to share!
Thank you so much for reading and as usual…