SIOUX CITY | When it comes to loosemeat sandwiches, it wouldn't be a stretch to say they're an Iowa favorite. They're served at potlucks, school lunches and drive-thru windows across the state.
The tavern sandwich -- which could be described as a cousin to the sloppy joe, without the sauce -- has made Sioux City nationally renowned. In 2012, The Garden Cafe -- originally known as Ye Olde Tavern -- was named home of the state's best sandwich in the September Food Network Magazine.
This restaurant, at 14th and Jackson streets, is said to be home to the first tavern sandwich. And current owner George Litras says he has no plans to change the award-winning recipe.
“We get a lot of people that drive from quite a long distance for the sandwich," Litras said.
But when it comes to the inventor of the tavern, that's anyone's guess.
While many people still dispute its origin -- legend has it that a man named Dave Higgin created the loosemeat sandwich in 1924 -- Miriam Jackobs believes her dad, Abe Kaled, was the first to perfect the famous Sioux City treat when he owned the restaurant.
Jackobs used to live down the street from Ye Olde Tavern, where she began washing dishes for her dad when she was 7 years old. By most accounts, it was there that the sandwich got its start.
“It’s what we believe to be true,” said Jackobs, 73, who now lives in Mason City, Iowa.
She remembers running down from Central High School during her 30-minute lunch break with crowds of other kids to get a tavern, sometimes hopping behind the counter to help feed the masses. The secret to the sandwich’s success, she said, was simple.
“It’s real easy,” she said. “Dad bought really good meat. It wasn’t super lean. It was just right.”
But then there was also the process, which many tavern fans claim was often copied but never quite duplicated.
The meat was cooked slowly with salt and pepper, maybe some garlic, in a big cast-iron kettle. But not quite all the way through, Jackobs said. The finishing touches were made on a flat iron grill that was slanted so the grease would drain away. Customers made the final decisions on pickles, onions and mustard.
“Everybody knew that the Ye Olde Tavern was the tavern,” said JoAnn Swoboda, 80, of Sioux City, who served taverns there when Central High was still open. “Other places tried to top it, but they never could.”
Others tried “but it wasn’t our version,” Jackobs said. “And our version predated those other places.”
But it’s hazy as to just exactly when the first loosemeat sandwich was served at Ye Olde Tavern.
Records for the building at the Woodbury County Recorder’s Office only go back to 1937. A sign inside The Garden Cafe pays homage to its predecessor and claims 1926.
Furthering the contention, in a 1978 interview with Abe Kaled’s second wife, Bertha Kaled, she claims the building was constructed in 1928. She said Abe bought the building from the original owner in 1934.
So where and when did the idea for the tavern first come about?
“It’s hard to tell,” Jackobs said. “They didn’t have much of a kitchen, initially. All you could buy in that place was a sandwich, ice cream, pop or beer. Anyway, I knew we would have a ground beef sandwich forever.”
The Kaleds expanded Ye Olde Tavern and began serving full meals in 1952, according to the interview with Bertha Kaled. The building has changed hands, and names, several times since she sold it in 1972. Under the ownership of Gus Konidas, it was called Gus' Family Restaurant.
But even now, the tavern is still the main attraction.
“It is still very popular,” said Litras, who took over the restaurant in October.
Litras said he's amazed at how little it takes to sell the sandwich. Simple word of mouth is often the best form of advertisement, he said, even if some of the minor details are left to legend along the way.
For now, the new overseer of the tavern doesn’t plan on messing around with what’s already a proven product.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Litras said. “The plan is to keep the same recipe. I don’t want to change anything because people love it that way -- the taste of it and the quality."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the television show "Roseanne" was set in Iowa. This version has been corrected.