Category: Mason City (Page 2 of 4)

My Take On Iowan Ham Balls Glazed With Spicy Cranberry Sauce

Pork tenderloin sandwiches, Maid-Rites, and Greek-style steak. These are all foods Mason City has introduced us to since we moved here a little over a year ago. Now we can add one more to the list:

Ham balls.

I remember seeing recipes for ham loaf in my grandmother’s church cookbooks and ham balls in Jake’s family cookbook, but I’d never actually eaten one until I moved to Iowa. Val of Corn, Bean, Pigs & Kids actually introduced me to my very first ham ball at a North Iowa blogger potluck. I liked them so much that I helped myself to seconds.


My first taste of ham balls, courtesy of Val.

When I saw ham loaf mix for sale at my favorite butcher shop Louie’s Custom Meats in Clear Lake, IA, I felt inspired to make my own version. I combined a few different recipes and made a glaze with leftover cranberry sauce (yup, the canned stuff) which provided the perfect sweet and tangy counterpoint to the savory meat.

“Ham balls!?” exclaimed Jake, when he first caught wind of my dinner menu. He had never heard of ham balls before and was convinced he wouldn’t like them. As the ham balls baked, Jake commented on how “hammy” our house smelled and imagined I would serve him softball-sized chunks of ham. Not so.

As skeptical as Jake was about ham balls, he could not resist their charm. They were crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside when I pulled them hot of the oven. They taste a little smokier than the typical meatball and hit all of our favorite sweet, savory and spicy cravings.

Spicy Cranberry Glazed Ham Balls
Inspired by Ken Enck & The Taylor House’s recipes for ham balls. Ham loaf mix seems to be equal parts ground pork and ground ham. It shouldn’t be too hard to find in Iowa, but if you can’t find it pre-made, try pulsing ham in a food processor and adding it to the pork. If you don’t want to use cranberry sauce in your glaze, use a different jelly or jam. I found other ham ball recipes that make the tangy glaze from canned pineapple, tomato soup, or brown sugar and vinegar syrup. 

Hamballs watermarked

Ham Ball Ingredients:
1 1/2 lb. ground ham loaf mix
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/3 cup oatmeal
2-3 tablespoons minced onion
2 eggs, scrambled
3/4 cup milk
Black pepper, to taste

Sauce Ingredients:
1 cup cranberry sauce
3 tablespoons yellow mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
Dash Worcestershire
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey (or brown sugar, to taste)
1/4 water
Hot sauce, to taste
Hot pepper flakes


  1. Pre-heat oven to 350℉.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the ham loaf mix, panko, oatmeal, onion,eggs, milk and black pepper. It’s easiest to combine the ingredients by squishing them together with your hands. Allow the mixture sit for a few minutes so the breadcrumbs and oatmeal can absorb the liquid. If it’s still too moist, add some more oatmeal or breadcrumbs.
  3. Shape the mix into small balls. Place in a lightly greased pan in a single layer. It’s OK if they are close to each other.
  4. Bake for about 25-minutes.
  5. While the ham balls are baking, make the glaze. Combine the cranberry sauce, mustard, vinegar, Worcestershire, soy sauce, honey, water, and hot pepper flakes in a small saucepan. Gently heat and whisk until combined.
  6. If the sauce is too thick, add more water. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  7. Drizzle the sauce over the ham balls and return to the oven, uncovered. Bake for about 25 more minutes or until the ham balls are cooked through.

Three of my friends shared their best ham ball making tips. Jenny of In The Kitchen With Jenny makes Pineapple Ham Loaf Patties which she says are easy to make-ahead and freeze. Barb suggests using graham cracker crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and adding diced green pepper, while Shannon‘s favorite recipe combines both ground ham and ground beef. How do you make your favorite ham balls? 

The Every Bar In Mason City Quest: Mulligan’s

This past weekend, we visited Mulligan’s Bar & Grill on our third stop along our Every Bar In Mason City Quest.

Every Bar in Mason City Graphic

Mulligan’s is a bar & restaurant located on the edge of town near the bowling alley Mystic Lanes. We had spent the day running errands and worked up an appetite by dinner, so we chose a bar we knew offered a full menu. We made ourselves comfortable on stools perched along the shiny wooden bar. Jake ordered his typical tap IPA while I asked the bartender, “What cocktail do you recommend? What’s popular?” At the last bar we visited, I learned that asking a bartender for the establishment’s “quintessential drink” is totally weird, so I hoped this was a better way of phrasing the question.

She described a toasted marshmallow liquor and recommended adding it root beer or ginger ale. I replied that I was game and chose ginger ale.

butterbeer watermarked

This is not a cocktail I’d typically order, but the rule of the quest is bartender’s choice, whether it’s a sweet mashup or bitey shot. Fortunately, I found that the cocktail tasted delightfully like butterscotch. Jake is a man who prefers his bitter IPAs and even he enjoyed this drink.

I awkwardly tried to make conversation by comparing it to Harry Potter Butter Beer and was met with bewilderment. Jake gently reminded me that I am now two for two on initiating awkward conversations with bartenders as we start this quest. He feels more comfortable gracefully blending into his surroundings and I make this impossible by asking for “quintessential drinks” and talking about Butter Beer.

Life lesson: It’s not necessarily normal to weave Harry Potter lore into every day conversation; i.e. I am not normal.

Speaking of normal, ranch dressing is completely normal in North Iowa and you’ll find it served with most fried appetizers. Jake tolerates ranch, but I like it so much, I won’t publicly admit to how many foods I eat it with. “We have the best ranch,” our bartender earnestly stated. Between my salad and our jalapeno poppers appetizer, I had lots of opportunities to try it for myself.

I divide ranch dressing into two categories: Good ranch & bad ranch. Good ranch is homemade, meaning anything ranging from completely homemade to mixed from a Ranch packet, while bad ranch is that sour, pre-bottled, shelf-stable stuff. Mulligans serves good ranch.

Jalapeno wm

Between the two of us, Jake made the best entrée choice. The ground beef in his patty melt was moist and had a freshly pattied texture & our dinner salads were crisp. We have to confess that while we ate our meals, we experienced entrée envy each time a server passed by with someone else’s very delicious looking steak. Our friends later confirmed that Mulligan’s is one of their favorite places to order steak.

The dinner menu is concise and lists specials for each day. On this particular evening, we passed on the Saturday specials of prime rib and crab legs, but would return to try them on another occasion. Other daily specials that caught my eye included broasted chicken and fried fish.

In conclusion, we found a warm atmosphere, friendly bartenders, a new favorite cocktail, and good ranch at Mulligan’s. Plus, lots of TV’s to watch sporting events, which Jake appreciated.

In other exciting news, Webster City heard about how Franklin County hosted the North Iowa Bloggers for a Harvest Blogger Tour weekend this fall and invited us to join them for a day of eating, shopping & touring soon. We’re also visiting West Fork Wharf in Sheffield, another reader suggestion.

The Every Bar In Mason City Quest
Burke’s Bar & Grill
Candy Bar Nite Club
Homer’s Sports Bar & Grill
Kozy Korner
Mason City Brewing
Mulligan’s Bar & Grill (11/24/2014)
Patrick’s Bar
Sidewinder Bar
Spike’s Tap & Grill
Sportsmans Lounge
VFW Post 733
Willow Run Lounge (11/01/2014)
Wise Guys Sports Pub (11/08/2014)

Restaurant/Hotel Bars
1910 Lounge
Chop Eleven
LD’s Filling Station
Pastime Gardens
The Quarry Tapas Bar
Rib Crib
River City Bar & Grille at the Clarion Inn
Whiskey Creek
Wok ‘n Roll

Reader Suggested Bars Throughout North Iowa
Bernie’s Bar, Forest City
Elly’s Lakefront Tap, Clear Lake
Lake Time Brewery, Clear Lake
Signatures Sports Bar & Grill, Northwood
Tanks Bar & Grill, Rudd
West Fork Wharf, Sheffield

The Every Bar In Mason City (And Slightly Beyond This Time) Quest: Rookie’s & WiseGuys

Winter is coming. Winter is here.

The first snow fall has hit North Iowa and we’re two bars into our Every Bar In Mason City Quest. That’s right. Every bar in Mason City. We’re new[ish] to the community and thought this quest would be an interesting way to explore our new city of residence.

Every Bar in Mason City Graphic

Now that I’m thirty, I’m too old and grumpy to fight over free seafood on the crowded rooftop at Stella’s or vie for a bartender’s attention at a fancy place where people are dressed to the nine’s. I want the Cheers experience. Not that I want to visit a bar frequently enough for everyone to know my name, but I seek places with less frills and and stronger drinks. Bars where people don’t put on airs and make friendly banter with strangers. I want to figure out what puts the cheer into a Cheers bar and so I’m embarking on this quest.

Last weekend we proceeded by visiting one of our favorite places, Rookie’s, before heading to WiseGuys Sports Pub.

Rookie’s is located in Clear Lake, but it’s a place we keep returning to so I’ll take this moment to tell you why. First, we like how it feels to sit around the long horseshoe bar. I’ve heard Rookie’s can become wilder on weekend evenings since it’s a popular destination for bachelor and bachelorette parties, but when we’ve visited for dinner, we’ve found an easy-going atmosphere and friendly company. Once, a very drunk and very friendly man who looked like Mark Zuckerberg made our date night more interesting when he insisted on buying us fireball shots.

Whether it’s summer or off-season, we always get a neighborhood vibe that fosters regulars and friendly banter with whoever’s sitting closest. The bartenders make sure everyone’s well taken care of and we can bet our drinks will be cheap and poured strong.

IMG_3321Rookie’s is connected to the restaurant Sevens making it possible for customers to order more than the typical bar food. One of my “Do they care?” litmus tests for any restaurant is the quality of their side salad. The first time we visited, we were delighted to find crisp salads and house-made lemon vinaigrette. We order them each visit.

We also order their flat, crinkle-cut sweet potato fries sprinkled with an addicting seasoning salt and served with a creamy dip that tastes of bacon. Are these a frozen product? Are they homemade? All I know is that they arrive hot and crispy from the fryer without dripping with grease. As I’ve stated before, a good fry job covers a multitude of sins.

When we don’t feel like eating burgers or fried food, we order the seared lemon pepper cod. Any food’s bar food if it’s enjoyed at the bar, right?

Plus, there’s a self-serve popcorn machine.

Popcorn Machine Watermarked

After dinner, we headed to WiseGuys Sports Pub to toast happy birthday to a friend. This is where things got interesting. 

WiseGuys is a small bar located next to Pete’s Kitchen. The bar itself only sells bags of salty snacks but customers can order food from next door. From the bartenders to the other patrons, we found the vibe welcoming.

Jake ordered his favorite beer while I asked the bartender if he could recommend the quintessential WiseGuys drink. He looked at me quizzically. I rephrased and asked for their signature cocktail or most frequently ordered beverage. This is what he poured me after checking that I actually wanted a whiskey neat.

Whiskey watermarked

The gentleman next to us overheard our conversation and laughed, mentioning he was afraid I’d end up with a whiskey neat. It only cost $4 and I wasn’t so sure it was a sipping whiskey, but I tried to anyway.

“What if you end up with a lot of whiskey neats?” asked Jake.

I shrugged and replied that I’d have to order them. After all, bartender’s choice is one of the rules of the quest.

We watched people play darts and cheered on my friend as he kicked-off the evening’s karaoke festivities before heading home. We called it an early night since I had to work early the next morning. Our visit to WiseGuys was brief, but I’m sure we’ll be back. It’s probably our closest neighborhood bar and several of our friends recommended Pete’s Kitchen for gyros and submarine sandwiches. God knows, we’re suckers for a good gyro.

The quest will continue at Sidewinder or the Clarion’s River City Bar & Grill because readers informed us they close on December 1st. Am I missing your favorite bar? We always appreciate recommendations for food and libations in Mason City and throughout greater North Iowa. Leave a comment below or send me an email.

The Every Bar In Mason City Quest
Burke’s Bar & Grill
Candy Bar Nite Club
Homer’s Sports Bar & Grill
Kozy Korner
Mason City Brewing
Mulligan’s Bar & Grill
Patrick’s Bar
Sidewinder Bar
Spike’s Tap & Grill
Sportsmans Lounge
Willow Run Lounge (11/01/2014)
Wise Guys Sports Pub (11/08/2014)

Restaurant/Hotel Bars
Chop Eleven
LD’s Filling Station
Pastime Gardens
The Quarry Tapas Bar
Rib Crib
River City Bar & Grille at the Clarion Inn
Whiskey Creek
Wok ‘n Roll

Reader Suggested Bars Throughout North Iowa
Elly’s Lakefront Tap, Clear Lake
Lake Time Brewery, Clear Lake
Signatures Sports Bar & Grill, Northwood
Tanks Bar & Grill, Rudd

Date Night At The Chinese Buffet

There’s a new buffet in town!

Saturday date nights are sacred. They are the one evening we go out together for the point of doing something fun. Usually they revolve around dinner and sometimes, they’ll include a movie or friends. I look forward to date nights each week.

The few weekends ago, we visited New City Buffet, the newest restaurant in town that also advertises having a hibachi grill and sushi. My local blogger friend said she enjoyed her meal so we went to try it for ourselves.

The inside of the buffet is deceptively large. I had pictured a small buffet line and one room of tables, but there were rows and rows of booths and almost all of them were full. It was really busy and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many people in one place yet, in Mason City.

There were so many options. Just like any other buffet, I found some items more appealing than others, but most everything we tasted was thoughtfully prepared and nicely flavored.

I love Chinese food and I love Americanized Chinese food. I’m no snob regarding authenticity. What really bugs me is when Chinese take-out is overly oily, bland, filled with grisly meats or soggy when it should be crisp.

Honestly, I didn’t find any of these issues at the buffet. Because the restaurant was so busy, the turnover of food trays was high. The staff hustled to quickly replace dishes and clean up tables so they could seat more customers.

There are some foods I never try at buffets, such as mussels. However, I did try the whole shrimp with their heads and legs fully attached, fried in a crumbly salt and pepper coating with thin slices of fresh jalapeno. I think we both chickened out on trying the fried frogs legs.

The fillet of salmon was moist and flavorful and there were a couple of meat dishes that actually tasted spicy. Sauces for the other dishes tasted better than what we’ve typically found. The whole, garlicky green beans with blistery skin reminded me of those I used to eat at Cleveland Wok in Saint Paul, MN.

I didn’t get too adventurous with the sushi but the California roll was fine and the creation covered in mayo and eel sauce was sweet for my tastes, but still edible. Certainly good enough to scratch the basic sushi itch and I appreciated that the rice wasn’t mushy.

It was hard to eat the fried foods in moderation. I’m terrible when placed in a situation with unlimited cream cheese wontons (more commonly referred to as crab ragoons in Iowa). And then there were those donuts rolled in sugar.

All hail the Chinese buffet donut!

They taste like deep fried bam/wham/whomp biscuits, a treat an old childhood friend’s family used to make the morning after sleepovers. They were special then and they’re special now.

I’m generally not fond of buffets. I can’t eat that much food at one time and hate feeling pressured to overeat so I get my money’s worth. I’m happiest if I can take home my leftovers and enjoy them in the comfort of my own home at my own pace. Fortunately, it looks like New City Buffet offers a take-out menu that we will likely order from.

We enjoyed our dinner, all for $10.99 per person before tax and tip. The price includes sodas and even hot coffee with real cream. The restaurant appears to be family run and they were all welcoming and worked hard to keep up with all of the guests. We hope they succeed.

My Iowa Firsts: From Loose Meat Sandwiches To Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture

There’s a first time for everything.

One of the most intriguing things about moving to a different state is learning about it’s traditions and cuisines. I grew up in Minneapolis-St. Paul where we ate tater tot hot dish in the school cafeteria, rolled up lefse for holiday meals and played winter sports like hockey and broom ball in gym class.

Not that winter sports and Scandinavian cuisine don’t thrive in other states, but for my husband and I, they were very normal aspects of life that never made us think twice when we encountered them.

We’ve lived in Mason City, Iowa for five months and have experienced many Iowa firsts. Some have introduced us to iconic Iowan foods while others introduced us to entirely new experiences. Here are some of my most memorable:

The Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
This is a food I had truly never seen until I attended college in Iowa. I tried one at the school cafeteria and found it puzzling. The pork was as large as my face, flat as a pancake, and terribly dry. This particular tenderloin didn’t thrill me, so I didn’t pursue another one until our recent move to Iowa.

The blog Des Loines opened my eyes to the world of Iowan breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches. I learned that some are coated in crumbs and others are battered. Some may be pounded paper thin while others are thicker and they should all be neatly trimmed, tender, and juicy. These sandwiches are typically garnished with pickles and mustard.

Jake and I recently tried our first ones at Butcher’s Steakhouse in Mason City, IA.

The tenderloin remained juicy inside its freshly battered crust and came with a big pile of dill pickles. We look forward to further exploring the big world of Iowan breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Loose Meat Sandwiches
This is another food I haven’t seen outside of Iowa.

I’ve eaten my share of hamburgers and sloppy joes, but never a loose meat sandwich. What a funny name! Just as there are articles dedicated to Iowa’s pork tenderloin sandwiches, there are those that focus on loose meat sandwiches or Maid Rites, such as this Heavy Table article.

For those who are unfamiliar with this type of sandwich, they are composed of a steamed white hamburger bun filled with finely ground beef that may or not be seasoned and typically dressed with cheese, pickles, mustard.

My local blogging friend Sara pointed me towards Pro’s Sandwich Shop for a Mason City version.

Pro’s calls it a Beef Delight and they are popular here. I sat at the long lunch counter and watched the employee scoop the meat from a shiny metal bin. When she asked what I wanted on the sandwich, I requested whatever was typical so she added cheese, lots of dill pickle chips, yellow mustard and chopped onion before wrapping it it up tightly in wax paper.

I added an order of onion rings which came with a large cup of ranch.

It seems that onion rings here are always served with ranch and I can not complain.

I unwrapped my lunch at home and the beef overflowed from the sandwich. It tasted flavorful in itself, though I added a touch of salt. By the end of the meal, I was amused to find I had eaten the sandwich with a spork packed in the take-out bag. Jake enjoyed the other half of the meal and we will be craving these again, soon.

There are lots of recipes if you want to make them at home. One of my newest North Iowa blogger friends just shared her recipe for Maid Rites.

Sipping Iowa Wines
Iowa is just like Minnesota and North Dakota in that the state produces many types of wine. I bought my first bottle of Iowan wine from Market 124, a shop featuring Iowa-made products in Downtown Mason City.

The store’s spacious and features everything from locally-made candles to cupcakes and there are Iowan wines sprinkled everywhere throughout the store.

Market 124 held holiday open houses and sampled many varieties of Iowa wines along with dips and sweet treats. Maybe I’ll tour an Iowa winery sometimes this summer.

Take an online tour of online tour of Market 124 on Beth’s blog It’s Just Life.

Hunting For Fossils
I’ve written about it before, but I was surprised to find a fossil park in my backyard.

The Fossil and Prairie Park is located in Rockford, IA, about a half an hour away from Mason City. From what I’ve read, it’s one of a few fossil parks in the nation that actually allows visitors to take home their findings. And for no fee.

The county probably allows visitors to take home the fossils because it’s impossible they’d ever run out. There are literally fossils under every foot step. You’re climbing hills of fossils.

The park doesn’t encourage visitors to dig, which is no issue because you can grab fossils by the handful. This was one of my most unique Iowa firsts.

Visit their official website.

Encountering Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture

Architectural Detailing At The Historic Park Inn Hotel

Until we visited Mason City, I had never actually seen Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.

I remember learning about Wright in an elementary school art class. Of course, we discussed the home Fallingwater precariously perched on a waterfall in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. I was very enamoured with the building as a child and it even gave me a nightmare.

The fact that Frank Lloyd Wright architecture is a common sight in Mason City is very unique. When he lived in North Iowa during the early 1900’s, he built the Historic Park Inn Hotel which is last of his hotels to remain, as well as the Stockman House and City National Bank. His students designed other homes in the city that reflect Wright’s style.

The Park Inn Hotel is also unique because it’s so accessible to visitors. Although I’ve never officially toured the hotel, I’ve wandered around several times and know they welcome curious visitors. In the evenings you can enjoy drinks and appetizers in the lounge downstairs or dine in 1910 Grille on the main level.

Now, I see Frank Lloyd Wright everywhere. Many of the local business also echo some of his distinguishable flourishes in their interior design.

Attending The World Food & Music Festival in Des Moines
I attended the World Food & Music Festival in downtown Des Moines for the first time this summer.

I’ve been to a lot of fairs and festivals but this one was incredible.

The festival was completely accessible and sprawled through the city just like its farmers market with live music playing in the background.

I’ve never seen so many different nationalities of food in one space. There were many Iowan food producers represented and each stand offered $1 samples of a specific dish.

My friends and I enjoyed everything from Thai laab to bubble tea to Ethiopian food. We’ll definitely return.

Meeting Iowa Bloggers
Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with many Iowa bloggers during our first half year here. There are many Iowan blogging networks such as Straight from the Corn State: Iowa Bloggers that’s featuring this post.

Last fall, I connected with bloggers from across the state in Iowa City and even found a lovely group of bloggers in my own Mason City-Clear Lake neighborhood. Stop by and say hello to them sometime.

Mason City Area bloggers gather over comfort food at LD’s Filling Station. Photo By Beth Ann Brown Chiles

I look forward to experiencing more Iowa firsts and returning for plenty of seconds. Do you have any suggestions for favorite Iowan foods or experiences for a new resident?

Thank you to Straight from the Corn State: Iowa Bloggers. You can also connect with me on Twitter or Facebook

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