Ross’ Restaurant, Bettendorf, Iowa
As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, this blog is all about finding the signature restaurants of any city I happen to find myself in, regardless of where I get that information. Man vs. Food shows are a must, but whenever I find out about a city’s staple, I’ve got to try it.
When I moved to the Quad-Cities two years ago, the restaurant I heard about over and over again was Ross’ Restaurant, located just off Interstate 74 in Bettendorf, in the shadow of the bridge that connects Iowa and Illinois. The restaurant’s claim to fame is its Magic Mountain, which one writer has described as the food that could most be identified with the Quad-Cities. Given that Ross’ is open 24 hours a day, it was only a matter of time before I headed over to Ross’s to see what the hype was all about.
And trust me, there is plenty of hype about this place. President Barack Obama made local headlines here when he immediately followed up a speech in the Q-C by heading to Ross’s and getting one, which basically shut down the restaurant. With that kind of endorsement on the table, you would figure that this has to be an epic meal.
You’d be…wrong, actually. Wait a minute. This? This is it? This is the food that’s most identified with the Quad-Cities? An open-faced ground beef sandwich that’s covered in fries and cheese sauce, possibly topped with onions (as snow)?
Hmm, that certainly looks familiar…and it should. The Magic Mountain is nothing more than Springfield’s Horseshoe sandwich, with a new name and different packaging. The ingredients aren’t exactly the same, but they’re so similar that this is nothing more than a copy of the ones who had it first.
There’s nothing wrong with taking one city’s dish and making it your own. In fact, some of those places have wound up famous and made an appearance on this blog. The difference is that nobody is going to claim that coal-fired pizza is Tampa’s signature dish, or that the overstuffed sandwich is a Chicago tradition. Those dishes belong to New York and Pittsburgh, respectively, and those will always be part of their culture. The versions of Tampa and Chicago are merely quality examples of taking a dish from their home and bringing it to their new city because they missed it. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But to straight-up copy another city’s meal, give it a new name and call it your own? That’s just not something that should be done, especially when the real thing is merely a couple hours away by car. That would be like Indianapolis taking Louisville’s Hot Brown, using ham instead of turkey and calling it the Brickyard Sandwich. Note to Indianapolis: Please do not do this. That does sound like it might turn out to be a good meal, but originality is always prized.
Here’s why: when you make your dish the same way that someone else does, you’re always going to get compared to the original. In this area, Ross’s just doesn’t measure up. The french fries are fine, cut in a homestyle version instead of crinkle-cut. I don’t really care how they’re cut, just that they taste good. Here, Ross passes the test. The same applies to the bread, which is Texas toast. Again, it’s quality and it works well with the sandwich. No complaints here.
Where Ross’s doesn’t stack up to a truly epic place like D’Arcy’s Pint is on its cheese sauce. D’Arcy’s covers their horseshoes with a decadent and velvety white cheddar-based cheese sauce that ties everything together and gives the obvious clue that real cheese was used in putting it together. Ross’s sauce looks and tastes like Cheez Whiz. Whiz has its place at times, notably on the cheesesteak in Philadelphia (although even that’s up for debate, as the former owner of Geno’s, one of the three South Philly legends, said provolone is the real cheese and never ate a cheeseteak with Whiz). But in a situation like this, having Whiz just doesn’t work. I don’t know for a fact if Ross’s used real cheese or Whiz, but the fact that there’s even a debate here tells me that the cheese sauce just isn’t up to par.
The other factor is loose ground beef, which is the only way you can order a real Magic Mountain. You can go vegetarian or get a Morning Mountain with other ingredients, but if you want the original, beef is your only choice. That’s because for some reason, loose-meat sandwiches (called Rossburgers at this place) are popular in the Midwest. I’ve never understood their appeal, and that and the fact that I love options means I’m not a huge fan of the meat. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t fantastic either.
That lack of variety also means there’s little reason for me to ever return, because as we’ve established many times, Amy doesn’t eat beef or onions. I suppose we could always try one of their breakfasts if we so chose (as Ross’s does have a large lineup of those), but as far as this goes, I don’t have to worry about her missing out on an iconic food. She wouldn’t eat it anyway, no matter how good I thought it was, and if I feel the need to have an open-faced sandwich with cheese fries and meat, I can drive to Springfield and share the real thing with her, with a meat she’d actually like.
Truth be told, she isn’t missing much. It’s not that the Magic Mountain is bad, it’s that it’s not an original and it’s not worthy of the high status it’s been handed. When that gets factored in, it’s honestly a disappointment, especially when you consider what Iowa City has to offer an hour away and that we do have places like Whitey’s and Woodfire that are worthy of praise. Instead, we highlight Harris Pizza (which is nothing short of an abomination) and the Magic Mountain, a sandwich that isn’t bad, but isn’t worth its reputation. It’s certainly not a must-stop if any of you ever visit here.
Time to go: Anytime you want, as Ross’s is open 24 hours a day and serves its full menu.
Wait during my visit: None. At 1 a.m. in Bettendorf, no place is close to full.
Location: Ross’s is at 430 14th Street in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Cost: Easily one of the best things Ross’s has going for it. Most meals will fall well short of $10.
Parking: Plenty. It’s Bettendorf, the only time there’s not parking is at a high school sporting event.
Seating arrangement: Booths and stools
Specialty items: Magic Mountain