Friday, April 24, 2015

The Best Meal in Town

  When I got my coffee from the Casey’s General Store in Garner, Iowa I noticed that I had made excellent time and it was just a little after 11 o’clock in the morning. As I was barreling down the 2 lane stretch of Iowa Highway 18 I thought how ironic it was that I had run into road construction on this highway every year on my annual Okoboji trip except for this year - the year that Iowa politicians of both parties agreed to raise taxes on every gallon of gasoline I buy in order to fund road construction. I felt a bout of road rage coming on just thinking about the extra dime (and 32 cents in total) I now pay the state just to buy a gallon of gasoline. I wanted to be in a positive frame of mind for the Okoboji Open chess tournament so I forced myself to think that perhaps the highway planners and highway administrators were planning their family vacations with the extra money they were taking out of my pocket and how happy their families would be.

Welcome to the Rack Shack in Cylinder, Iowa...
...conveniently located on highway 18 with ample parking on both sides of the street!

  My road rage soon dissipated but my happy thoughts were interrupted when I saw a sign saying ‘Speed Change Ahead’. Then I saw the familiar sign depicting a 90 degree right hand turn with a 15 mile per hour speed limit and I knew I was in one of my favorite places – Cylinder, Iowa. Cylinder is a town of 88 people with a post office, an RV and camper dealership, a restaurant, and a bank. It is most notable for the two 90 degree turns with 15 mile an hour speed limits that are on either side of the tiny and mostly boarded up Main Street. If there was ever a town that could make a fortune from traffic cameras it is Cylinder, Iowa.

Here I am with an actual Cylinderite!
  I crossed an item off my bucket list when I met an actual Cylinderite last year. Jim Micklund (not his real name) is the parent of one of the players that attended my youth tournaments in 2014.When my friend and 4 time Iowa chess champion Tim Mc Entee found out Jim was from Cylinder he couldn’t wait to tell me and I couldn’t wait to meet him. Jim and I talked all things Cylinder for at least two minutes until we exhausted that subject and I was sure to get a picture with him to silence any doubters in case the subject of meeting people from Cylinder ever came up in a conversation which it has not up to the present time.

  It was just a few minutes after noon. In my past travels to Okoboji I’ve always stopped at Mason City for gas and food. I had already gassed up in West Des Moines and thanks to the Burger King hash brown bites I had three hours earlier I didn’t even think to stop for food. Since I was a little hungry and making great time I decided to stop in the only store on the entire Main Street of Cylinder Iowa that had a sign – The Rack Shack.

  I was expecting The Rack Shack to be the worst kind of greasy spoon and my expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. The place was much larger than it looked from outside. It was roomy and spotless with newer wood floors and nice wallpaper. There was deer heads and antlers on the walls with a few video poker type machines spread out between the bar and tables. The kitchen was in full view in back of a small bar with about 20 tables and booths of varying sizes to accommodate different size parties.

Buck and Bill have the inside scoop on all things Cylinder...

  I sat down at the bar and struck up a conversation with Buck the bartender/manager and I presume part owner. Buck said he has been involved with the Rack Shack for 7 years. There was another farmer who I think was named Bill sitting a few bar stools over and a cook wearing a John Wayne t-shirt in the back. I mentioned that I drove through Cylinder every year and that last year I tried to stop in the post office but it was closed. Bill and Buck said the post office closed at noon. I then asked where the people in town get their groceries and was told that they either go to Emmetsburg (12 miles west) or Algona (21 miles east).

  I used to see a bank when I passed through Cylinder and mentioned I didn’t see it this year. Buck told me that the town lost the bank about six months ago, leaving the Rack Shack and Cylinder RV sales as the only two businesses left in town. I tried to turn the subject to something happier and mentioned that I met someone from Cylinder whose son was named Ed Micklund (not his real name). Bill said that he knew Kenny with a son named Ed but didn’t think he had started planting yet. I said I didn’t think he still lived in Cylinder and Bill replied there were a lot of Micklunds in Cylinder.

  I didn’t know what qualified as ‘a lot’ in a town of 88 people since after all at least 3.4% of the Cylinder population was in the Rack Shack with me so I changed the subject and asked what was good to eat. Buck gave me a menu without any advice and I went for the top of the line Rack Shack Burger (a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top), some Reuben Bites (breaded and fried corn beef and swiss cheese balls), and a Mountain Dew since they were the advertisers on the Rack Shack sign outside.

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Time!!!

  I got an ice cold Mountain Dew within seconds and could see the cook in the back making my Rack Shack Burger and Reuben Bites. I pulled out my iPod and it found a ‘Rack Shack’ wireless network. I asked Buck if there was a chance I could use the network and he said ‘Sure. The password is taped to that thing over there!’ The ‘thing’ was a router and in a few seconds I was checking my home and work email while sitting at a bar stool at the Rack Shack in Cylinder, Iowa.

  There was nothing of note from my home email but there seemed to be some issues at work with the program I work on that communicates with a government agency. I grabbed my laptop from my car, move to a table near an outlet and was able to remote into my company’s network using the Rack Shack wireless internet.

  As I was taking care of my work problem Buck came by with my Rack Shack Burger and Reuben Bites. I bit into the first Reuben Bite and the hot melted cheese and corned beef exploded into my mouth. I can’t say it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten but it was definitely in the top 10. I gobbled down the rest of the Reuben Bites and washed it down with Mountain Dew while I was solving my work problem which I did quickly thanks to the inspiration of the Reuben Bites.

  With my work problem solved I put away my laptop and returned to my barstool where Buck was ready with a refill of Mountain Dew and I turned my attention to the Rack Shack Burger. And what a burger! The bun was soft, the bacon crispy without being burnt, the fried egg over hard without any of that disgusting runny yolk, and the meat done medium rare just the way I like it. It was like eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner all at once. After so many Reuben Bites I didn’t know if I could finish the Rack Shack Burger so I stopped eating after I worked my way half way through it. Buck and Bill had left without saying good bye but I wasn’t insulted – I’m sure they had some important Cylinder business to attend to. The cook was manning the bar so I struck up a conversation with him and found out his name was Mikey

Here's Mikey the cook. I didn't want anyone to even think I was trying to skip town without paying so I made sure to leave an extra big tip!

  I complimented Mikey on the burger and Reuben Bites. Mikey was pretty self-effacing and said that the burger was ‘just meat on a grill’ and imparted the stunning information that the Reuben Bites came out of a bag! I thought the Rueben Bites were so awesome they must have been homemade and was pretty disappointed until I realized I may be able to get an entire bag of these Reuben Bites in the future. Mikey started telling me how he grew up on a farm and he doesn’t have much and he has this job as a cook and does construction and farm work to make ends meet but he is really happy. I asked Mikey if his wife had a job and Mikey said he didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend and he doesn’t have much and he has this job as a cook and does construction and farm work to make ends meet but he is really happy. I was going to ask Mikey about the education he got in Cylinder but I kind of felt I already knew what he would say. In the meantime, my appetite came back and I ate the rest of my Rack Shack Burger. My bill came to $12.49. I was in such a good mood I gave Mike a $20 bill and told him to keep the change and I left Cylinder for another year (it’s not the same town on the way back on Sunday night) and continued my trek to Okoboji.

  I was so full I could have rolled myself the remaining 55 miles to Okoboji but I took my car instead. I got to the tournament site (the Arrowwood Resort) at two, checked into my room, and raved to anyone who would listen all weekend how I ate lunch in Cylinder, Iowa at the best place in town and showed photographic evidence of my awesome meal to any disbelievers. A few wise guys told me that while I did eat at the BEST place in town I also ate at the ONLY place in town. While that was factually correct I was ready with the retort that it would be the best place in MANY towns and some that were bigger than Cylinder besides. Soon enough six PM arrived and with a full stomach I paired the first round of the tournament and the 2015 Okoboji Open was underway!

And here we go...