URBANDALE, Iowa -- The Iowa Machine Shed restaurants (there are three of them) are dedicated to the Iowa farmer. We learned this from the menu (which is shaped like a shed) and by looking at the interior decor of the newest Machine Shed, in Urbandale, which is filled, floor to ceiling in every room, with farm memorabilia, and has a big gift shop up front selling more of the same.
Turn-of-the-century implements and farm signs are everywhere, and the top of the wall in both of the capacious dining rooms is arrayed with hundreds of baseball caps, all imprinted with the name or logo of some farmy thing, from John Deere to esoteric brands of laying-hen mash.
The restaurant is located across the road from Living History Farms, a 600-acre open-air museum that tells the farmers' story from pioneer days to the present; and when you walk inside to eat, it is a little like walking into yet another exhibit. In addition to all the agricultural decoration, the theme is carried on by a staff all dressed in overalls who do their best to act like farmhands. Lemonade is served in glass mason jars (with handles); booths are big enough for four very broad people; and the portions of food are enormous.
The thing to eat at lunch or dinner, or even at breakfast, is pork. It's available every which way, including smoked chops, apple-raisin stuffed chops, double-thick "Iowa" chops, pork tenderloin filets wrapped in bacon, tenderloin stuffed with sausage and served with brandied cherries, pork loin with dressing and barbecued ribs. Delicious as the stuffed tenderloin is (it won an Iowa pork cook-off), we found it to be a little dry; but the simpler chops were sensational, especially the Iowa-cut one, which is well over an inch tall and pillowy soft. The menu also lists beef, chicken, even "cod Almondine" -- but let us remind you that the Iowa Pork Producers Association has its offices less than a mile away from the restaurant. So unless your dietary regimen forbids it, it's pork you want to eat.
With main-course dinners, the Machine Shed serves everything else family-style in big bowls meant to be passed around the table -- sauerkraut, potatoes, salad and homemade (but undistinguished) white bread. For dessert, we chose apple dumplings, which looked beautiful in the pie case on the way into the dining room, but had a rather warmed-over taste we didn't much appreciate. The homemade cinnamon ice cream our waitress suggested for the top of the dumplings was a wonderful inspiration. The black raspberry pie was good, and would have been better still if it hadn't been cold.
At breakfast, the Machine Shed serves three kinds of big buns: plain cinnamon, caramel rolls and fruit-filled cinnamon. They were OK, as were our eggs and potatoes and sausages and the monstrously large plate of biscuits and gravy; but strangely, the best thing we ate for breakfast was the beefsteak that came with steak and eggs. Tender, aromatic, rich and meaty-flavored, it was as good as any filet mignon you might expect at dinner.
At the souvenir counter up front, we picked up a cookbook titled "Iowa Machine Shed Presents Farm Style Cooking," in which we found this fine recipe for a one-pan pork chop dinner:
Oven pork chops
4 large pork chops
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 cup chopped onion
1 can cream of mushroom soup
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
In a heavy skillet, brown the pork chops on both sides in the vegetable oil, a minute or two per side. Reserve drippings.
Place the chops in a lightly greased, shallow casserole large enough to hold them without overlapping. Layer on the potatoes and sprinkle them with pepper, then chopped onion. Add the soup, undiluted. Pour drippings from frying pan over the top. Cover and bake 30 minutes. Raise oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 30 minutes more. Remove cover for the last 10 minutes for crustier chops.
Iowa Machine Shed, 11151 Hickman Road, Urbandale, Iowa 50322; (515) 270-6818 or (800) 395-PORK.