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Photo by Bernie Hunhoff.
Photo by Bernie Hunhoff.

The Humble Tavern

Mar 13, 2012

I've never been much of a proselytizer — it seems impolite to tell people what they ought to believe when they're surely capable of figuring it out for themselves. However, the urge will occasionally strike, usually in fairly absurd places. I discovered one of my soft spots while leafing through the Vangen Lutheran Church cookbook looking for inspiration. It was filled with good, solid, unobjectionable Midwestern cuisine until I got to the tavern section and started looking at the ingredients. Tomato soup? KETCHUP? That's not right at all! Could it be that the good Lutheran women of Mission Hill didn't know how to make a proper tavern?

I felt sick. How could my old friends and neighbors go off to serve their Lord in that great soup kitchen in the sky with these inferior loosemeat sandwich concoctions? Concerned for the state of their souls, I vowed to go forth waving the royal banner and sounding trumpets to gain converts to the one true tavern recipe, the one my grandmother stirred up so many times over the years, bringing delight to all who partook. I'd go out and preach in the streets. Heck, I was even prepared to battle my South Dakota Magazine co-workers over the correct way to make this most South Dakotan sandwich.

Sadly, this religious fervor was soon squelched. I conferred with my aunt, who broke it to me gently: there is no recipe. Grandma followed a very simple procedure, amping up the beefy flavor with beef bouillion granules or cubes if necessary. With no clear law to lay down, my career as a tavern missionary was over before it began.

Now that reality has humbled me once again, I come to you in a less aggressive spirit. How do you like to make taverns? What do you call them? Here’s how we do it in my little corner of Yankton County.

Taverns, Johnson Style

2 lbs. hamburger
1 large onion
Water, beef or chicken stock 

Finely mince onion. Mix onion and hamburger in a heavy pot. Cover with water or stock and bring to a boil. Cover and cook until the mixture turns grainy, stirring whenever you happen to pass by the stove. This could take hours. After the beef has broken down into tiny particles, uncover and let the water cook out until the meat is thick enough to serve on a bun. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with mustard and a pickle slice or two.


07:00 am - Tue, March 13 2012
Rebecca said:
I haven't had one in years, but I know there was some kind of tomato ingredient in ours – maybe even barbecue sauce. And we might have called them loose meat sandwiches, but I could be confusing childhood memories with episodes of the television show "Roseanne."
07:34 am - Tue, March 13 2012
Barb said:
Always entertaining Laura. Since you asked... here is my recipe that we've used for years.
2 lbs. hamburger browned & drained
1 pkg. Lipton onion soup mix
1 cup water (add more water if needed, don't let it simmer dry)
1-2 TBSP mustard
2 tsp horseradish (secret ingredient)
Simmer in a saucepan for 20 min or let sit in a crock pot.

I always chop the browned meat chunks up with my pampered chef hand chopper to create fine pieces. If you have time to let it sit in a crock pot part of the day it will fall apart on it's own.
08:22 am - Tue, March 13 2012
MaryAnne said:
What a fun article! The secret to this recipe must be the slow cooking process that allows the onion to "melt" away. Perhaps this was a way to hide their presence from finicky kids.
10:20 am - Tue, March 13 2012
*Just Fran* said:
I must admit that I always thought taverns, sloppy joes, manwiches, barbeques, and whimpies all to be the same. I believed all were non-recipes (meaning amounts and ingredients varying with what you have on hand), and what you called them depended on the region where you live or grew up. I knew that there was an official loose meat sandwich that didn't have any of the tomato seasoning, but I didn't know that taverns fell into the category.

I grew up with Manwich from the can...and the heartburn that goes with it. The ground meat sandwiches that I make now always have a tomato base to the sauce. I have seen the loose meat sandwich recipes, but shied away from boiling my ground meat. I just couldn't imagine. I might have to give it a try.
10:56 am - Tue, March 13 2012
Great topic....I still miss the Bar B Ques that Ann Erickson, our school cook used to make...Bar B Ques are still popular at local sporting events....I've had some that are just delicious....I've also had some so bad I had to just "throw them out"...
My wife makes Bar B Ques like this...
1 lbs. hamburger
Brown with onion (to taste)...drain after browning.
Three tablespoons (plus) ketchup
1 Tablespoon mustard.
1 can chicken gumbo soup
simmer to thicken.
We use the good 'ol Black Iron Fry pan...
They're good...but, not as good as Mrs. Erickson's...our old school cooks.
And Ja...I'm I naturally butter the buns.
How could anyone eat any sandwich without buttering the buns and/or bread.
I hope you get lots of to try different ones.
12:12 pm - Tue, March 13 2012
Heidi said:
Now this is a good tavern - and this is coming from a classic tomato tavern lover! It reminds me of the tastee sandwich at Tastee Treet Drive-In in Yankton. Anyone have that recipe?
02:13 pm - Tue, March 13 2012
Bernie said:
The secret to great taverns is Rick's Seasoning Salt, created by Rick Christman of Rick's Cafe in downtown Mobridge. You can put it on barbecues, burgers on the grill, steaks, meatloaf ... I think it even makes lutefisk edible if you scrape off the lutefisk and eat the salt.
02:43 pm - Tue, March 13 2012
Laura said:
Rebecca- I had forgotten that Roseanne specialized in loose meat sandwiches until I was poking around online looking for tavern information last week.

Barb - Thank you for revealing your secret! I firmly believe that horseradish makes everything better.

MaryAnne- Those tender young taste buds don't know what's good for 'em!

Fran - Where did you grow up?

Heidi - I'm glad I could help you see the light.

Grant and Bernie - if I had only known to add goose grease, Rick's Seasoning Salt, and maybe a bit of Barb's horseradish, I would surely have had the definitive tavern recipe. Next time.

04:02 pm - Tue, March 13 2012
Jean said:
Fun article but I was surprised to see the tavern called a "South Dakotan sandwich." Out here, West River, if you use the word tavern, you might be asked if you grew up in Iowa or get a "what do ya mean?" look. The taverns that I grew up eating all had some kind of tomato in them. Your recipe sounds good but seems more like another great Iowa loose meat sandwich, the Maid-Rite. Wish I had some burger thawed. A tavern sounds good about now.
03:38 pm - Wed, March 14 2012
Since we've been talking about Bar B Ques...Cindy Moen from Brookings wanted to share her mother's recipe...Her mom...Annise (pronounced as the candy) Bortnem...Lifetime member of Lake Campbell Lutheran Church...You can bet lots of members enjoyed her Bar B Ques...
2 lbs. hamburger..browned with
2 table spoons chopped onion.
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons mustard
celery salt
2/3 cup sater
and 1 table spoon flour.
I would guess the brown sugar is the "secret" ingredient...well..maybe the 1/2 cup vinegar.... Sounds good...and I'm gonna try it.
06:40 pm - Wed, March 14 2012
Julie said:
I'm Jean's sister, so I'll second her comment from way out here in RI. Any research on the origins of "taverns"? I've read that the name was given to the tasty sandwiches served in riverside taverns around Sioux City. So if you're from Yankton that would make sense! No matter, but Maid-rites do taste different, and I don't like them. Like SD mag though! :)
06:50 am - Thu, March 15 2012
Laura said:
Jean - What sandwich do you eat West River? I will admit I'm not as well versed in that side of the state's culture as I should be, but I'm always willing to learn.

Julie - I've done a fair amount of poking around on the internet looking for tavern information over the years, and have read about that, too. I have yet to come across anything from a source I would consider definitive, though.

Grant - Report back and let us know how the Lake Campbell recipe worked out!
01:48 pm - Thu, March 15 2012
This is from my former high school librarian. I've asked her to dig up her source on this ... : )The recipe in the article is very like the one from Ye Olde Tavern in Sioux City which is where the name for the sandwich came--at least for folks in the City. In the 50's it was owned by two detectives from the SC Police.
04:05 pm - Thu, March 15 2012
Jean said:
A loose ground beef sandwich is a Bar-B-Q. Zesto in Pierre (not West River but close) has a great one. I think that's what it's called everywhere they have a loose meat sandwich. It's been many years since I've had loose meat sandwich that didn't have some kind of tomato flavored sauce on it.
05:21 pm - Thu, March 15 2012
Jim said:
All these recipes are fine. I have no problem adding broth, ketchup, etc... to some kind of ground meat while its being cooked. If you really want know someone ask them what they do after after its on the bun. As pictured the ONLY appropriate condiment is yellow mustard accompanied by wavy cut dill chips. Preferably the strong flavored cheap dill chips.
08:26 am - Fri, March 16 2012
What EVERY sandwich needs....whether on bun or butter on BOTH slices....Real Honest to Goodness Butter...The good thing about butter with Bar B the butter kinda melts into the sandwich as well as the bread.
08:47 am - Fri, March 16 2012
I hope you won't mind if I share another great recipe....
Pizza Burgers.... These are truly delicious....
1/2 lb. ground beef (gr. sirloin or round is best)
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
2 tsp. green pepper (minced) Optional
1/2 tsp. oregano
2 tables spoons finely chopped onion
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. parsley

Spread the mixture on 8 (16 halves) open hamburger buns. Be sure to spread to the edges real good to prevent edges from getting to dark.
Broil under the broiler....until just about done...(getting the right distance from the broiler takes a little practice)
After meat has started to cook....then sprinkle your favorite shredded cheese on top and back under the broiler til cheese is melted.
Put the buns on a cookie sheet to put under the broiler.
They truly are delicious...

And Ja Jim....I really do put a nice pat of butter on just adds to the flavor...but, then I put butter on pizza too...Its delicious....In fact, I prefer butter to frosting on chocolate cake....
As they say in Norwegian... Smør småkke godt (butter tastes good)
02:14 pm - Sat, March 17 2012
Hi Laura...

Well...we tried the Lake Campbell Bar B Que recipe.... First of all 1 tablespoon of vinegar would be enough...we thought. was NOT our "old school bar b ques"...
I do hope you'll try the pizza burgers and give me a report.

They ARE very good.
06:05 pm - Sat, March 17 2012
Marie Loken Ingraham said:
Hi Laura-I grew up in South Dakota (Kristi Akland is my niece), but I have lived in Missouri quite awhile. I have a recipe for something we call "Sloppy Joes" and, yes, it does have ketchup! But it is my Grandson, Sam's, favorite meal.brown 1 pound hamburger with onion (optional) and drain off greaseAdd:1-1 1/2 c water1/3 c ketchup1 T Worcestershire sauce1 T vinegar1 T yellow mustard2 T. brown sugar (the secret ingredient)simmer until not watery.I have to confess I usually don't "measure" anymore.
03:06 pm - Mon, March 19 2012
Laura said:
Grant, I think you need to come down and cook for us sometime!

Marie - Sure, I know Kristi. Thanks for sharing your recipe -- I guess these messy sandwiches are always a crowd pleaser no matter what's in them!
01:32 pm - Thu, May 10 2012
Bernadette said:
Now that the Zesto in Huron South Dakota will be closing on May 20, 2012, can anyone get the recipe for their Tavern Sandwiches.
My husband, Jim Lillie, grew up in Huron and is very sad about the closing. He thinks Zesto is one of the last icons of what made Huron SD, Huron!!! He thinks they made the best Tavern anywhere!!! We visit Huron 2-3 times/year just to go the Zesto!

I called the Zesto, but they would not give me the recipe. Laura can you get it for all the Huron SD old timers.
10:10 am - Wed, May 16 2012
Sheila said:
Beseda Hall TavernsThese are the taverns served at the Beseda Hall in Tabor.24 lbs. hamburger1 1/2 c.chopped onion4 (26 oz.) cans tomato soup4 pkgs. Sloppy Joe mix4 tablespoons prepared mustard1 sm. handful brown sugar1 sm. bowlful crushed soda crackersBrown hamburger with onion. Drain off fat. Combine remaining ingredients with hamburger in electric roaster. Simmer at least one hour. Leave all juice on.This is the "family size" version of the recipe:5 lbs. hamburger1/2 c. catsup2 cans tomato soup1/2 c. chopped onion1 pkg. Sloppy Joe mix1 tablespoon mustard2 tablespoons brown sugar1/2 c. crushed soda crackersSalt to tastePepper to tasteFry hamburger and onion in frying pan until done. Drain off grease. Add rest of ingredients and simmer at least 20 minutes. If it's too dry, add a little water.
06:08 pm - Wed, May 16 2012
Mary EK Schneider said:
OK... in our house a sloppy joe---ground meat.. cream of mushroom soup... mustard... and pickles once it's on the buntavern--some sort of tomato based sauce.. we didn't eat these thoughbarbeque--pig put in the ground for several hours... pulled off the bone and put on a bun... sauce optional, but never required... :)
06:47 pm - Wed, May 16 2012
Dennis O'Rourke said:
We had the wetter version, Sloppy Joes, at home in Grand Island, NE, even though they had a local drive-in that had the drier version they called Nifty burgers since the place was called Nifty Drive-In. In Yankton, they have an old drive-in called Tastee Treat, and they have Tastee burgers, aka taverns. The Girl Scouts around here always added raw oat meal for an extender. When I first moved here, I saw a sign that said "Taverns" at a 4th celebration. I thought it was a code word for beer. Was really disappointed. In MN, they call a hot roast beef sandwich a "continental".
06:00 pm - Fri, May 18 2012
Mary Davis said:
I found this tavern recipe in the Huron Catholic Church bookbook that they made about 40 years ago. The recipes that don't have tomatoes in the recipe are Maid Rites, a whole different story about a sandwich served in Minnesota, Iowa, etc. There are never any these left when I make these.


Brown one pound of hamburger with 1 medium chopped onion (and one rib of finely chopped celery if you have some on hand). Drain.
1 tsp vinegar (brown or white)
1 tsp yellow mustard
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp pepper
½ cup catsup
1 small can of condensed tomato soup (10.75 oz size)

Simmer for at least one half hour. Using about 1/3 cup of the mixture per hamburger bun, this recipe will fill about 10 or 12 small buns. For a large group, recipe may doubled, tripled, etc. If increasing the recipe, a can or two of chicken gumbo soup also adds more flavor. Leftovers freeze well.
02:26 pm - Tue, July 24 2012
Barb mcInerney (Hardy) said:
I belive true "Tasties" as in Yankton, S.D.'s Tastee Treat are similar to the first recipe above. Real simple, ground beef, onion, cut tiny, salt, water. Bring to crumbly consistency, drain. I was told the secret ingredient is pickle juice! Serve on small moist bun with a little mustard and pickle. I tried it and it was incredibly close! Oh the memories of Willert's Tastie Treat!RG7RM
04:03 am - Fri, June 14 2013
Gail Broderson Korbel said:
Living in the desert Southwest teaching school. Currently having a streak of 100+ heat, so rose early to move trash receptacle to the street. While wandering through the dark, cool house, the sudden childhood memory of Willert's Tastie Treat sandwich sprung to mind. Google search: this wonderful article about the "South Dakota Tavern" ground beef sandwich popped up. Was craving my sister's South Dakota tavern. Bless you Laura Johnson & other recipe history contributors. My childhood memory of SD home & Willert's Tastie Treat 50 cent special ( including malt & fries ) was listed.
Will enjoy recreating the true "Tasties" for lunch/dinner today.
10:32 am - Fri, January 17 2014
Michelle said:
For Heidi,
I grew up also in Grand Island, NE. We ate at tastee treat in Norfolk. Here is their recipe:
1lb ground beef
1 small onion chopped fine
1 can Campbell's chicken gumbo soup
2 tbs yellow mustard. ( can add more or less to taste)
Salt & pepper
Fry beef, onion & salt & pepper. Drain off fat, add whole can of chicken gumbo, stir well, simmer on low 10 min to marry flavors, add mustard, stir & serve on buns.
07:05 pm - Sat, October 18 2014
gary honner said:
The real tasty beef has creamed horse raddish, worchestershire, mustard,catsup onion accent salt and pepper. This is the recipe from someone that worked there in Yankton
10:57 am - Tue, August 29 2017
Shirley Pickering said:
I was born in Yankton and we moved from there when I was 14 years old. I love the Tastee Treat taverns. Whenever I go back for visits my first stop is Tastee Treat. Wish I had their recipe.
01:08 pm - Mon, February 10 2020
Tara Olson said:
I came across this site while googling "tavern". I'm at work right now in Scottsdale, AZ eating a tavern. Nobody here knows what it is, but my mom's tavern meat is my favorite!

P.S. She grew up in Gayville, my dad grew up in Irene, and I grew up in Mitchell. :)
04:18 pm - Fri, June 26 2020
Teri Chapman said:
My step dad grew up in Yankton and gave me his tavern recipe. He always makes it with Campbell's chicken gumbo.
10:00 am - Sat, October 10 2020
Kelly said:
Do you have the tavern recipe from Ernst Bakery in Grand Island. Nebraska. My mother used to eat there in the 1950s
02:50 pm - Thu, December 8 2022
Sharyn Biede said:
My husband and I grew up in Nebraska. Taverns were sold at ballgames,, farm sales and the county fair. We have tried to duplicate the taste that we remember and can’t seem to get it quite right. I’m not sure why the recipe is a secret, but maybe there really wasn’t a recipe. My mother in law made them and used tomato juice and a chub of chili seasoning. The women who made the taverns we ate are long gone and any recipe is sadly gone also. We’ll keep experimenting.
08:51 am - Sun, February 19 2023
I grew up in the sioux city iowa area and I can tell from experience that they have the best taverns ever. From the Charlie Boys at Miles In to the ever so delicious Tastee In and Out. Even at Billy Boys in riverside (my son currently works there). The taverns are exceptional. There was a Maid Rite once but it didn't make it. The other ones are way too popular
10:32 am - Thu, March 2 2023
Christine Brownson Bates said:
I was born and grew up in Yankton, SD, and worked at the TasteeTreat drive in when I turned 16. I was so thrilled. I don’t recall their recipe because I was just a carhop. But my mother always made taverns using Chicken Gumbo soup, the only time it was ever used in her kitchen. I plan to make them for a family party this weekend.
03:01 am - Wed, June 21 2023
Joyce Smith said:
I grew up in Yankton. there was a cafe in the basement of one of the stores downtown. They sold taverns and were soooo good.. Does anyone remember them and happen to have the recipe? I would appreciate it so much!!!
09:07 am - Fri, February 16 2024
Steve Hennigs said:
Please don't ever refer to these as BBQs. There is nothing BBQ about them. They aren't made w BBW sauce, not cooked on a smoker or BBQ grill.....if someone offered me a BBQ I would expect pulled pork or chicken and a BBQ sauce or a BBQ flavor. If it has a bunch of tomato sauce or manwhich in it call it a sloppy joe. But don't defile the loose meat sandwich known as the Tavern or Maid Rite.

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