food & drink

Food Dude

June 30, 2011 |

By Jim Duncan


Uncle Buck's: gateway to 'something else'


A loaded Bloody Mary at Uncle Buck's, 1000 Bass Pro Drive, N.W., Altoona. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 to 1 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.).

Travel writer buddies recently told me about their media trip to Altoona and Newton. Their favorite attraction was Uncle Buck's. Admitting that I'd never been there, they urged me to go. "It's something else, guaranteed to blow your mind," one said. Figuring I had little left to lose, I headed to the Bass Pro Shop, gateway to Uncle Buck's. The restaurant is part of a "living museum of Iowa's hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor legacies" that covers the 145,000 square feet. That's three football fields filled with 3,500 area artifacts, antiques, pictures, mounts and memorabilia. Many were "museum quality" including wildlife taxidermy in natural settings overlooking a 30,000-gallon fresh water aquarium stocked with 400 local fish varieties and fed by a multi-story waterfall. I am not making this up.

Like a redneck version of yin yang, the place balanced the genuine with the ersatz. Life-sized synthetic oak trees also punctuated the layout, and a two-story-old "Western lodge hotel" perched over the Customer Service counter. My walkabout revealed some unusual retail options including a full boat store with four service bays. I found nine different flavors of suet, each supposedly developed to appeal to specific birds. Cardinals apparently prefer hot chilies in their beef fat, and songbirds like apple dough. I found Moon Pies, an iconic junk food of the American South, designed in super sizes to pair with RC Cola, the original super-sized soft drink, as the "coal miner lunch." To keep super-sizing cool, the store sold 32-ounce travel mugs, too.

The place is a gateway experience for children. A NASCAR simulator was modeled after the Iowa Speedway. Nine flavors of shredded jerky were packaged like chewing tobacco. If you want your youngsters to develop a habit for handling weapons, a shooting range only costs 50 cents. Its laser arcade had 55 targets, themed as a farm taken over by critters in need of killing. An archery arcade offered the real thing.

According to sculptures outside the restaurant, Uncle Buck is a dirty old man chasing mermaids. His restaurant provided an ambiance of world-class kitsch. Considerable "taxidermy" hung from ceilings and jutted from walls. It was not museum quality, nor was the "sunken ship" that served as a roof to the bar. A strange soundtrack of golden oldies and Disneyfied rap played loudly while disco lights reflected madly. Twelve glow-in-the-dark bowling lanes surrounded the elevated bar. Dock wood lanes featured balls coughing up through the mouths of sea turtles, sharks and stingrays, which also glowed in the dark. The bar included its own 750-gallon aquarium and fronted a billiards parlor endorsed by Jeannette Lee. The latter had the trappings of an old fashioned men's club — dark wood paneling, mullioned glass and a fireplace — but the distracting music was just as loud there.

Two of three men at the bar were wearing visors with Guy Fieri wigs attached. They were chasing shots with beer while their guns were being fitted with new scopes. Booze and guns under the same roof? Is this Iowa, or heaven?

Food also mixed the authentic with the ersatz. A Bloody Mary was served with shrimp hanging on a glass rim. Burgers included processed cheeses and flavorless, preformed patties. Clam chowder had a roux so pasty it stuck to my spoon. Walleye however were some of the best-fried fish anywhere and generously portioned. Doughnut holes presented deep fried, cinnamon flavored dough balls with two extremely sweet sauces for dunking.

Bottom Line — The ultimate restaurant for Attention Deficit Disorders, Uncle Buck's is a Vegas-class gateway experience to "something else."

Side Dishes


Sean Wilson (Kirkwood Lounge) edged Hal Jasa and Michael Bailey to win the $2,000 Top Chef Challenge last week at Iowa Culinary Institute. Wilson opened Cuatro the previous week… David Baruthio (Baru) is converting the West Glen BBQ-2-Die-4 into an inexpensive European café, to open in August. CV