Mt Sterling is a small town on a small hill with two claims to fame. When the local mayor tried to outlaw lying in 2003, New York Times sent a reporter to AJ's Bar & Grill to interview locals, and other media outlets picked up the story nationwide. The second claim to fame is the gigantic tenderloin known for "miles around" in the hill country just north of the Missouri Border. A local newspaper article compared AJ's Jumbo Tenderloin to the Gunderburger in terms of local legendary giant sandwiches. I had to check this place out after someone from the local tourism office pointed me in the right direction.
Location: 101 Elm St. in Mt. Sterling (population 36), in Van Buren County, Southeast Iowa. This is about as far out of the way as it gets.
Directions: Highway 2 is the main road through the southern tier of counties in Iowa. Take County Road W20 4 miles south to Mt Sterling. Follow the sign pointing to AJ's.
Online at: try the Villages at Van Buren website, one of the best local tourism site in Iowa, HERE.
The Tenderloin: This one is significantly bigger than the plate it is served on. It has the usual attributes of the super-jumbo tenderloin, extreme thickness in some parts, edges a little crispier than the middle. Juice bursts from the center when a fork is stuck inside. The fork and knife that give the picture scale are necessary to cut the edges off and make the thing workable. The breading seems to be a double dip of egg wash and seasonings before deep frying. They put the ketchup on the mustard on for me, but I would not have added this much ketchup. Overall 8.5 out of ten, worth the trip off the Highway.
Also on the menu: There is a smaller tenderloin, a tenderloin bits appetizer, along with the usual burgers and fried stuff.
Service: One lady was working the bar while a guy in back cooked. I think they were the co-owners.
Ambiance: This is a Hunters Lodge with exposed concrete floor, wood paneling and particle board walls, along with taxidermy animals of all local varieties mounted on the walls between beer signs. The windows have a great view overlooking the Fox River Valley, and its acres of protected wetlands and tree groves.
Final Thoughts: Any person who has traveled most of Iowa would be surprised to see how much land isn't being farmed when driving the county road into Mt. Sterling. This small part of Iowa is turning into a hunters paradise, with hundreds of acres of fallow fields, and shallow water wetlands and wooded areas filled with animals. AJ's Bar & Grill and the rest of Mt Sterling is a welcoming place for these people. The town with just 36 people, and which may have had more dogs than people at one point, seems to be hanging on. Check out the antique church on the way into town, the locals have been trying to maintain it for a while now.