That was the first question from the waiter as my girlfriend and I slid into a side booth at Tornado’s Pub & Grub.
If you grab one of the booths inside the front door, you’re treated to a tabletop that doubles as a checkerboard — just one of the quaint eccentricities in this dive bar at the corner of Third Street and 16th Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids.
In this instance, I use “dive bar” in the warmest sense, as Tornado’s is an establishment devoid of formality but rich in character, the kind of spot that realizes dark lighting is a prerequisite and cold beer is an imperative. The clientele is firmly blue-collar Midwest, as is the supply of ranch dressing.
As for décor, Tornado’s sports a hodgepodge of bar lights, tin signs and black-and-white images across the walls. This is also the kind of spot that features a jukebox you can actually play at a volume above faint — a huge plus in my book.
The building that houses Tornado’s was built in 1914 and previously housed Clover’s Grocery Store, Carl’s Grocery Store and the Kacere Café. Tornado’s has been around since 2000, and their website boasts of having survived both the 2008 and 2016 floods. Some might remember Tornado’s being left on the wrong side of a temporary flood wall that the city erected to protect NewBo during the 2016 flooding.
They have indeed survived, and the spot was packed on a cold Valentine’s Day night.
We started with a couple beers and an order of Southwest chicken egg rolls. I need no persuasion to tip back a High Life, but if there were ever a place to imbibe in the Champagne of Beers, Tornado’s is it. Added bonus for serving Miller’s flagship beer in a bottle: my preferred delivery system for the golden greatness.
The egg rolls were a solid starter: crunchy exterior with a flavorful interior, and the perfect size and quantity to split before the main course. You can have either ranch or sweet chili as a side dipping sauce. Being steadfast Midwesterners, we opted for the ranch.
Tornado’s is known for their burgers — most named on the Fujita Scale from F2 to F5 in keeping with the tornadic theme. I opted for the F4 (hot), a half-pound burger, complete with bacon, Canadian bacon, pepper-jack cheese, American cheese, jalapeños and buffalo sauce underneath all the aforementioned cheese to seal in the flavor.
That sounds like a lot on one sandwich, but the burger was surprisingly well-composed and low on my own personal messy scale. It had just enough heat to be noticeable but not painful. I’m also a fries stickler, and the crinkle-cut spuds at Tornado’s hit the sweet spot with crunch and flavor; perfect for dabbing up the extra sauce dribbling off the burger. Speaking of the sauce, it was my highlight of the burger. It tasted like a mix between Heinz 57, buffalo and barbecue sauce, and it paired nicely with the other toppings.
And while burgers are the highlight at Tornado’s, they offer a full menu of other enticing items, including salads, po’ boy sandwiches and even hot bagels with all the fixings.
My girlfriend had the grilled chicken salad with iceberg lettuce, bacon, diced onion, tomato, croutons, cheddar cheese and grilled chicken. She was pleased with both the flavor and quantity. Tornado’s definitely doesn’t skimp on their salads.
As we got up to leave, the main dining area was still full of a mixture of large groups and couples enjoying the warm confines for their Valentine’s Day meal. A staff of three or four worked diligently to cover every table and take every order. Country music played comfortably throughout the room. The neon cast just the right glow.
All in all, Tornado’s is now on my must-return list. One, because I need to try one of the hot bagel sandwiches. Two, because I need to avenge my loss in checkers.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 304.