SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) — Tastee’s has kept a vintage feel for a significant amount of time, and their onion chips and dip have been taking Siouxland by storm since the late 40s. A storm that has led Tastee Inn & Out to prepare 750 pounds of onions a week.
Owner Joye Cook-Levy said the chips are always made by hand, as well as the dip. To make the chips the first step is to begin peeling and cutting the onion, before battering them in small batches.
“I would say up into the early 90s, late 80s we were still making them by hand,” said Cook-Levy, “We had one woman who made them, her name was Mary. We called her ‘Mary, Mary the Onion Fairy.’ Mary worked there till her very last days on earth; she loved making those onions and was such an important part of the family.”
Cook-Levy said that when the restaurant was first launched, cutting the onions into chips was a tedious part of the process because you had to pull each individual membrane off.
“You couldn’t work with gloves on because you wouldn’t be able to pull the individual membrane off the onion chip,” said Cook-Levy, “and Grandma believed that membrane had to be off for the breading to layer correctly.”
Cook-Levy said that they’ve done some experimenting over the years to find easier ways to get the onions ready for the breading process and have even been able to add some modern technology to the restaurant for faster and more convenient onion preparation. She added that you never get used to the onion smell.
“You never do, so there’s lots of crying,” said Cook-Levy, “We do recommend [employees] wear like glasses or, you know, just even fake glasses to kind of protect their eyes, and now we do work with gloves.”
Once the onions have been battered and breaded, they are dropped in the fryer. They are partially cooked and then portioned into individual containers of various serving sizes. The portioned onion chips are then stored at a safe temperature, but they are never frozen. By partially cooking the chips, they are able to serve guests faster. Upon order, the chips are dropped back into the fryer to be fully cooked and served. Cook-Levy added that they go through 200 pounds of dip alongside the Onion Chips.
While the recipe has remained the same, there are factors that could change the flavor of the onion chips, according to Cook-Levy. She said that changing the oil often is a big part of the consistency of flavor for each guest. She also said that the amount of breading will play a role in how the chips taste once they’ve been served.
“You know, there are people that are extraordinary at breading onions, and sometimes, they might actually try too hard,” said Cook-Levy, “Like, if it’s not completely breaded over, they might run it through again, and then it gets a little too thick. So, that’s the only time that I have concerns about breading is actually putting too much on it which is sort of the reverse of what a lot of people would think. Less spreading is often much better.”
Cook-Levy said that Tastee Inn & Out has provided Siouxlanders a place to seek comfort through their chips and dip. She said that during a visit to the bank, the teller told her that when the teller has a bad day, they will go to Tastee’s and get some chips.
“So, I think the onion chips taste like literally comfort,” said Cook-Levy, “They taste like relief. They taste like memory. You know, people go to the Tastee’s and get onion chips when they come to town before they see their mother. It is that, kind of, long-time standing place in the community.”
Cook-Levy’s husband and co-owner, Scott Levy, said that the onion chips and dip have a taste that can’t be described in a few words.
“It’s absolutely a savory side item that is really warm, even though the dip is cold,” said Levy, “So, there’s this, like, temperature experience, and the breading is so crispy and that is married with the softness of the onion on the inside. So, for what people might think is such a simple regional delicacy, it really has a very complex texture and taste profile, frankly.”
Cook-Levy said that the staff plays a role in the success of the business as well as the quality of food on a daily basis.
“It takes a certain really well-oiled machine of a crew to get through [the days,]” said Cook-Levy, “You have to multitask down there, and I think that’s why most of our staff has been there for over seven years, which is a long time for that industry, and it’s because they keep growing and learning and figuring out new things.”
Levy added that the consistent taste throughout the almost 70 years of operation has made a mark on the people of Siouxland, “That history of people who grew up in Sioux City and are either still in Siouxland or have left for other areas, Joye was right. When they come home, they know that taste is something they can’t get anywhere else, and they want it because the memory of that food is so strong,” he said.
Cook-Levy said the multi-generational legacy of Tastee’s started when her grandparents, Vince and Marie Calligan, operated a bar in an area of Sioux City that is commonly referred to as Greenville. The bar was called Vince’s Tavern, which featured home cooking until it was time for the bar to close.
“The story goes that my grandmother started making Taverns to get everybody out of the bar at night, so they could close,” said Cook-Levy, “So, she’s trying to sober them up, and my grandfather said, ‘you know, this might be better for us.’ They worked in the bar business in Reno for years, and then made their own place in Iowa.”
Cook-Levy indicated that they decided to start searching for a restaurant, and they knew that they wanted to feature Taverns because her grandmother’s recipe was loved by those who tried it. They found a Tastee Inn & Out in Lincoln, Nebraska, that had an interesting concept.
“They really liked the model, and they really like the food, and they really liked the concept because, at that time, there was no drive-throughs,” said Cook-Levy, “There were drive-ins like you could sit in your car and get your food and leave, so there was that concept, but there was not the concept that you just drive through and leave altogether.”
Cook-Levy said the Calligan’s made a deal with the owner of the location where they would buy the location while combining their skills and recipes. She added that the partnership was so successful that the demand because so high that they had to make changes to the original contract.
“[My grandma] said ‘can we renegotiate? I’ll just makeover the recipes, so they’ll be mine, and they won’t be yours,’ and they said yes. So, in ‘56 gram made the Tastee recipe that was served in Sioux City, and she made the onion chip recipe and the dip and the pup sauce and the chili and those were the five items that they made, and we still make 67 years later with the same recipes and still by hand.”
Cook-Levy said her mother, Jean Calligan, ran the business for the longest amount of time from the 70s until 2020. Cook-Levy explained that it was with a heavy heart that she took over when her mom passed away from complications with COVID.
Cook-Levy said that throughout the decades of service, little has changed. She said there have been a few modern additions such as an addition to the building in the late 60s to provide more storage and the way the drive-through leads cars to the window. She said at first the cars would pull up to the window from the passenger side because people wouldn’t go out to eat often and when they did, they would go out as a family. So, pulling up to the passenger side would provide easier access for the passengers to get the food.
“It’s pretty much the same place it’s always been,” added Cook-Levy, “it’s been a staple in Sioux City for almost 70 years, and nothing has changed inside that building, except the staff.”
Cook-Levy said that their plans for the future of Tastee Inn & Out largely revolve around the upcoming viaduct project that is projected to begin in 2027. The viaduct connects the east side of Sioux City to the downtown area, and thousands of Siouxlanders drive over it every day. Officials with the Iowa Department of Transportation said the project has been estimated to take over two years to complete, leaving local businesses to consider the possible effects it will have on their operations.
“We’re really thinking about what we’ll do in that period of time when Gordon Drive could be completely closed,” said Cook-Levy “We feel like Tastee’s is a destination that, it’s not like the poor folks who have gas stations on Gordon Drive which you wouldn’t try to wean your way through town to get there through the back streets. So, there’s that relief that when people want a Tastee and onion chips they’ll find their way there, but we know that business is still going to be really heavily impacted.”
Cook-Levy added that they are currently doing research to prepare for when the project begins, delivery will be a possibility for large orders. She said that they have never done delivery before, and they have considered shipping across the country, but they don’t want to overwhelm their employees.
Cook-Levy added that their employees play a role in the success of the business, which is why they want to take into consideration the workload that delivery would add to the team.
Know a locally-owned restaurant with a famous delicious dish? Email your idea to Ariel Pokett at firstname.lastname@example.org.