homepage logo

Van’s ‘famous’ place

By Staff | Dec 30, 2011

Richard Vanderheiden sautes the diced sausage, onions, green peppers and mushrooms that top his popular smothered hashbrowns.



Farm New staff writer

AUBURN – Richard Vanderheiden may keep a low profile most of the time, but he always says “yes” when people walk in the door of his restaurant and ask, “Is this the famous Van’s Cafe?”

He knows they probably heard a 2009 radio show that broadcast in Auburn to help Vanderheiden celebrate 40 years in business.

The recipe for Van’s potato soup came from Richard Vanderheiden’s mother, Rose. This hearty soup relies on simple ingredients like potatoes, onions, carrots and celery for its robust flavor.

“That was a super day,” said Vanderheiden, 67, who noted that nearly 600 customers showed up to be part of the unique event and enjoy a free breakfast.

Countless customers across west central Iowa and beyond have been coming to Van’s Cafe for hearty, home-cooked breakfasts and lunches for decades.

The restaurant business is a family tradition, said Vanderheiden, who noted that his mother, Rose, started the Auburn Cafe in 1954, where she served loose meat sandwiches and other favorites.

“I grew up in the cafe and developed an interest in cooking from an early age,” Vanderheiden said. “My mother was a very good cook and I learned a lot from her.”

Vanderheiden, who was one of eight children in his family, liked growing up in Auburn and can remember when the town boasted three grocery stores, a creamery, a hatchery, a drug store, two filling stations, a bank and a hardware store.

Richard Vanderheiden has been serving home-cooked meals at Van’s Cafe, in Auburn, since 1969.

After Vanderheiden’s father assed away, he and his mother opened Van’s Cafe in its current location in 1969. Through the years, Van’s has become known for a variety of comfort foods, from potato soup to meat loaf and three-bean salad.

“In three years, our family will have been in the cafe business in Auburn for 60 years total,” said Vanderheiden, who noted that his cafe, along Highway 71, is housed in one of Auburn’s former grocery stores.

Although it’s a one-man operation, supported by a few part-time servers, including Arlene Tebben, of Wall Lake, and Frances Bachman, of Auburn, the restaurant is open seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for Sunday dinner.

“People know they can count on Van’s being open,” said Vanderheiden, who noted that breakfast is available whenever the cafe is open.

He added that smothered hashbrowns, which are topped with sauteed sausage, onions, green peppers, mushrooms and melted cheese, are a perennial favorite with the regulars.

“I love this business. You get to meet a lot of people, and you succeed by knowing what your customers want.”

Smothered hashbrowns

(While each hashbrown is a meal in itself, Richard Vanderheiden serves his with toast. Some customers also like two fried eggs on top, he said.)

1 to 2 potatoes (depending on the size of the potato)

1/4 cup cooked, diced sausage

1/4 cup onions, chopped

1/4 cup green pepper, chopped

1/4 cup mushrooms

Slices of American cheese

Boil potato(es) with their skins on. (They don’t have to be completely cooked, Richard said. Prick the potatoes with a fork. If you can get the tines in about half way, the potatoes can be removed from the water.)

Peel the potatoes once they have cooled. (Richard likes to let his potatoes sit overnight in the refrigerator before he makes hashbrowns the next morning.)

Shred the potatoes. Add butter to a frying pan. Add the shredded potatoes, and brown them on both sides.

While the potatoes are cooking, saute the sausage, onions, green peppers and mushrooms in vegetable oil.

Place the cooked hashbrown on a plate, and top with the sauted sausage and vegetable mixture. Add a slice or two of American cheese, which will melt over the top.

This recipe makes 1 serving.

Van’s potato soup

(This recipe came from Vanderheiden’s mother, Rose, and is the restaurant’s signature soup.)

7 to 8 potatoes, diced

1 large onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, grated

1 cup celery, chopped

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon thyme

Pepper to taste

3 cups milk

2 tablespoons butter

Put potatoes, onion, carrots, celery, salt, thyme and pepper in a soup pot. Add enough water to cover the vegetables.

Bring the water to a boil before turning the heat way down.

Simmer the ingredients until the potatoes are soft (about 20 minutes.)

Add milk and butter to the soup.

Three bean salad

(This is the most popular item on the salad bar at Van’s Cafe. It tastes the best when allowed to sit overnight so the flavors mix together, vanderheiden said.)

1 14.5-ounce can cut green beans, drained and rinsed

1 14.5-ounce can wax beans, drained and rinsed

1 14.5-ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 medium onion, chopped

1 green pepper, diced

Dash of salt and pepper

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup water

Combine all beans, onion, green pepper, salt and pepper in a bowl. Combine sugar, vinegar, oil and water, and mix with beans.


(This goulash is customers’ winter favorite, Vanderheiden said.)

3 pounds hamburger, browned and drained

1 onion, chopped

3 cups elbow macaroni, cooked and drained

1 46-ounce can tomato juice

1 can diced tomatoes (either a small can or a large can, depending on how many tomatoes you’d like to include)

1 heaping tablespoon sugar or less, to taste

Combine all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

Meat loaf

(This trusty meat loaf recipe was passed down Vanderheiden’s mother who worked in the restaurant business for many years.)

3 pounds ground beef

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups oatmeal

1 cup tomato juice

Combine all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page