Get Your Greek on at the Northwestern Steakhouse
By Darcy Maulsby
One of the things that makes Midwestern culture and food so special is the way people maintain their culinary traditions. When in the North Iowa community of Mason City, do as the Greeks do, especially if you’re headed to the famous Northwestern Steakhouse. This casual, “come as you are” restaurant has been described as a steakhouse that hasn’t fully moved into the twenty-first century, and that’s just the way people like it.
“We have customers whose families have come here for five generations, and we get visitors from all over the world,” said Ann Papouchis, who has run the Northwestern Steakhouse with her husband, Bill, for more than 30 years.
The Northwestern Steakhouse features aged, USDA top choice Iowa beef cooked in extra virgin olive oil, butter and a special blend of Greek seasonings that make every bite of steak melt in your mouth, especially the 9-ounce fillet. Many of the steaks are still cut by hand.
The Northwestern Steakhouse has been serving up a unique, savory taste of Iowa since 1920. If you’re looking for a slick, urban steakhouse with inflated prices, this isn’t it. Located on the north edge of Mason City at 304 NW 16th St. NW near middle-class neighborhoods, baseball fields and cement plants, this unassuming, locally-owned and operated restaurant has been serving working men and their families for generations.
“This area was a melting pot a century ago,” Ann said. “There was a cement plant in this area, along with a sugar-beet processing plant, and our family’s restaurant started as a little café that fed migrant workers from the cement plants.”
Remembering the days of 25-cent T-bone steaks
In the early 1900s, Mason City had become a significant manufacturing and retail area in Iowa. The city’s lime, brick and tile businesses developed rapidly with the opening of The Northwestern State Portland Cement Plant in 1906, followed by the Lehigh Portland Cement Company in 1910. As these industries flourished, Mason City’s population steadily increased. By 1912, Mason City was producing more brick, tile and Portland cement than any city in the world, according Visit Mason City Iowa, the local convention and visitors’ bureau.
Many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to Mason City to find work. Lehigh Row was housing set up for the immigrant workers on the grounds of the cement company and White City was the Northwestern plant’s row houses for the workers.
While the forerunner of the Northwestern Steakhouse opened in 1920, owners Pete Maduras and Tony Papouchis moved the business (known as Pete’s Place in those days) in 1932 to a little building on North Federal Avenue in Mason City. T-bone steaks cost a whopping 25 cents, and liquor was bootlegged out of the basement. In 1954 the pair moved Pete’s Place to its present location on 16th Street NW. Pete and Tony continued their partnership, with Pete being waiter/businessman and Tony was the cook/gardener. They had a large garden with more than 200 tomato plants, 50 green pepper plants and many other vegetables.
By 1965, Pete wanted to retire and sold the business to Tony. It was at that time the name changed to the Northwestern Steakhouse. Tony continued to plant his garden every year, harvesting fresh vegetables each summer to use in the restaurant. All of his customers looked forward to Tony’s fresh “salatas,” along with his special Greek menu on Sundays.
Tony was still cooking at his beloved Northwestern Steakhouse at age 96. In an interview with the local newspaper, he said he continued to work because he liked it. “Better to be working,” said Tony, who worked 365 days a year and passed away at age 98.
Cheers to 101 years
Today, the Northwestern Steakhouse is operated by Tony’s son, Bill, and Bill’s wife, Ann, who keep a portrait of Tony hanging on the wall behind the cash register.
The straightforward menu showcases the finest beef in Iowa, all prepared in olive oil and doused with an incredible blend of Greek seasonings and top-secret ingredients. As the menu notes, “Not responsible for steaks ordered medium well or well done. Please order accordingly.”
Meals are served with an array of options, including spaghetti topped with olive oil, Greek seasonings and parmesan cheese, along with Greek salads.
The restaurant is still known for its friendly atmosphere and unforgettable food. Perhaps no one knows this better than the Northwestern Steakhouse’s long-time customers like Neil Pogeler from Florida, whose story was recorded on the restaurant’s website.
“I remember my dad bragging about this place to everyone he met for years after he left Mason City. Now that he’s gone, it’s my turn to brag about it,” said the Mason City native, who has been a customer of the Northwestern Steakhouse for more than 50 years. “I can even tell you the taste is exactly the same as it was back then. (You never forget a certain taste or smell.) Kudos to you, and may your restaurant live on forever!”
But then came the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which created big challenges for all restaurants, including the Northwestern Steakhouse.
“We thought we would be celebrating our 100-year anniversary in a different way at the beginning of this year, but it sure has been an anniversary to remember,” noted a post on the Northwestern Steakhouse’s Facebook page on December 31, 2020. “It hasn’t always been easy this year. For the first time in decades, we had to close entirely for a brief time. Then we had to learn a brand-new way of serving you with curbside pickup.
There have been some really great moments, too — being awarded the Key to the City by our Mason City mayor, being named one of Iowa’s 7 best steakhouses by Big 7 Travel, and of course being able to say we made it through 100 years!
As we reflect on 2020, what we think of the most is your continuous support through it all. Your support and love reminded us why we do what we do. We are extremely grateful to the community we’ve called home for 100 years. Cheers to 101 years!”
Darcy Maulsby is a 5th generation farmer, author and Iowa’s Storyteller. Portions of this blog were excepted from her book “A Culinary History of Iowa.” For more information on all of Darcy’s books and writing services, visit www.darcymaulsby.com.
Big Fat Greek Steak with Pasta
- 1 / 4 cup (half a stick) butter
- 1 / 4 cup olive oil
- 2 chicken bouillon cubes, crushed
- 1 / 4 heaping teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon Greek seasoning (Cavender’s is an option)
- 2 (2-inch thick) beef tenderloin steaks
- 8 ounces thick spaghetti, cooked and drained
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Heat butter, olive oil, bouillon cubes, garlic powder and Greek seasoning in a saucepan until the butter is melted, stirring frequently.
- Pour mixture over the steaks in a small baking pan. Turn the steaks to coat.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, and turn the steaks. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, or to desired doneness.
- Remove the steaks to serving plates.
- Combine with hot pasta and pan juices in a bowl; toss to coat. Top generously with Parmesan cheese, and serve with the steaks. Serves 2.
This recipe comes from the delightful cookbook “You’re Invited! Party Recipes for Every Season,” by Debbie Lestina of Iowa. Cookbooks are available by contacting Debbie at email@example.com. The cookbooks cost $10 plus shipping, with all proceeds going to the Hawkeye Harvest Food Bank in Mason City, Iowa.