A couple three years ago, my niece sent me a link from the Thrillist web site mentioning the most iconic restaurant in each state. She wanted to know if I had been to the one that was mentioned for Iowa. When I scrolled down on the list, I was surprised to see that they selected a place I'd never heard of before - Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City. I was somewhat incredulous that they picked this restaurant over about a half dozen other Iowa restaurants that I would say are more iconic in the state than this place in Mason City. Then I was talking with Jeni who has the highly entertaining Jeni Eats blog site about the Northwestern Steakhouse. She and her husband lived in Mason City for a time before moving to St. Louis and they went there for a meal one time. (Click here to see her blog entry on the place.) They really enjoyed Northwestern Steakhouse and I made it a point to stop in when I would be going by Mason City on my way to the Twin Cities. I finally did stop in one time and it was around 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. It turned out the wait would be at least 45 to 60 minutes. On a second trip past Mason City a few months later, I had just a 20 minute wait for a table at Northwestern Steakhouse. I decided to stay and eat this time.
Northwestern Steakhouse dates back to the early 1920's when the son of an immigrant Greek Orthodox priest opened his first restaurant. Tony Papouchis came to the United States with his father and mother in 1912 and opened Evia Cafe - named after the Greek Island the family hailed from - on South Sixth Street in 1920. In the meantime, Pete Madourus - also a Greek immigrant - had opened a small restaurant by the name of Pete's Place on 25th Street Northwest, also known as Northwestern Row for the number of row houses that were used to house workers at a concrete plant nearby.
In 1932, Tony Papaouchis sold the Evia Cafe and went to work for Pete Madourus at Pete's Place. Madourus moved the restaurant to a small stone building along the main road coming in and out of Mason City on the north end and renamed the place Northwestern Cafe. During World War II, there was a small box inside the entry way where patrons had to pay a cover charge with the money going toward a relief fund for Greeks displaced because of the war.
In 1954, Northwestern Cafe moved to what was a former grocery store on 16th Street N.W. - the present day location of the restaurant. Eleven years later, Madourus - approaching 80 years of age - decided to retire and sold the restaurant to Tony Papaouchis (who was 72 at the time) and his wife, Flora, who renamed it the Northwestern Steakhouse. The Papaouchis family was large - they had five boys and three girls - and most of the children worked in the restaurant at one time or another.
Tony Papaouchis ran the restaurant every day, walking to his place like clockwork along 16th Street N.W. In the summertime, he tended a garden out back that featured dozens of tomato and pepper plants, as well as other vegetables and herbs that he used in the kitchen. He was cooking in the kitchen deep into his 90's before retiring. Tony died in 1991 at the age of 98, a year after he retired from his restaurant.
Three of Tony's sons went into the restaurant business - John opened a Greek restaurant in Des Moines, George was the co-owner (along with partner Ron Vannimwegen) of Cafe Northwest that had a nearly 25 year run in Ames before closing a couple years ago, and Bill Papouchis - along with his wife, Ann, took over the Northwestern Steakhouse after his father retired. Bill and Ann Papouchis continue to run the Northwestern Cafe to this day.
Northwestern Cafe is located between two baseball fields on Mason City's north side. (see map) There's a parking lot on the east side of the building and it was typically full when I pulled in. A couple people were standing around outside - I didn't quite know what they were doing there as they weren't smoking. It turned out that was the waiting area for Northwestern Cafe that evening. The upstairs lounge was closed due to a leaking water pipe. One of the servers said that it would be a 20 minute wait and that I would have to wait outside. "But it's a nice evening," she assured me. It was a little strange having to wait outside the restaurant.
After another server came to get me to escort me to my booth, it was no wonder why they were making people wait outside - Northwestern Steakhouse is not very big. The first dining area seats only 32 people in 8 booths with a narrow aisle in between. It was in one of the booths that I was seated.
There is a smaller dining room on the other side of a wall that seats another 18 people. It consists of 3 - four-seater tables and a larger six-seater. Movie posters of iconic stars such as John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe were on the walls of both dining areas.
I was given a menu when I sat down and a moment later, my server - a lady by the name of Cindy - came by to greet me. It turned out that she was the wife of Jim Papouchis, the brother of Bill Papouchis. Many of the servers and staff at Northwestern Steakhouse have been working there for over 20 years.
They don't have much of a beer menu at Northwestern Steakhouse, mainly American beers with a smattering of imports. And their wine list is pretty pedestrian. I ordered a Budweiser and took a look through the menu.
Most of items on the menu are steak-centric - a 20 ounce Porterhouse, an 8 ounce and a 9 ounce beef tenderloin filet, a 14 ounce New York strip, a 14 ounce ribeye, and a 14 ounce top sirloin are the main items on the menu. All the steaks are cooked in a concoction of olive oil, butter, and a Papouchis family secret blend of seasonings. Northwestern Steakhouse boasts that their steaks will be so tender you can cut them with a fork. In addition to steaks, they also serve roasted chicken, pan-fried walleye, lamb chops, broiled shrimp and prime rib (on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights).
Being a newby to the Northwestern Steakhouse, I didn't know that the place was famous for two things other than their steaks - their Greek salads and their spaghetti. Of course, I didn't order either of those things. I got the 9 ounce filet - rare - with a side of rice. (A baked potato or French fries also were available as a side.) And I got a dinner salad with an oil and vinegar-based Italian dressing.
The dinner salad featured chopped iceberg lettuce with a dill pickle, a small pitted Greek olive, a tomato slice and a quarter of a hard-boiled egg. It was all mixed in with the very good Italian dressing. Along with the salad, a plate of bread slices and a generous scoop of butter came with it. I heard one of the servers say that they get their bread fresh-baked from Hy-Vee every day. The salad with the bread combo was a great start to the meal.
I thought it took quite some time to get a rare cooked steak to my table. But the wait was worth it. It was a huge chunk of meat that was swimming in olive oil, spices, and the steak's natural juices. The rice on the side was drizzled with the same olive oil, spices and beef juice concoction the steak was sitting in. (It turns out that is what the Northwestern Steakhouse pours on their spaghetti. Some people believe the best thing on the menu is the spaghetti. I'll have to go back and give that a try.)
The steak was cooked to a perfect rare with a deep red and cool middle. I wouldn't say that it was tender enough to cut with a fork as advertised. I definitely needed a steak knife to cut into the meat, but it was still tender to the cut. The taste was, well, different. I immediately liked it. I can't really explain the taste because there was a lot going on with the steak's flavor. I could taste some seasonings and the olive oil was a familiar taste. It was one of those flavors that if I had a steak from Northwestern Steakhouse again, I'd immediately recognize the taste. It was very good.
The rice was light and fluffy, and with the drizzled olive oil, beef juices and spices it helped zip up the taste of the rice. I got a good idea of what the spaghetti would taste like with the stuff drizzled on.
The remnants of the steak was what was found on the upper right. I was dipping some of the bread into the juice and oil combination and it was heavenly. This was a great meal. When Cindy came back to check on me toward the end and asked how I liked the meal, I immediately said, "I couldn't get in the first time I stopped here. I'm glad I came back."
She said, "It's good, isn't it?" She did a good job of taking care of me during my visit.
It's easy to see why the people of Mason City and Northern Iowa have raved about Northwestern Steakhouse for years and years. The steak was delicious cooked in the concoction of olive oil and spices. I didn't try the Greek salad or the spaghetti - two other signature items on the menu - but that will give me something to shoot for in the future. They don't take reservations at Northwestern Steakhouse, so get there early to get your name on the list. The place isn't large and it's not too fancy, but it's sort of like a comfortable pair of shoes or a favorite sweater that gives you a warm and soothing feeling. And I'm sort of embarrassed that it took me this long to discover the place. While I wouldn't quite call it an iconic restaurant for the whole state of Iowa, it's definitely unique. This was simply one of the best steaks I've had in Iowa.