Jake and I finally made it to our city’s most famous restaurant, Northwestern Steakhouse.
When I mentioned Northwestern Steakhouse on Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s podcast Off The Menu while speaking to our community’s Greek culinary influence, I realized how ridiculous it was that we hadn’t dined there yet. This restaurant’s served the community since 1920, opening soon after the first Greek immigrants settled in Mason City. The current owners Bill and Ann Papouchis took over the business from Tony’s father in 1965. Northwestern’s housed in a unique building across from baseball fields that blends in with its residential neighbors on the north side of town. You might miss the restaurant if you weren’t looking for it or the people waiting outside for tables didn’t give it away.
Upon moving to Mason City, we’ve heard legendary tales about Northwestern’s Greek-style steaks and spaghetti. Northwestern steaks are distinguished by their tenderness and the magic sauce that forms when the Greek seasoning mixes with the steak juices, olive oil, and butter. My friend Debbie published a copycat recipe that went viral last year.
Northwestern has a reservation system similar to Broders’ Pasta Bar which means that, basically, you can’t make one. Diners can arrive before 5 p.m. and hope to secured a table or call at 5 p.m. to put their name on the seating list. If your party is composed of at least six people, it’s possible to make a reservation. During our first winter in North Iowa, we naively arrived at Northwestern Steakhouse with out-of-town friends on a Saturday evening at seven p.m. We figured that on a sub-zero, snowy evening after prime dinner hour, we’d waltz right in and were totally wrong. The place was packed for the evening. You might be able to show up closer to five p.m. on a rainy day or weeknight (or a rainy weeknight!).
On this Saturday evening, we were determined to secure a 5 p.m seating so we arrived an hour early. Ann warmly greeted us at the door and gave a card with a number that corresponded to our table. People continued to arrive, so we wouldn’t have wanted to show up much later. The good news is that you can wait in the lounge upstairs until your table is ready. We passed the hour by playing cards and enjoying a beverage from the bar. Northwestern provides a deck of cards on each lounge table and servers take beverage orders.
At 5 p.m. our server guided us to our table. The menu’s concise and so it didn’t take long to choose our meals. Obviously steak is the restaurant’s namesake, but diners can also find items like roasted chicken and fish. We chose ribeyes, our favorite cuts with the Greek spaghetti as a side. Meals also come with tossed salads and bread plate.
The tossed salad was composed of crisp iceberg lettuce and garnished with tomato, pickle, hardboiled egg and an olive. I was satisfied with my upgrade to gorgonzola dressing which contained small chunks of blue cheese. Jake’s Greek salad was dressed in a very light oil and vinegar-like dressing.
And then there were the steaks. Our ribeyes were as big as our plates and shimmered with the flavorful butter/steak juice mixture.
The steaks were tender and cooked to a perfect medium rare and the fat melted in my mouth. Each time I’ve ordered a steak, the kitchen always cooks it north of medium rare, but this was truly the best cooked steak I’ve ever eaten. Jake ranked it in his top two favorites, alongside Ruth Chris’s (which are cooked differently). When I first studied Debbie’s copycat recipe, I was puzzled by her addition of chicken bouillon but now I understand she was trying to replicate the intensely salty, savory bite of the sauce.
When people mention Northwest Steakhouse, they mention the spaghetti side as often as the steak. This spaghetti isn’t coated in a tomato sauce, but steak juice and parmesan cheese. I wish I had followed the advice of a reader who had suggested we also drizzle the steak juice from our plates onto the spaghetti.
As we approach our move from North Iowa, I will treasure the evening we got to dine at Northwestern. Considering the quality of our meals and size of the steaks, prices are affordable for a steakhouse. Our ribeyes cost around $20 and came with the bread plate, tossed salads, and spaghetti side. My ribeye provided enough food for two leftover meals.
Northwestern is certainly a beloved institution and conversation topic that sparks intense debate among North Iowans about who serves the best steak. There are the die-hard Northwestern Steakhouse fans and those who prefer other local steaks. We’ve tried a couple of our friends’ suggestions, and, while they tasted delicious, Northwestern is our favorite. We left the steakhouse feeling somewhat hyped up on the excited from finally dining at the restaurant, and from how much fun we had that evening. We felt the steaks were totally worth the wait. Sure, you might have to plan ahead to dine here, but sometimes it’s nice to slow down; to play some cards, drink a beer, and make an evening out of a nice meal.