America’s highway system expansion which began in the 1930s not only “shrank” America, it introduced the entertaining, educational–some might say bizarre–phenomenon of the roadside attraction. Entrepreneurs competed with each other to create gawk-inspiring, curiosity motivating, must-see-to-believe attractions to snare the attention of motorists and motivate them to part with some of their money. Neon lights festooned Route 66 while fiberglass and concrete statues became part-and-parcel of America’s highways and byways. This was true roadside art which became a part of the fabric of Americana, albeit a kitschy tradition fading with the passage of time (which aptly describes many of the statues themselves).
Among the most famous statuary art are life-sized fiberglass statues of stocky steers (corpulent cows and beefy bulls, if you prefer) which became the symbol of steakhouses along the motorways and byways. Ironically, this statuary was not designed for use as symbology for restaurants. In the 1950s, Bob Prewitt, a manufacturer of fiberglass trailers created life-sized fiberglass animals to prove the trailers were large enough to accommodate the real thing. Soon the manufacture of animals became the primary focus of his business. He created almost as many types of animals as Noah took on board his ark. The steer became one of the most popular. Restaurants such as the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Massachusetts actually have corrals full of Hereford and black Angus statues on display.
One of the Duke City’s longest-standing and most famous steers served as a beacon for 45 years to Albuquerque diners, letting them know that they were within steak sniffing, sizzling sound hearing distance of the Town House Lounge & Restaurant on Central Avenue just west of Washington. To detractors, the steer on the roof helped reinforce the stereotype that Albuquerque is a “cow town,” but to its many long-time diners, it was an open invitation to dine on grilled steak and lamb, prime rib and chops, hamburgers and salads as well as many popular American and Greek favorites.
The Town House was just as welcoming once you stepped inside its friendly confines and were enveloped by its oversized tuck-and-roll Naugahyde booths. The Town House had all the stereotypical trappings of steak houses launched in the 1960s including the use of anthropomorphic adult beverage decanters as decorative touches. Amber sconces provided a low lighting milieu that helped ensure privacy. Service was attentive and personable with frequent visits by your server assured during every visit.
The Town House was founded by George Argyres, a Greek immigrant who opened his restaurant in 1962 and was a ubiquitous presence until its closing on Saturday, May 5th, 2007. His success followed in the long tradition of successful Greek restaurateurs in the Land of Enchantment, many of whom still own and operate some of the state’s most popular eateries. When Argyres closed the Town House, it was a sad day for generations who had spent many a special occasion within its comfy confines.
Sadness turned to joy with the announcement that the Town House would reopen in November, 2011, albeit in a different location several blocks east of the original venue. Alas, because of permit issues, the opening date was pushed out several times and several months until finally the restaurant reopened on Thursday, February 16, 2012. The restaurant’s new owner as well as its chef is Dino Argyres, scion of the restaurant’s founder. Even long-time Duke City denizens might not recognize the Town House’s new digs as once having been home to The Mint, a restaurant which served the most piquant chile in the city. That’s how remarkable the transformation of a once dark and dank edifice has been. The new Town House is bright and airy, also quite unlike its own former instantiation.
At first browse, the menu may appear to be solely a carnivore’s delight, a meat fest and protein party, but there’s actually something for everyone. Only four of the dozen appetizers include meat or fish based dishes and three of five a la carte salads also include meat. A number of sandwich and burger specialties can be had as well as several low-calorie items. The “From the Lakes and Seas” menu includes a number of seafood items, including market priced twin lobster tails while the surf and turf combinations give you the best meat and seafood items.
Most guests, however, visit for the “from the broiler” selections including the house specialty, an all beef shish ka-bob, chunks of lean top sirloin, chicken and pork tenderloin marinated in the Town House’s special marinade and prepared to your exacting specifications. Steaks and chops and choice prime rib with au jus round out the broiler menu. Entrees and luncheon specials, served from 11AM to 2PM, are served with a tossed salad (with your choice of dressing from among Bleu Cheese, 1000 Island, French, Vinegar and Oil, Feta or Ranch), bread and your choice of baked potato, rice pilaf, French fries or oven-roasted Greek potatoes.
Shortly after the menu is brought to your table, a basket with Texas toast and a bowl of olive oil and feta cheese is delivered to your waiting hands. It’s a refreshing change from the de rigueur bread and olive oil-Balsamic vinegar offering at many restaurants. The Texas toast is lightly toasted and thick with absorbing qualities which make it a perfect for sopping up the olive oil and feta mix. It’s an excellent introduction to the Town House and you’re likely to be tempted to request a second helping. Do so at your peril because you’ll want to save room for either the restaurant’s sumptuous soups (the soup-of-the-day is always tempting) or amazing appetizers.
One of the items for which the Town House has been and will be best known is a behemoth combination antipasto platter the cognoscenti once considered the very best in town–for good reason. You might visit with carnivorous cravings, but you’ll fall in love with the antipasto combination plate, the restaurant’s star attraction. By definition if not function, antipasto is meant to pique one’s appetite, not sate it; however, at the Town House, the antipasto plate is an oversized appetizer for two or a gargantuan meal with for one.
The antipasto plate has a bit of everything and then some: stuffed grape leaves, Kalamata olives, Pepperonici, feta cheese, Kasseri cheese (a sharp, salty and hard cheese with a Cheddar-like texture made from sheep or goat’s milk), ham, salami, garlic dip, pita bread, and taramosalata as well as a number of pickled vegetables (carrots, artichokes, cauliflower and more). If you’ve never had taramasalata, you’re in for a treat. It’s a Greek style “poor man’s” caviar traditionally served as an appetizer. Consisting of carp roe, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, olive oil and more, it is whipped until light and fluffy. It’s wonderful on its own or spread onto the restaurant’s signature pita bread.
Chops connoisseurs generally agree that the best degree of “doneness” for lamb chops is always to let the chef prepare them to his or her preference as ostensibly the chef should best know what the optimum doneness is for the restaurant’s chops. For the most part, lamb chops seem to be prepared at medium rare with a warm red center and copious juiciness. It takes a very confident and skilled chef to serve lamb chops well done. That’s how my lamb chops were delivered. Well done is not synonymous with desiccated at the Town House. In fact, these chops are wonderfully delicious–four chops, each at least four ounces, with a surprising degree of juiciness despite an exterior char. The chops are served with a mint sauce the color of lime Kool Aid. The mint sauce doesn’t have herbaceous qualities that make it “minty.” Instead it’s quite sweet, a nice contrast to the slight gaminess of the chops.
The luncheon special on the day of our inaugural visit was a rib eye steak with a mushroom Marsala sauce. This is one of those specials so special it should be part of the daily menu. A twelve-ounce rib eye as tender and juicy as possible is topped with a mushrooms sauteed in a Marsala wine. Unlike some Marsala sauce, the Town House’s rendition isn’t gravy-like in texture or flavor. You can actually appreciate the wine reduction, a dry sweet flavor that punctuates each of the thinly shaved mushrooms and permeates into the steak. It’s a very good steak!
Opt for a baked potato instead of rice pilaf, French fries or oven-roasted Greek potatoes and you’ll be rewarded with a football-sized potato baked to absolute perfection. It’s served with butter, sour cream and chives, but an equally good topping is the aforementioned olive oil and feta mixture. The accompanying salads are anachronisms, the type of salads which might have been served in the 60s when the Town House first opened. That means iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, croutons and lots of dressing. The feta and bleu cheese dressings are quite good, albeit thin and light.
A house specialty is an “all meat” shish ka-bob, chunks of lean meat (your choice of top sirloin, chicken or pork tenderloin) marinated in the Townhouse’s special marinade. Unfortunately you have to select only one of the three meats and can’t have a mix of all three. Nor does the shish ka-bob include grilled onions and bell peppers, two seemingly de rigueur shish ka-bob standards. This is a meatfest, a carnivore’s delight. The marinade appears to be a fairly standard Greek recipe that includes lemon and olive oil. The broiler sears in a light char that gives the bite-sized ka-bobs a slight crust, but doesn’t detract from the moistness of the top sirloin.
The Townhouse also offers a “Char-Burger” that has no bun and isn’t accompanied by the burger toppings to which we’re all accustomed. The char-burger is a half-pound of choice ground round stuffed with the Townhouse’s cheese mixture (primarily Cheddar) broiled to your exacting degree of doneness. At medium, the exterior has a seared-in crust while the interior is moist with a barely bubbling cheese interior. There’s not as much cheese as you’ll find in the stuffed Cheddar burger at Maria’s of Santa Fe where the cheese is molten and positively erupts out. Still, it’s a nice round slab of chopped steak that probably could use a steak sauce of some sort.
Desserts are made in-house save for the spumoni ice cream. There are five dessert items and unless you’ve asked for a doggie bag or three, you’re not likely to have room for them. Make sure to leave room because these desserts are terrific. The baklava is layers of flaky phyllo pastry, ground pistachios and of course lots of rich honey. It’s nearly cloying in its sweetness, but absolutely delicious. According to Dino Argyres, if you offer someone in Greece a slice of chocolate cake, you might be asked why you’re handing out bread. Ironically, the Town House serves one of the very best layered chocolate cakes in the Duke City. It’s the antithesis of the store-bought cakes and their thick, cloying frosting. This cake is rich and moist, but not overly sweet.
If anything, the near five-year hiatus may actually have improved the Town House Restaurant or maybe that’s just its new bright and airy ambiance. Though its new digs bear little resemblance to its former home, a visit to the Town House is like coming home. You’ll be welcome. You’ll be well-fed. You’ll leave happy.
The Town House Restaurant
9019 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 August 2012
1st VISIT: 18 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Antipasto, Lamb Chops, Rib Eye with Mushroom Marsala Sauce, Baklava, Chocolate Layered Cake