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Ponderosa's extensive menu kept diners coming back for more

The iconic Hespeler Road restaurant was one of many that made the city's "golden mile" a dining destination in the '70s

During the mid 1970s, Cambridge was growing by leaps and bounds, transforming the open land that was once used as our outdoor adventure playgrounds.

It became apparent that downtown stores were slowly becoming affected by the vibrant Hespeler Road "Golden Mile" commercialism.

The future was unfolding as the mega department stores like Knob Hill Farms set the stage in the north end, and a large indoor shopping centre began to take shape in the south.

Soon, the new YMCA, cinemas, auto dealerships, franchise eateries joined the dozens of privately-owned businesses that had moved from downtown main streets to Hespeler Road. It was booming as more families became mobile and city transit covered a larger footprint of roads.


Tons of good memories from back then include the many family style restaurants that populated Hespeler Road; Carl's, Caz's, Dallas Steak House, The Tien Sun, China Sails,  Ali Baba, Mother's, The Swiss Chalet, Frost Top,  A&W, Long John Silver's, McDonalds,  Bellamy's and Pizza Hut.

So many businesses on the strip opened and closed during depressed economic times. This kept new business investment current, with many living the dream to own and operate their own businesses.

For restaurant owners it was quite the struggle to get folks to dine out in sit-down restaurants instead of fast food joints. Twenty five cent burgers, fried chicken wings, all you can eat pizza, and the Chinese buffets all built a strong following.  But among them all, there was one restaurant that most area families dined in at least once and that was the Ponderosa Steak House on the corner of Bishop Street and Hespeler Road.

Bob Jones' aerial image shows the corner back then.

It was a concept created by the same person behind The Red Barn and Frank Vetere's Pizzeria. 

adMr. Vetere created an inexpensive menu featuring a char-grilled t-bone steak with baked potato and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. The large backdrop signage displayed all the menu items that you could choose from while standing in a line up.

The whole family would be involved with lots of excitement shouting out their favourites.

Fish and chips, fried chicken and every steak cut and side dish you could imagine was on that menu. Many families would come bearing a handful of discount coupons for the Tuesday steak specials.

Just about everywhere you looked around the eatery, there was a lot of exciting energy spent shuffling back and forth from the free salad bar and the soda fountain.

When the staff servers would bring all those steak dinners and set them out for the numbered table identified by clips on your tray it was a"Wow-Wee" moment.

"I hope mine is as big and juicy as the one just got served at the next table," was something I often heard my brother exclaim. 

Everyone was enjoying the atmosphere and everywhere you looked were happy families that were smiling and laughing as they chowed down on a cheap and cheerful steak dinner.

A lot of area students and teens did the shifts at Ponderosa. Many high schoolers got their first cooking and serving jobs here. The many stories and friendships built during those shift work rehearsals still exist today. 

The latest technology for needle tenderizing and plumping tough and lean meat was used to make the Ponderosa steaks widely accepted by diners looking for an affordable steak dinner.

Here is a recipe used to tenderize inexpensive cuts of beef that I have used in addition to marinades that do an equally good job.

I found the origins of Canadian game marinades brought there by the Acadians from the east coast.

Because of early immigration of people from Spain and Portugal, followed by the British, different ethnic cultures began trading herbs and spices that were both native and brought from a far.

Here are some of my favorite rubs and tenderizing marinades that are fairly general.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your own taste so as to make it more personal.

Spicy Rub Mix for tenderizing steak

2 Tbs. smoked paprika

2 Tbs. cayenne pepper

1Ttbs. fresh ground black peppercorns,

2 Tbs. granulated garlic flakes.

3 Tbs. granulated onion flakes

2 Tbs. dried file’ gumbo

2 Tbs. Kosher or Sea Salt.

2 Tbs. olive oil

With the flat side of a French knife crush all the ingredients together until you have a powdery consistency. Use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle if you have one. Store in a glass bottle and use the rub on your favourite cut of meat, chicken, or seafood.

Kiwi Chicken Marinade

1 cup natural organic yoghurt

1 loose packed cup of fresh chopped mint.

4 Kiwi fruit skinned and mashed.

1 Tbs. fresh coriander seeds, crushed. 1 Dash of cayenne pepper.

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

2 Tbs. virgin olive oil.

Mix together the ingredients and smear over your chicken thighs or breasts to marinate. Chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Bake at 400 degrees on a baking sheet till juices run clear for about 30 minutes.

This marinade makes a roast lamb bbq on charcoal taste just like the Mediterranean Restaurants would serve.

Greek Style Lamb Marinade

1 Cup fresh rosemary needles, basil and oregano in equal amounts fine chopped 1 tsp of crushed cumin seeds 8 cloves garlic, crushed and minced.

1 Cup fresh olive oil 2 lemons, halved, juiced with the pulp.

1 Tbs. black pepper.

1 tbs of kosher salt optional

Mix ingredients together and thoroughly massage into the lamb roast or racks. Let the marinade work its flavours into the meat for at least 5 hrs. Use it for basting the lamb while on the BBQ grill for the final 15 minutes of cooking.

Marinades are great to add a personal flavour hit to any meat, fowl or seafood. When putting marinades on shellfish only marinate for a short period or it will cause the meat to become mushy after cooking.

Shrimp Marinade

1/2 cup olive oil.

1/2 cup vegetable oil.

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice.

2 tbs. tomato paste.

1/4 cup chopped parsley.

1 tbs. dried oregano. 1/2 tsp sea salt.

2 tbs. fresh grated garlic.

1 tsp hot pepper sauce.

Whisk all the ingredients together. Add to peeled shrimp and marinate for 30 minutes only. Keep marinade in a glass jar and keep refrigerated.

Pick a marinade and let's eat!

Chef Wayne Conrad Serbu writes monthly for CambridgeToday. The former executive chef also shares recipes and memories from his more than five decades in the hospitality industry on his blog, the kitchenman.