Carla Meyer

Dining review: Iron Horse Tavern offers a bumpy ride

Video dining review: Iron Horse Tavern offers bumpy ride

Well-designed and large yet cozy space impresses more than the food. Video by Carla Meyer. Photos by Carla Meyer and Lezlie Sterling. The Sacramento Bee
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Well-designed and large yet cozy space impresses more than the food. Video by Carla Meyer. Photos by Carla Meyer and Lezlie Sterling. The Sacramento Bee

Iron Horse Tavern stands at 15th and R streets as a 6,000-square-foot, handsomely appointed testament to R Street Corridor’s emergence as Sacramento’s hottest destination for dining.

The 4-month-old restaurant/bar draws big crowds even on a Tuesday evening, when our wait for a table was 25 minutes. For Sunday brunch, that wait can increase to 45 minutes.

Those are cool-your-hunger Bacon & Butter numbers, for a restaurant whose food does not approach Bacon & Butter’s in quality.

There’s just that one hitch to the obvious success of Iron Horse, which serves American comfort food with Asian and Mexican inflections and marks another expansion move by brothers Mason, Alan and Curtis Wong (Cafeteria 15L, Ma Jong’s, Mix Downtown) and their corporate chef, Christian Palmos. Although there were bright spots during our visits, and the space impressed, the dining experience disappointed overall.

Several dishes at Iron Horse were under-seasoned, most notably the beef short rib “strogi.” Though the rib meat was cooked well, giving in easily to a fork, the pappardelle noodles below it lacked flavor beyond that of unsalted boiled water.

The “trio of macs” we ordered – truffle, lobster and bacon and egg – from the menu’s “mac bar” section also were bland, save for the bacon one. But that bacon seemed to do all the seasoning work in the dish.

Iron Horse’s eggs Benedict cleverly substitutes a tasty hash-brown base for bread. But the Sriracha hollandaise sauce lacked the tanginess that’s so essential to Benedict.

Those were gentle misfires compared with the Korean fried chicken, a rice-bowl entree that evokes get-rid-of-the-leftovers-night at your mom’s house in its forced companionship of flavors and textures.

The sweet-spicy glaze covering boneless pieces of chicken breast offers plenty of flavor and kick. But that glaze grows cloying when combined with the pickled carrots and cucumbers and pungent kimchi.

The dish’s white rice was hard and stuck to the teeth. It suggested the bottom of a rice cooker or day-old takeout that was microwaved after sitting in the fridge for a day.

Two fried eggs on top add a slippery consistency to a dish already made texturally eccentric by rice stiffness and kimchi squish. Once one digs into the egg, and warm yolk runs over the kimchi – which is cool in temperature and so redolent of garlic that the neighbors will talk – the incompatibility of ingredients turns acute.

It’s hard to think of another new restaurant in recent history whose popularity stood in such contrast to its food quality. It’s not as if the place still just draws first-timers. A friend told me she’s visited Iron Horse several times, and although the food does not impress her, she returns because pals want to meet for drinks and appetizers.

When considering its whole package, it’s not that hard to see why Iron Horse would attract repeat customers. Prices for specialty cocktails (all $10), appetizers ($13 or less) and entrees (most below $20) are reasonable even without happy-hour discounts (half off appetizers, $3 off specialty cocktails), and the food portions are substantial.

The place itself, which sits in a heavily renovated former state office building, invites even more than the prices do. Its brick walls, wide-plank wood floors and black banquettes combine for a look that’s muscular without being too masculine, and that would fit in any time period from 1948 forward.

Inside, Iron Horse resembles the big steakhouses one sees in Chicago or on Wall Street. But tall glass doors that open onto a patio offering plentiful – and well spaced-out – seating is pure West Coast.

Servers are efficient and just solicitous enough. They’re too busy to attempt much small talk. The air, on our visits, was one of relaxed bonhomie rather than rowdiness, despite Iron Horse’s prominent bar area and multiple TVs.

The crowd on our visits ranged from late 20s to early 50s, with lots of male-female couples and groups of women. The see-and-be-seen factor within this crowd, though not as high as at Shady Lady or Fish Face Poke Bar down the street, also does not run as low as at the casual R Street spots R15/Café Bernardo, Burgers and Brew, and Fox & Goose.

The Wongs appear to have found a demographic sliver being underserved on R and seized on it. That’s probably why they run a local restaurant/nightclub empire that includes a new Iron Horse outlet planned for the Sacramento International Airport.

I’ve had better meals at all those other R Street restaurants than at Iron Horse. Yet it still beckons, because the space invites and I know what to order now. And the good dishes are good enough to suggest potential for a better menu in the future.

Palmos’ fusion approach works beautifully in the tuna-poke nachos appetizer. A sesame-soy dressing enhances the ahi tuna’s fresh flavor, which is then zinged by wasabi and Sriracha mayos. Fresh tomato slows the heat’s roll before chunks of avocado soothe the tongue. The dish’s wonton chips maintain their crisp integrity under plentiful, often wet, ingredients.

Iron Horse serves breakfast daily and brunch on weekends. We leaned hard on the “brunch” portmanteau one Sunday, ordering pizza alongside breakfast food. This meal entailed three highly satisfying dishes.

The tangy whipped cream cheese atop the cinnamon-roll pancakes adds dimension to its powdered-sugar and cinnamon neighbors.

Iron Horse’s margherita pizza features a sturdy yet airy thick crust, a brisk tomato sauce and a NFE (not for everybody) element that works well: whole, roasted garlic cloves. Mild and creamy, the garlic enhances rather than overwhelms the other flavors.

The everything-in-the-refrigerator approach that failed on the Korean chicken succeeds with the loco moco. This fortifying Hawaiian-style dish starts with flavor-packed fried rice before adding hamburger patties and brown gravy. Sunny-side-up eggs top the whole thing, their yolks finding an appropriately fat-layered textural home here.

The loco moco hit the comfort-food spot among my companions who tried it, though one said she would have liked it better if she were 25 again and hung over.

One of those states still can be achieved, though likely not via the disappointing drinks we sampled at Iron Horse. They do not encourage multiple rounds. The Rusty Wheel, made with Bulleit Rye and Drambuie, comes with a lemon twist but cries out for more citrus, to offset its sweetness.

A brunch-only beef-jerky Bloody Mary tastes less interesting than it sounds. The jerky is house-made, but also teriyaki-flavored, lending a sweetness that the Big Daddy’s mix used in the drink does little to counter.

Either Big Daddy or the bartender went too heavy on the Worcestershire or some other element that made the drink taste heavily of steak sauce. For those of us who like our Bloody Marys with bright, salty, savory flavors that play off the tomato acidity, a Brown Mary won’t do.

Iron Horse Tavern

1800 15th St., Sacramento, 916-448-4488, www.ironhorsetavern.net

Hours: 8 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Tuesday. 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday

Drinks: Vodka, whiskey, rum and gin specialty cocktails. Limited list of red, white and sparkling wines, including Northern California options. Craft beers include offerings from New Helvetia, Track 7, Rubicon and Oak Park Brewing Co.

Noise level: Moderate

Ambiance: The brick walls, wide-plank wood floors and black banquettes give the place the air of one of those big steakhouses in Chicago or near Wall Street, and the air is one of relaxed bonhomie. Despite Iron Horse’s prominent bar area and many TVs, things never became too loud during our visits.

Overall

The building, and the feel within it, impress, but the food disappoints, as did the drinks we tried.

Food  1/2

The “trio of macs” and the beef-shortrib “strogi” led with blandness. The hollandaise sauce on the eggs Benedict lacked any hint of tanginess. The rice-bowl-style Korean fried chicken tasted like leftovers thrown together without enough thought. The loco moco, by contrast, tasted like leftovers thrown together with plenty of thought.

Service  1/2

Efficient and just solicitous enough (these people are busy). There were a few delays in receiving items, and once in settling the bill..

Value

Appetizers run $13 or less, and most entrees cost less than $20. Portions are generous. Whether that equals value depends on the dish. The delicious tuna poke nachos ($12.95) seem like a deal. But the beef-shortrib “strogi” ($18.95), with its flavorless noodles, is no bargain.

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