Iron Horse jumps around from craft cocktails, gut-busting food, and a faint theme of daredevil motorcyclists

Iron Horse jumps around from craft cocktails, gut-busting food, and a faint theme of daredevil motorcyclists

316 W. Fourth St. Royal Oak

248-291-6313 Handicap accessible

Tacos: $3

Starters: $5-$11

Mains: $8-$25

Pizzas: $8 and up

First of all, the door is on the left, because you have to enter the building to enter the restaurant. (You'll thank us later.) And what is an Iron Horse? Our server told us that the "iron horse" moniker is actually a reference to the train that linked Royal Oak with Detroit in the 1800s. Then again, there is a life-sized, 6-foot-tall print of Evel Knievel with his iron horse overlooking the main dining area, so more than one definition may apply.

It's a handsome space. The front area admits natural light, and the white tiles on one wall give it an informal feel, like a good place to drop in for lunch or a midday drink. Venture into the back of the joint, and it's mostly dark wood on the walls, what you might expect in a classy Irish pub or businessmen's club. A few other details add complexity, such as an exposed black I-beam and fanciful chandeliers in the rear that provide a continual twilight, with their large, incandescent globes dimly glowing with oversized filaments. The rear seems like a great place to gulp down a few cocktails and leave the contemporary world far behind, an illusion only broken when you have to use the restrooms, which means parading past a hair salon to shared facilities within the building.

Service is fast and pleasant, for the most part avoiding those little interrogations when you have a mouthful. Dishes arrived quickly — maybe a little too quickly when you consider what weighty dishes they can be!

For instance, my co-diner and I ordered nachos from the "starters" portion of the menu, an $11 plate of corn chips, refried beans, queso fresco, shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, and avocado. We asked them to top it off with steak and chorizo for $8 more. (We could have also asked for chicken, carnita, and chicken salsa at $4 each.) This is a sizable plate for even two people. We were still mounting our assault on this Mount Taco when our sandwiches arrived. I guess we could have said to hold up on them, but soon we had a table full of plates — and nachos getting cold while we grazed on richer dishes.

Those would include the Iron Horse's Angus Prime Burger, ordered by my co-diner, with lettuce, red onion, and tomato on an egg bun, ordered medium well and with cheddar, and potato chips on the side. It was appropriately juicy, but he seemed unimpressed. (He did, however, eat the whole thing.) We also were brought the meatball sub ­— meatballs with pizza sauce, caramelized onions, peppers, and a five-cheese blend, again served with potato chips. If there were onions and peppers in there, their flavors got lost in the sweetness of the pizza sauce and the cheese. The meatballs were good, thankfully not oversized, and it was probably the daintiest meatball sub we've had.

Better still were the tacos, which were quite good, all the more impressive for the use of white onions and cilantro. (They sneak the cheese in between the doubled-up corn tortillas, a neat trick that holds them together and hides that bit of Americanized heresy.) The mahi mahi taco we had was probably the best and simplest ever, devoid of all those tricky adornments (think jicama slaw, habanero guac, garlic aoli) you sometimes find elsewhere. Our single complaint is a strange one: The wedge of lime was too dry to coax even a drop of juice onto this taco.

Why is that strange? Because the bar seems to purr like a fine-tun engine, which would seem totally at odds with compromised fruit. In fact, the drink we had, the "Evel Fashioned" (there's that motorcycle theme creeping in again), was excellent, on par with drinks we've had at bars that specialize in the craft cocktail, though the ice cubes were a bit on the grande side. In fact, the drinks menu is longer by far than the eats menu, with 11 specialty cocktails averaging $10, six draft beers, 23 bottles, and five red and five white wines by the bottle or the glass. There are also dozens of whiskeys and whiskies, including that $38 shot of Johnnie Walker Blue for those who must have it. There are also 22 tequila choices, as you'd expect, given the menu's Mexican tilt.

Overall, however, one thing seems odd about Iron Horse: It is exactly the sum of its parts. In a five-star eatery, all the details complement one another to undergird that overall excellence. At Iron Horse, some things work together, such as the clubby feel of the dark wood and the excellent cocktail service. But when it's paired with a gut-busting, American-friendly menu of burgers, burritos, and tacos, and a faint theme of daredevil motorcyclists, the opportunity to craft a strong, overarching identity is largely missed. Should the kitchen serve Mexican fare and pizza and a rack of ribs? How do even the most finger-lickingest ribs build upon the quality cocktail service?

And yet, for most of the drinkers and diners drawn by what Iron Horse has to offer, this will be a remote complaint. In fact, after downing several of the joint's artfully prepared cocktails, that rack of ribs might be just the thing to help you avoid that late night crash.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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