I've noticed over the years that an invisible line seems to divide the residents of Omaha.
No matter where you live — downtown, midtown, west Omaha — you tend to dine out close to home.
There's nothing wrong with exploring the eateries in your neighborhood, but, in a city with hundreds of restaurants, proximity shouldn't dictate the search for great food. I was reminded of that during three recent visits to Railcar Modern American Kitchen, far from my neighborhood but worth the drive.
On two of our visits, at lunch and brunch, Railcar prepared the kind of food that could draw diners from across the city. On a dinner visit, the food was just average, though with some changes it would have equaled the other meals.
Railcar's menu boasts classic American fare inspired by the idea that the railroad brought a diverse population to Omaha.
Chef-owner Jared Clarke opened his railroad-themed restaurant at 144th and Blondo Streets in early December. Before that, he was the chef at Blue Agave, which closed last July. He also was chef at Blue Sushi Sake Grill and spent time working in Chicago restaurants.
Railcar's interior is open and inviting, with high ceilings and comfy chairs. Actual railroad-themed items are sparse, mostly a map and a few vintage railroad prints. Tabletops are made of the recycled gymnasium floor from Westside High School.
The only televisions in the restaurant were in the bar area, and my husband and I appreciated that. A smaller dining room is reserved for large parties.
When we visited for lunch, our server arrived promptly with drinks and offered suggestions on his favorite dishes. He told us Clarke uses local and organic ingredients whenever possible.
Railcar's menu is the same for both lunch and dinner, with the addition of a “specials” card at night. We stuck with lighter lunch items.
We shared the short rib flatbread as an appetizer, and while we waited for it, our server brought us a small round loaf of pretzel bread with a ramekin of butter. The bread was crispy on the outside and had a warm, soft interior.
The short rib flatbread was delightful. Cut into strips, it was perfect for sharing and easy to eat. The meat was tender and savory, and the crispy potatoes and white cheddar cheese were perfect accompaniments. The flatbread was topped with a tangy red wine glaze and minced chives.
Clarke told me in an interview later that the cheddar comes from Jisa's Farmstead Cheese, in Brainard, and the beef is from Little Red Barn in Omaha.
I chose the white cheddar burger with Railcar's house fries, and I was in burger heaven. The nicely seared and well-seasoned ground beef was perfectly cooked to a juicy medium-rare and served on a lightly toasted brioche bun.
Tomatoes, melted white cheddar and house-made pickles complemented the beef nicely and a sauce made from mustard, chopped pickles, ketchup, mayonnaise and cayenne pepper added a savory and spicy kick.
The fries were well-seasoned, crispy and not greasy.
My husband's herb-crusted turkey club also came with fries. The house-roasted turkey was topped with white cheddar, avocado slices, maple dijon mustard, applewood smoked bacon and thinly sliced apple. The apple made it one of the best club sandwiches my husband has had.
Clarke said the bacon comes from Nueske's Smoked Meats in Wittenberg, Wis. He said the applewood smoke gives the bacon a more robust flavor. My husband agreed.
On our second visit, we saw some missteps.
Dinner started with the B&O Maryland-style crab cakes appetizer from the specials card. When I think of crab cakes, I imagine them plump, crispy and packed with crabmeat. What arrived were two small, thin pancakes placed atop a heavy mustard sauce. Though the cakes were well-seasoned and I could taste the corn, red pepper, celery and green onion inside, the texture was too soft and the outsides weren't crispy. The sauce tasted mostly of mayonnaise.
The cakes also were served on a brown platter, and the dish as a whole blended into the color of the table. I would serve them on a white platter.
Clarke said that the dish was plated wrong and that the crab cakes are normally served alongside the sauce, not directly on it.
I ordered the cherry ribs served with roasted peanut coleslaw and house fries. You can get a full or half order of ribs, and I'm glad I went with the half, as the portion was quite large.
The red oak-smoked, all-natural St. Louis ribs are served with a house-made cherry barbecue sauce. They were flavorful but a little dry, and I couldn't taste a distinct cherry flavor in the sauce.
The coleslaw was a nice alternative to the mayonnaise-based coleslaw normally served with ribs, and it had a subtle peanut flavor and a nice crunch. But its Asian flavor was oddly out of place next to a rack of ribs.
Clarke said the slaw is one of their more popular side items.
My husband ordered Majestic Pork Normandy, four pork medallions with a brandied apple butter and cauliflower hash.
The pork, from Omaha-based Truebridge Foods, was moist and tender, but the sauce totally overwhelmed it. When we mentioned the amount of sauce to our server, he agreed that it might have been too much. The cauliflower hash was savory, but it didn't save the entree. With less sauce, this would be a winner.
We went to Railcar for Sunday brunch, and things were better.
Railcar has some dishes from the regular menu and a variety of brunch selections on Sunday morning, all served with fresh fruit.
I chose the eggs Florentine: two poached eggs with sauteed garlic, spinach, crimini mushrooms, oven-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and sauce Choron, a Bťarnaise made with tomato paste.
It was delightfully savory. The perfectly poached eggs and the oven-roasted tomatoes together tasted delicious.
My only complaint was the portion size relative to the price. At $12, the price was a little high for such a small dish. If it had come with hash or toast, it would have been more complete.
My husband ordered the chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican dish of fresh corn tortillas, lightly fried and topped with salsa or sauce.
The toppings here were roasted chicken al pastor seasoned with a marinade made from chiles, cheddar cheese, house salsa, red onion, avocado, creme fraiche and two fried eggs. Think outstanding breakfast nachos.
The mix of textures and flavors was well-balanced and the addition of Clarke's housemade salsa — charred tomatoes, cilantro, onion and garlic — was tasty.
The majority of the menu items run between $8 and $16. A meal at Railcar won't break the bank.
Clarke and his staff have a good thing going. With adjustments, I think they'll find themselves among the ranks of Omaha's best restaurants, attracting diners from the far corners of the River City.
Sara Blake of Omaha is an avid home cook and an adventurous eater. She blogs at stalk my kitchen.