Many of us look at an unused and timeworn historical building and a wave of nostalgia sweeps over us as we imagine what life was like when that building teemed with activity. Some see such a building as a pig in need of lipstick, nothing a coat of paint and a few nails can’t fix up. Others see that same edifice as having served its purpose, a structure which should be razed to make room for a modern complex. Still others view a weathered building as a thing of beauty from which they draw inspiration. For restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory, driving by the Santa Fe Freight House nearly two decades ago planted the seed for an idea that took years to germinate.
The long-time owner of The Range Café and Standard Diner drew inspiration from the two story Mission-Revival façade, envisioning it as the potential site of a restaurant with the thematic look and feel of the railroad industry which once thrived in Albuquerque. Because of the historical nature of the building, DiGregory was unable to realize that particular dream at that particular location. In 2015, he did the next best thing, launching The Freight House Kitchen & Tap Room, a restaurant inspired by the grand Santa Freight House. The restaurant is located in the yawning complex which previously housed the Flying Star on Bernalillo’s heavily trafficked Camino Del Pueblo. Fittingly, the Freight House Kitchen is in close proximity to the town’s Railrunner stop.
It’s easy to see why the Santa Fe Freight House was such an inspiration to DiGregory. Though constructed some seven decades ago and currently in disuse, the Santa Fe Freight House remains an impressive structure. Located on First Street practically beneath Lead Avenue, the building is emblazoned with red neon signage which reads “Santa Fe Freight House” flanked by the words “Rail” and “Truck.” Lintels, window sills, base and canals are made of concrete while the stucco is a greyish adobe. The Freight House was one of the last additions to the sprawling railyard made by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. It is on the National Historic Register.
The halcyon days of the railroad is revisited at DiGregory’s Freight House Kitchen, a bustling establishment with 176-seating spaces on two levels and two expansive patios. Even the restaurant’s logo is thematic, depicting a locomotive engine designated “FR8” barreling down the track. Framed vintage photographs of life around the railyards festoon the brick walls, but the true masterpiece is a painting of the restaurant’s historic namesake. Even the wait staff gets into the act, sporting shirts emblazoned with clever play-on-words slogans such as “The Chew Chew Crew” and “We Smoke The Good Stuff.”
The Freight House Web site purports to “raise the bar on bar food,” showcasing gastropub fare–high quality, freshly prepared food several orders of magnitude superior to the stereotypical pub grub of yore. During the railroad’s prosperous past, you could find food of this caliber near a railyard only at Fred Harvey establishments. The menu is very eclectic, offering both “chili” and “chile” (and you thought never the twain shall meet) as well as a number of sandwiches, burgers, plates and smoked items. Brunch is served on Sundays from 9AM to 3PM.
If appetizers are the preamble to a great meal, The Freight House’s “Snacks,” an inventive array of comfort food starters, will get you started on the right foot. The Snacks menu has so many intriguing options, in fact, that ordering two…or ten would constitute a very good meal. Our early favorite is the pickled veggies, a colorful mélange of pickled al dente vegetables (crisp carrots, cauliflower, green beans and celery) arranged artfully on a rectangular plate. Sometimes pickling vegetables brings out the worse in them, particularly when those vegetables are imbued with lip-pursing sour properties that take away their native freshness and flavor. Among the pickling spices used by the Freight House chef are cardamom and juniper berries, two aromatics with strong, distinctive flavors. They impart an invigorating quality to the vegetables that you’ll enjoy immensely even if you think you don’t like vegetables.
Another Freight House appetizer, the tempura green beans with Manchego, is almost a polar opposite to the pickled vegetables. Where the pickled vegetables are garden-fresh and crisp, this fried dish is crispy in other ways. Green beans are sheathed with a light tempura batter and fried to a crispy texture then sprinkled generously with shredded Manchego, a mild, nutty-flavored Spanish cheese. The green beans are served with a creamy green chile ranch dressing with a little kick and lots of flavor. Reflecting on the Freight House’s Snacks menu, you have to wonder if the chef isn’t consciously also trying to get children of all ages to eat their vegetables…and we would if they all tasted this good.
From the smoker, you’ll find such summer favorites as baby back ribs, beer canned chicken, smoked prime rib (Friday and Saturday nights) and a smoked bison meatloaf served with garlic mashed potatoes topped with a barbecue glaze and green beans. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes is a comfort food combination favorite that has made generations pine for a nap immediately after consuming a plateful or two. Being a very lean meat, bison offers a slightly different textural experience than beef, but its sweeter, more intense flavor more than makes up for any textural difference. A tangy barbecue sauce is slathered on generously to imbue the meatloaf with a summery, smoky feel. You’ll want to ask for the restaurant’s green chile gravy (maybe even an extra portion) to enliven the mashed potatoes. It’s an excellent green chile gravy.
Beer can chicken—sometimes called chicken on a throne or dancing chicken—earns its name because of its preparation style. An entire chicken is placed over an opened, partially-filled can of beer. The chicken must be placed on a grill in an upright position in order for this dish to work. The heat of the grill warms the can, causing the beer inside to evaporate. Ostensibly, the beer, now in gaseous state, fills the inside of the chicken, imparting moistness and flavor to the chicken. While it may disappoint some diners that you don’t taste the beer at all, most of us are in it for the chicken, not the beer. The Freight House’s BBQ beer can chicken is indeed moist and tender with a mild smokiness. Few things go better with beer can chicken than mac n’ cheese, a rich, molten, cheesy version the restaurant does well.
The Freight House dessert menu is a winner, offering a number of innovative options that will make choosing a challenge. If it’s on the menu, one unique and delicious option is the olive oil rosemary ice cream cake topped with a peach compote. Ice cream is made on the premises in flavors that go well beyond vanilla and chocolate. Olive oil and rosemary is one such example. Too much rosemary and it could overwhelm the flavor profile. The olive oil also poses textural challenges. Kudos to the chef for optimizing the proportions of each ingredient to create a deliciously decadent (without being overly rich) ice cream . The peach compote serves as a very nice foil.
If a visit to the Freight House Kitchen & Tap Room doesn’t inspire you to travel the rails, it will inspire you to come back to see what the inventive kitchen staff is cooking up. It’s bound to be good.
Freight House Kitchen & Tap
200 South Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pickled Veggies, Tempura Green Beans with Manchego, Bison Meatloaf, Olive Oil Rosemary Ice Cream Cake, BBQ Bear Can Chicken