The newest ALCO eatery offers an only-in-America menu that’s both super indulgent and completely irresistible. Did we mention it has bacon?
Photography by Angel Tucker
311 Iron Horse Way, Providence, 865-6186, 311ironhorseway.com. Hours Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; dinner only on Saturday. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Lot parking. Cuisine If the Fourth of July had a flavor. Capacity 75. Vibe Men’s club meets industrial chic. Prices Appetizers $4–$15, entrees $10–$39, dessert $6–$7. Karen’s picks Pork wings, chips, burgers, fried chicken, steaks. And, of course, bacon.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
“The American” certainly is. Paneled in stately wood and sitting beneath mammoth beams emblazoned with U.S. STEEL, it’s a fascinating hybrid of patriotic personalities: the offspring of industrialist fortune and the working class who built it. Legions of locomotive legends and financiers — Vanderbilt, Morgan, Rockefeller, Astor — stare down from the walls of what was once American Locomotive Works factory, human vestiges of the original big business. The ALCO plant is now subdivided, but if sweat and sore backs were in the east end, Vanderbilt and his cronies would surely be sniffing brandy at the American bar on the west.
The space seems massive, thanks to the twenty-foot ceilings, but it holds a snug seventy-five. Chandeliers drip precipitously from the ceiling while bankers’ lights illuminate the bar, both marks of capitalist reward. Five sweeping booths fill the back wall for those arriving early — and with no other purpose than to secure a superlative seat.
But for all its masculine regality, the restaurant retains a strong sense of modesty. Aesthetics aside, you could almost call it a dressed-up diner, abounding with burgers, pot pies and baked casseroles. Stripped down to its essence, however, the American’s culinary identity could be summed up in a single word: bacon. The humble pig might not get as much affection across the ocean but, stateside, we love our pork. Moreover, we adore it because it’s casual: smoked in the South, grilled in the Northeast, slathered in Midwestern barbecue sauce, it’s a native son that shows up all over the menu, bringing this dignified space down to earth.
In this new America, it’s not only acceptable to drink beer with your entrée, it’s encouraged.
Owners Jerry and Michelle Hoff, who also hold the Abbey and Buster Krab’s under the auspices of their Adirondack Group, speak informal fare proficiently. But this new venture has a different approach; it’s familiar but still definitively urbane. Sure, there are platters of raw seafood — oysters, littlenecks, cherrystones, shrimp — but it’s the Steakhouse Bacon, cut a quarter-inch thick and served with nothing more than a saber-toothed steak knife, that demands attention. At $3.50 a slice, it’s part culinary indulgence (seriously meaty and just slightly sweetened) and part sideshow. So, too, with the “pork wings,” braised hind legs with an exposed bone that feel like a Southern picnic with some degree of civility. (No wet-naps needed.) But if there’s a requisite plate, it’s the crunchy housemade potato chips dusted in parmesan cheese and truffle oil. Not only because it’s a dish that long ago made its way into the national culinary vernacular but because it’s a dish at all. If anyone can call potato chips a “course,” it’s an American. A proud, sated, still-ordering-another-one American.
Like the menu, the crowd is a crossroads of indigenous culture. Leather and leopard print are in one booth, madras and khakis in another. Grandma and Grandpa sit with Jonah crab claws at the bar, a quartet of emo, artisan beer-drinkers lounge at a table near the window. Tired of being told by Europeans that they’re too loud, self-absorbed or dissolute, they’ve found common ground in a place that disproves the cliche — or indulges it if need be. Broiled cod is entirely without judgment as is the Dubya pot pie, which allows everyone into the inner circle of “with us” rather than “against us.” (Granted, George’s chicken is a little dry but he’s still fun to have a beer with.) Better yet is the Wednesday night fried chicken, served with honey and a week’s worth of potatoes, or the Yankee pot roast that evokes any kinda mama — as long as she’s into heirloom carrots and Tater Tots that resemble elevated latkes.
But let’s not pretend the cornerstone of modern United States consumerism isn’t brazen indulgence. Let’s just man up and admit that we like things decadent, triple-portioned and covered with cheese. It’s all accounted for in the lobster mac and cheese, cream-coated stuffed mushrooms and party-sized wedges of baked brie. For those who still approach Americana abstemiously, there is a retro corner in which health comes just before nostalgia. Old fashioned Cobb, steak and Waldorf manifest the country’s salad days and, yes, two of them do have bacon onboard in case asceticism is not your thing.
It’s evident, however, that any real American endeavor is going to be a beef showdown, and it is. Steak goes up against burgers and there’s no obvious winner in this formidable duel. Steaks are a la carte (with the exception of mushrooms, blue cheese or garlic butter) while burgers are covered in anything one could conceivably fit on a bun. Cheddar, brie, spinach, dried cherries, apples, walnuts, ham, havarti, fresh dill or, duh, bacon tower on top of ten ounces of Angus with a tangle of fries so big you’ll never find your way out. At $16 for the signature version, it’s an issue more of fondness than funds and, even on a Saturday night, there are a lot of burgers being paired with red wine.
As word of mouth spreads, however, the American has taken to filling its large foyer with private parties that don’t affect seating but occasionally make their mark on service. “You sure picked the right night, huh?” laughs a hostess-turned-server as she negotiates the narrow walkways. Is this what capitalism is all about? Generally not, given that the Hoffs are making sure guests are happy on the busiest nights and, when things go awry, they’re quick to comp antsy diners with a towering slab of mud pie or Boston cream. Desserts, not surprisingly, are too big, too sweet and exactly what is needed. After all, in this day, age and economic state, catering to your audience may be the country’s best commodity — and it’s rare to see anyone in the American willingly give up their seat. Whether the restaurant can achieve harmony between blue and white collars, particularly during an election year, remains to be seen. But the primary sure as hell tastes good.