By Kara Kimbrough
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a favorite Jackson eatery from my earliest days in Jackson returned to its original downtown location several years ago after suffering not one, but two fires. First opening in 1986, Iron Horse Grill quickly became known for putting a Southern spin on Southwestern cuisine; so good that even someone like me who normally doesn’t choose the spicy cuisine considered it a tragedy when the cavernous restaurant closed, seemingly for good, in 1999. But now it’s back, serving up sumptuous steaks, seafood, burgers, chicken, and, my favorite, sizzling fajitas served with the best sour cream sauce I’ve ever tasted.
First, I want to share a little history on the iconic landmark with roots dating back over 100 years. In the early 1900s, the sprawling brick building, located minutes from the State Capitol, was the site of the Armour Company Smoke House and Distribution Plant. After the Armour plant closed in 1977, the building was vacant for years before being repurposed in 1986 as a restaurant that became a popular place to eat, drink, and enjoy live music.
In my vivid imagination, lingering smoke from the old plant wafted through the brick walls of the adjoining dining rooms as I dined with friends at Iron Horse. Of course, the delicious aroma most likely originated from present-day meat smokers, but it made the Iron Horse experience even more memorable.
Sadly, destructive fires in 1998 and 1999 extinguished any plans to revitalize the location once again and, sadly, the building sat vacant until 2013. But upon opening, Iron Horse quickly attracted its former clientele and gained a whole new generation of diners who know quality food and entertainment when they see it.
But don’t expect to visit Iron Horse – named, by the way, for the steam locomotives that passed by the smoke house in the old days – expecting to solely see a restaurant. The building, highlighted by massive ceilings, old wood, heavy beams and brick touches, also contains a museum, gift shop, bar area, and live music venue. In short, visiting Iron Horse is an “experience” that goes well beyond delicious food. However, there is plenty of that to be had.
For starters, most of the appetizers are tasty and hearty enough to serve as a meal. You can’t visit Iron Horse without sampling its famous trio of spicy, sweet, and house versions of guacamole, along with spicy, crispy tortilla chips ($10.95). Another can’t-miss is nachos locos ($8.95), a loaded plate of ground beef, cheese, guacamole, chopped veggies, and sauces.
Other appetizers you’ll be tempted to try include soul train hot wings with dipping sauce ($10.95), hot tamales served with the delectable sour cream sauce and Ranchero sauce ($10.95), and soul city seafood dip ($9.95) filled with sautéed shrimp, crawfish, crabmeat, and Parmesan cheese.
Steering you to the charcoal-grilled fajitas section of the menu is something I can do with a clear conscience. Iron Horse serves some of the best, if not the best, fajitas I’ve ever tasted. I’m not sure if it’s the char-grilled meat and vegetables or lingering smoke from the Armour plant, but they are quite simply perfection. Just don’t forget to request sour cream sauce if it is not served with your meal. I promise, you’ll be thanking me for years to come.
You won’t be disappointed with any of the grilled, marinated offerings, ranging from chicken or beef tenderloin ($14.95 each) to shrimp ($15.95) or combo ($16.95) offering steak, chicken, or shrimp. Each one is served with rice and beans, toppings, and sauces.
If you’re not in the mood for Southwestern fare, scroll down to the burgers. The memory of a giant smokehouse burger ($10.95) topped with hickory smoked bacon and char-grilled onions lingered in my mind long after the smoke had cleared from the fires. Another great one is the Iron Horse burger ($11.95) topped with cheese, guacamole, jalapeños, and salsa.
There’s also Philly cheesesteak, seafood tacos ($12.95), and chicken wrap ($12.95 each) from which to choose if you’re searching for a creative alternative to burgers.
Under “Iron Horse Favorites” are dishes like beef or chicken enchiladas and chimichangas ($12.95), fried chicken ($13.95), shrimp and grits ($18.95), smoke stack baby back ribs ($17.95), and Chef Pierre’s habanero pasta with chicken or shrimp ($15.95-$17.95). Each entrée is served with perfectly-paired sides.
As if “favorites” aren’t enough, a long list of house specialties can make the ordering process even more difficult. These include the shrimp plate ($16.95), stuffed Delta catfish ($17.95), 14-ounce ribeye ($31.95), grilled redfish ($18.95), and seafood pasta ($19.95). Vegetables and other complementary sides are served with each dish.
Additional sides ($4 range) include Delta Grind cheese grits, depot spiced fries, fried okra, garlic mashed potatoes, and mac and cheese.
The Iron Horse Express runs Monday – Friday, offering daily blue plate specials ($10.95) from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. for diners on the go. Selections include red beans and rice, tacos with rice and beans, baby back ribs, fiesta bowl, and fried Delta catfish.
Besides being a vital part of the Jackson culinary scene, owners of Iron Horse place a great importance on utilizing Mississippi-grown products, ranging from grits to seafood, catfish, chicken, pork, and even pickles produced by state producers and farmers.
Iron Horse Grill is located at 320 West Pearl St. in downtown Jackson. Hours are Monday –Wednesday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; until 10 p.m. on Thursday and until 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours are 10:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.