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Railroad Junction

December 07, 2008

By OMNI VORE

The dining room of the Railroad Junction at 808 Noland Street off U.S. 11, looks almost like a dining car on a train. When the clock on the wall strikes the hour, a train whistle blows. Pictures of trains in small frames line the paneled walls. Closer examination shows the pictures to be of the Western Maryland Railway Line, which had a roundhouse in Hagerstown.

On my first visit, I could see that Railroad Junction was a comfortable kind of place. The first items listed on the menu were desserts; next came the daily specials -- slippery pot pie on Monday; hog maws and liver and onions on Tuesday; pork and sauerkraut on Wednesday; meatloaf and fried chicken on Thursday; a fish fry on Friday and ribs on Saturday. Since I visited on Thursday, I ordered the meatloaf and two sides, carrots and red-jacket potatoes.

The room sat about 70 people in booths and at square tables. There was no music, only the sound of local accents and laughter and, in the distance, the whistle of a train.

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My meatloaf came. This was not my Irish mother's meatloaf, made with hamburger, bread crumbs, an egg and lots of horseradish and topped with Campbell's Tomato Soup and three strips of bacon. It was not my Czech mother-in-law's meatloaf -- a blend of ground veal, pork, beef, garlic, parsley and finely chopped onions, topped with a roux and garnished with mushrooms, caraway seeds or parsley.

Railroad Junction's meatloaf was classic American comfort food -- ground meat, green pepper, onion, Worchestershire sauce and corn meal and topped with gravy.

I reflected on the nature of comfort food. These foods dwell in the memories of our childhood. There is no single right way to make any of them. Ask 10 people how their mother made meatloaf and you will likely get 10 different recipes. So who am I to judge meatloaf? Good meatloaf deserves 100 stars, because it satisfies the emotions as well as the palate.

Rounding out my first visit, I ordered two slices of pie -- pumpkin and apple. The pies were fresh, homemade and, looking around the room, very popular. The apple pie had sugar and a dash of cinnamon. The pumpkin pie was not highly spiced and not too sweet.

On my second visit, large flakes of snow swirled outside. Chilled from the dash indoors, I ordered comfort foods -- grilled cheese sandwich and beef with vegetable soup. My companion ordered a steakand cheese sandwich.

It was lunchtime and Railroad Junction was packed. A woman and an elderly man sat next to us. She said, "Dad, you'll have to take the rest of the hog maws home." Hog maw -- the stomach lining of a pig -- is a regional specialty dish. I asked the woman about the restaurant's version. She said Railroad Junction prepared their hog maws with potatoes, cabbage and sausage -- "the Pennsylvania Dutch way," she said.

Stacy, our waitress, is also Railroad Junction's manager. She said the restaurant specializes in local dishes. Contributors to the local culture were German settlers, English landowners and Scotch and Irish workers. The menu's hog maws and sweet slaw originated with German cuisine. The beef with vegetable soup was Scotch-Irish. The English might claim the steak and cheese. All are now considered American.

The grilled cheese I ordered was a perfect, classic grilled cheese sandwich -- American cheese on grilled, square, white bread. The soup could have been made by my mother -- beef stock, chunks of beef, lots of lima beans, peas, carrots, onion, corn, tomato bits, potatoes and green beans.

My companion's steak and cheese was very good. He ordered it with grilled onions and a side of cole slaw. This slaw was fresh and crisp, with a touch of sweetness and vinegar.

On my third visit to Railroad Junction. I came for breakfast, the long day just starting. The restaurant serves Hoffman meats, but on the day I went, none of Hoffman's breakfast meats were available. I had bacon, biscuits, an egg over easy and coffee, and it was all good. The egg was perfect, the bacon was fried just right, and the biscuits were high, soft and Southern.

I had ordered a la carte, but my waitress charged my for one of the breakfast options. "It's cheaper if I charge you for No. 13," she said.

I understood what was so special about Railroad Junction -- personal attention, neighborly attitude, well-prepared traditional dishes.

Restaurant review:

Railroad Junction

4 (out of 5)

Food: 4 stars

Service: 4 stars

Ambiance: 4 stars

Value: 5 stars

Address: 808 Noland Drive, Hagerstown

Hours: 6 to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday for breakfast and from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday.

Style: Traditional American and regional dishes

Phone: 240-625-9022

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