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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

The Great American Pub, Asian-Style

By Laura Leon

Back in the early 1970s, my friends and I were not allowed to go to Railroad Street in our hometown of Great Barrington, Mass., because it was a cesspool of dirty bars and drunken old men, or at least that’s what our parents said. There was an Army-Navy store near the intersection with Main Street, and we were allowed to go there in groups to shop for school clothes, but no farther. Then things started changing; there was an influx of idealistic young entrepreneurs who bought up and renovated properties here and there, and completely transformed the landscape. By my middle-school years, Railroad Street was the cool place to be, with interesting shops and eateries like Noodles and, notably, 20 Railroad. The former was a hybrid New American-Mediterranean, and had a healthy but relatively short lifespan; the latter was good bar food with some Moosewood Restaurant-type specials thrown in, and became a neighborhood mainstay for roughly three decades.

From its inception, my family regularly frequented 20 Railroad. It was a favorite catching-up place for college kids and others returning home for holidays, and comfortably greeted diners and drinkers of all stripes. (At least one Internet post claims there are men who have enjoyed an after-work beer there every workday for 20-plus years.) Then, in September 2008, my mother informed me that it was closing. My husband, thinking Mom had missed something in the translation, drove by to see for himself, and there it was, the usually bustling establishment, dark and empty, with a sign thanking townspeople for all the years of patronage. There was the official story—staffing problems—and the unauthorized versions shared by locals, but the simple fact was that Great Barrington had lost a much-loved treasure.

But this story has a very happy ending, or, more accurately, a new beginning, as last year 20 Railroad reopened under new management. The new owners, Tom and Huy Huynh, grew up in the business: Their parents owned the revered Kim’s Dragon Restaurant in West Pittsfield, once home to the best spring rolls this side of Montreal (the family still owns the Dragon, which has been closed for about a year; they plan to reopen it eventually, but are too busy now with 20 Railroad and other projects).

Tom Huynh was living in Florida when his brother Huy called him with news of the opportunity to buy 20 Railroad, which they did shortly after it was closed by then-owner Paul Dickinson. They sought to combine the comfort of the previous menu with Asian influences to reflect their own tastes and talents. “20 Railroad has been a living room for the locals for a long time, so there was a lot of anticipation” of the reopening, says Tom, who adds that there was little or no resistance to the changes in the menu. Besides the obvious advantage of the familiar location, Tom attributes the success of his restaurant to the fact that a lot of the clientele who frequented the Dragon already lived in South County (the half of Berkshire County south of Pittsfield). And Tom and Huy also had a celebrity boost for 20 Railroad: Their youngest sibling, Hung, was the winner of Bravo’s Top Chef in 2007.

While the 20 Railroad menu has remained relatively similar, with a heavy emphasis on burgers and hearty sandwiches, there are plenty of Asian influences. Of note, the dragon wings offer a pleasingly tangy alternative to the more traditional Buffalo-style wings, also available. Happily, the Huynhs have included Vietnamese spring rolls, a subtle blending of shrimp, pork and vegetables rolled in rice paper that’s crisped to perfection. Too often, spring rolls contain a lackluster filling, or are encased in a too-sweet pastry. This is not the case at 20 Railroad.

For those wanting something heartier, consider the compelling variety of burgers and toppings, which enable the most adventurous eater to experiment at will. First, you select the type of burger: certified black angus, Kobe beef, bison, grilled chicken, salmon or portabella mushroom. Then, choose a topping from among a variety of cheeses, applewood-smoked bacon, avocado and mushroom. Third, get even more creative by adding traditional accompaniments like lettuce, tomato or onion, or take it in a whole new direction with spinach, roasted or banana peppers, sprouts or olives. Finally, choose a sauce, like Hellman’s mayo, peppercorn parmesan dressing, cucumber wasabi mayo, ancho chipotle or Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce. We’ve shared several variations over the past year, and I simply cannot find any fault with any ingredient or with its presentation. Golden fries accompany the burgers. This is the kind of meal that makes me wish I could ski, if for no other reason than the post-lunch curative calorie burning . . .

For those a little more concerned with their waistlines, there’s a good selection of fresh salads, including a Santa Fe Shrimp salad composed of marinated grilled shrimp, a little crispy bacon, avocados, organic field greens, tomato, onion, sprouts, bell peppers, cucumbers, and roasted pepper, tossed with a citrusy vinaigrette. A salmon harvest salad includes blue cheese, raisins, apples, walnuts, and traditional salad vegetables.

It also is consistent with pub favorites like the turkey club, grilled pastrami Rueben, Philly cheese steak, and bratwurst topped with sauerkraut, all of which are perfect accompaniments to the restuarant’s fine selection of beers. Included among these are 20 craft beers like Ayinger Brau Weisse (Bavaria), Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale (Japan), Zatec Bright Lager (Czech Republic), and Lindemans Kriek Lambic (Belgium). There are also some organic beers and ciders, like Pinkus Organic Pils (Germany) and Samuel Smith Organic Cider.

The hosts are very welcoming, and the food is uniformly good; the only glitch in the rebirth of 20 Railroad is a very inconsistent wait staff. While I’ve never found any of the servers to be rude or short, there seems to be a breakdown when it comes to style of service. One person takes your order, and then you might not see that him or her again. Two or three people will attempt to take your drink order. When it comes time to pay, nobody appears, and getting your change can take another eternity. The kitchen, too, has been known to have trouble in timing; on our last visit, the two appetizers we ordered took 25 minutes to come out, with our mains arriving about three minutes later.

I’m willing to give 20 Railroad the benefit of the doubt that it can fix these problems, because it’s shown enough promise with its menu and welcoming atmosphere to warrant it. Given the family’s proven business experience, that shouldn’t be a problem. In the meantime, take the opportunity to enjoy this local favorite in its new incarnation.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Provence, Stuyvesant Plaza, 1475 Western Ave., Albany, 689-7777, provence-restaurant.net. Classical French cooking with some modern twists, from bouillabaisse to steak au poivre with plenty in between. Serving lunch 11:30-3 Mon-Sat, dinner 5-9 Mon, 5-10 Tue-Thu, 5-10:30 Fri-Sat, 4:30-8:30 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Joe’s Pizza Place & Restaurant, 2780 Hamburg St., Schenectady, 355-7700. Forty years of made-from-scratch pizzas along with a full menu of Italian specialties and American sandwiches. Serving 11-10 Mon, Wed-Thu, 11-11 Fri-Sat, 11-10 Sun. AE, MC, V.

Chez Daisie, 183 Jay St., Schenectady, 344-7082, chezdaisie.com. Sweet and savory crêpes offered on a bargain-priced menu in a quaint serve-yourself setting within sight of Proctors Theatre. Serving lunch 11-2 Mon-Fri, 9-2 Sat; dinner 5-7:30 Mon-Sat. MC, V.

Wolff’s Biergarten, 895 Broadway, Albany, 427-2461, wolffsbiergarten.com. A surprising variety of German fare in a wide-open space with hanging lights and picnic tables. Great selection of German beer. Serving 11 AM-2 AM Mon-Fri, 9 AM-2 AM Sat, 9 AM-midnight Sun. Lunch specials 11-4 daily. Brunch 9-4 Sat-Sun. Cash only (ATM on premises).

Turf Tavern, 40 Mohawk Ave., Scotia, 393-3344, turftavern.com. Scotia’s 60-year-old dining destination, offering excellent steaks and an old-fashioned attitude that includes old-fashioned prices. Serving lunch 11:30-1:30 Tue-Fri; dinner 5-9 Tue-Fri, 5-10 Sat, 11:30-8 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Aroma Bar & Grill, 485 Main St., Great Barrington, Mass., 413-528-3116. Aromabarandgrill.com. A broad array of traditional Indian fare is cooked with an extra emphasis on flavor and served with graciousness and aplomb. Serving lunch noon-3 Tue-Sun, dinner 5-9:30 Sun-Thu, 5-10 Fri-Sat. Sunday buffet noon-3. AE, D, MC, V.

Bros Tacos, 319 Ontario St., Albany, 935-1096. Tacos and burritos in homemade tortillas with imaginative fillings at very affordable prices. Serving 11-11 Tue-Sat, 1-8 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant, 307 Central Ave., Albany, 436-1868. Satisfy your craving for authentic pho, along with a generous array of characteristic meat and vegetable dishes, including curries, salads, and plenty of grilled items. Serving lunch 11-2:30 Tue-Sat, dinner 2:30-9 Tue-Thu, 2:30-10 Fri-Sat, 11-9 Sun. D, MC, V.



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