When Parkville restaurateur Kevin Heaton — probably best known for his Stone Canyon Pizza, on the riverfront hamlet's main drag — took over the vacated Agave Mexican Grill & Cantina last spring, he turned the mediocre Parkville Commons venue into a cozy saloon serving craft beer and burgers.
Beer and burgers are what most local taverns — or saloons or bars or joints or anyplace where the booze is a greater draw than the cuisine — traditionally offer. And when it opened in May, Rusty Horse Tavern sold burgers and a few other sandwiches ("Hand Held Meals," according to the first menu) alongside an occasional dinner special. But a lot has happened over the past seven months. The venue's first chef, Lindsay Hintz, is gone, replaced by Miguel Sanchez in September.
Sanchez ran the downtown boîte Honeymom's with his wife, Susan Welling, more than a decade ago. Heaton and Rusty Horse Tavern's general manager, Brian Wilson, have given Sanchez, who recently returned to Kansas City, enough freedom to expand the menu, which now includes a few consistent dinner entrées. The place has also dropped a couple of oddball starters, including the sweet-corn fritters and a smoked-bacon dip, in favor of more familiar items, such as beer-steamed mussels and tortilla chips with queso and guacamole.
A couple of the burgers have been removed from the race as well, including an "L.A. Burger," topped with an avocado aïoli; a pulled-pork "Aloha Burger," with a slice of grilled pineapple and some bok choy; and the Horse's first stab at a veggie burger, which was a tasty but ridiculously crumbly chickpea-based patty. The new meatless burger is made with black beans and mushrooms.
Since Sanchez took over the kitchen, the Horse has positioned itself as more of a destination restaurant than just a neighborhood hangout. ("We get a lot of Kansas City residents driving over now," Wilson says.) But the question isn't whether Sanchez has the chops to lure folks north of the river for dinner. The question is whether a menu and a venue this simple are enough to get people who are outside the neighborhood to make the trek.
The short answer is no, at least not for just a burger and a side of sweet-potato fries. The burgers here (made with short ribs, brisket, tenderloin and ground chuck from McGonigle's Meat Market) are certainly first-rate. But there are other good burgers that don't take almost 30 minutes to reach. People do drive a half-hour for a good dinner entrée, though, and a few of the half-dozen choices here make a reasonably compelling case. The best-selling meal here, fish and chips, is excellent: flaky white cod drenched in Boulevard-beer batter and fried to a light crunch, served with a tasty (if a little runny) tartar sauce that's made in-house.
The meatloaf platter needs some work. Like most meatloaf served in local restaurants, this version (made with ground beef, pork and turkey) gets made in advance and is reheated when someone orders the platter. This heat-to-order technique works just fine for a meatloaf sandwich (which isn't on the sandwich list but probably should be), but all the pan gravy in Parkville isn't going to make an hours-old hunk of loaf freshly moist and flavorful.
Far better is the house-cured pork chop, ordered with the silky, house-made mashers. But at the price that Rusty Horse Tavern charges for a single chop, it's a stingy portion of pig. I was still hungry after I polished it off. More satisfying was Sanchez's salmon, a farm-raised slab of pretty pink fish, rendered slightly crispy after being seared in a hot skillet and then doused in a pine-nut-and-currant vinaigrette.
There's no pasta on the entrée list, so the meatless selections are spartan. A vegetarian friend of mine enjoyed a fresh pear salad and a starter of two hummus purees: roasted red pepper and roasted garlic chickpea. The best meatless holdover from the earlier menu is a fat, yeasty pretzel, deep-fried to order and served with a dollop of queso and a pale-ale mustard, but that's not a meal. It's a delightful appetizer, which hasn't grown in size since I first sampled it last May, though the price has risen by nearly half.
Rusty Horse Tavern seats just 110 people in the bar area and the dining room, so a limited menu is cost-effective for the kitchen, if not the public. There are modestly priced lunch and dinner specials, and Wilson notes that during the four-hour weekday happy hour, a half-pound of fried chicken wings costs $5.
That pricing might be what attracts families to this saloon. On each of my visits to Rusty Horse, the dining room was teeming with toddlers. (The servers are very accommodating to families.)
The dessert selection varies from night to night, but a recent staple has been an excessively sugary, flourless chocolate torte and a very good bread pudding, the latter as fluffy and fragrant as a fresh-baked cinnamon roll.
Rusty Horse Tavern isn't in the center of Parkville but in a newer shopping strip a couple of miles away. The most visible landmark is a Sonic. Come to think of it, that drive-in chain has a slightly more extensive menu than Rusty Horse does, though without the impressive selection of craft beers. And without the talented Sanchez, who needs an opportunity to introduce a few more creative dishes to a tavern that really is going to get rusty unless it seriously picks up the pace.