–Julia Crowley, EDN
Several of Oregon’s most well known wineries are located in or near the small town of Junction City: Benton-Lane Winery, home to some of the top 100 Wines of the World, Pfeiffer Vineyards, whose Pinot Noir was served at President Obama’s Inauguration Dinner, Broadley Vineyards, who have been producing award winning wine for 25 years, RainSong Vineyards, High Pass Winery and Walnut Ridge Vineyards are just a few of the many notable wineries.
Although I’ve spent many hours driving the winding country roads that surround Junction City to visit these wineries, I’ve never spent much time in the actual city. Until recently, I’ve always headed back to Eugene for lunch or dinner to end a day of wine touring. After spending some time with friends at Benton-Lane Winery’s Thanksgiving Weekend Open House, we decided to have lunch in Junction City at the Rodeo Steakhouse and Grill.
As we walked up the steps to the entrance of the restaurant, we heard a train barreling down the tracks just a few feet away from the restaurant, and its closeness caught the attention of us all. We instantly realized that the red caboose sitting outside of the restaurant had significance: the Rodeo Steakhouse and Grill was, at one time, a train depot.
We were greeted as soon as we walked in the door and the host seated us at a comfortable booth in the main dining room. The long, thin, rectangular shape of the building resembled the shape of most train depots, and the kitchen was on one end, while a full-service bar was at the other. A suspended miniature railroad track that hung from the ceiling ran through the restaurant, into the entry, past the bar and then back into the restaurant with a small electric train that chugs along the tracks.
I took a quick glance at the drink menu, and was happy to see that Benton-Lane’s delicious Pinot Noir was one of the excellent selections of wine, so when the waitress came to our table to take our drink orders, I already knew what I wanted. My friends ordered what the waitress suggested: the house-made margarita. The margaritas were, according to my friends, the best they’ve ever had. Served in a salt-rimmed Mason jar with fresh muddled oranges, limes and lemons, the waitress called it a “scratch ‘rita” because the ingredients had been made from scratch, with the addition of triple sec and tequila. We put in our food orders, everyone ordering something different, along with the potato skins appetizer to share.
I was curious about the history of the once train depot, so the owner of Rodeo Steakhouse, Jennifer Rosales, joined us as we sipped our drinks to tell us a bit of what she knows.
“In the mid 1800s the thriving town of Lancaster lay on the river between Harrisburg and what would become Junction City,” said Rosales. “It was thriving because of its location on the Willamette River, which allowed for transport of products to Portland. In the flood of 1861, Lancaster was literally swept away, so Harrisburg became the ‘go to’ place for farmers and timber companies to have their products transported via the river.”
Rosales continued to explain that there was no suitable land left in Harrisburg for the expansion of the railway system, so the flat land that was just south of Harrisburg was perfect for building a roundhouse, depot and housing that was needed for railroad workers.This flat area was named Junction City in hopes that it would become the major railroad junction and division point from southern to northern Oregon. Although the actual major railroad junction was soon built in Eugene, Junction City still became a thriving place to work and live. In 1872, Junction City became incorporated, and the city grew over the years with the addition of schools, churches, saloons, mills, warehouses and even an opera house. As more and more logs were brought in from nearby lumber camps, the railway that was built to become a major junction did become a major asset for the lumber industry.
Rosales said she isn’t sure when the train depot finally closed, but the building went into disrepair for some time, until its current owner bought it and brought it back to life. Seven years ago, in December, the building was transformed into Rodeo Steakhouse and Grill, and to celebrate seven years of prosperous business in this 1800s-era train depot, Rosales is offering daily specials for the entire month of December.
When our potato skin appetizer arrived, none of us spoke for the first 5 minutes as we devoured these piled high, fully loaded sinfully delicious skins. Mounds of melted cheese, bacon bits and scallions were loaded inside the perfectly roasted crunchy skins of baking potatoes — truly scrumptious and a great way to start off an all-American meal. Perfectly timed, the arrival of our main courses came right as we finished the potato skins, and I couldn’t wait to try my 100 percent Black Angus Beef Wrangler Burger and Sweet Potato Fries. Grilled exactly the way I like it, medium rare, this juicy burger was topped with crispy onion rings and was especially tasty with the side of crunchy hand-cut sweet potato fries.
Other dishes that arrived at the table were the ribs, Chicken Caesar Wrap with a side of Prime Rib Chili, and the Philly Cheese Steak. The ribs, which were cooked over an open flame, looked so delicious that I had to try a bite. Without a doubt, these are the best ribs I’ve ever had. They were truly fall-off-the-bone tender, and the homemade barbecue sauce was the unequaled perfection of sweet and spicy.
Seeing that we were clearly impressed with our meals, the waitress gathered our completely empty plates and offered us some dessert. Without any room left, we sadly had to turn down what I bet would have been a decadent dish. Before we departed for our short drive back to Eugene, we watched from our booth as a train chugged by just feet from where we sat, and I thought about the rich American history of the once vibrant train depot. Thankfully, a part of history has been preserved and transformed into a successful restaurant for all to enjoy its historical essence.
495 Holly Street
Junction City, 97448
Celebrate seven years of delicious food, local ownership and a little American history at Rodeo Steakhouse and Grill with anniversary specials happening everyday in the month of December. Their facebook page is updated daily, click here.