For over a century, the Sunset Limited, the legendary passenger train that runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans, stopped in Phoenix on its way across the southern tier of the country. That particular train now passes through Maricopa, 35 miles to the south, leaving Phoenix without intercity passenger rail. Despite that unfortunate development, it’s comforting that a new restaurant, appropriately named Southern Rail, that brings a bit of cooking from New Orleans and the South to Uptown Phoenix, just a block from the Central / Camelback light rail station.
Southern Rail’s location is far more convenient than Amtrak’s current station in Pinal County. The restaurant is part of the Newton, a development built upon the bones of the old Beefeater’s Restaurant at Third Avenue and Camelback. Jay Newton’s restaurant was huge, so it was divided to make way for multiple tenants. Southern Rail took, appropriately enough, the southern portion of the building along Camelback Road. A Phoenix branch of Changing Hands bookstore and a gardening shop occupy the rest of the rehabilitated structure.
Bike racks are located right outside the bookstore, and a large, shaded patio addresses Camelback. In preparation for cool winter evenings, a fire place has just been added to the outdoor dining area. Inside, there’s a wall of vintage booths salvaged from Beefeaters, along with chandeliers from the old restaurant. While some elements of the old steak house have been preserved, the dark cavern feel is gone due to the addition of several windows and skylights. A few decorative items placed above the open kitchen gently suggest the South.
Southern Rail’s beverage selection emphasizes cocktails, so it may be wise to start with a concoction like the Gentleman Johnson, a nod to the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson that blends whiskey with lemonade, sweet tea, and fresh mint, or That Dog Won’t Hunt, a play on a margarita involving tequila, rye, maple syrup, lemonade, and extra flavors from Arizona Bitters Lab. Neither is overly sweet despite the inclusion of some sugary ingredients. Choices without alcohol include iced tea, a natural for the Southern theme, and honey lemonade.
The restaurant foregoes a complimentary bread basket, almost an endangered species in the restaurant industry, in favor of a la carte options which are worth the price of five or six dollars. The cornbread comes as muffins with a bit of peppery bite. They can be slightly dry, but easily moistened with the accompanying honey butter. The brioche rolls come in a pull-apart six pack. The buttery rolls have a slight sweetness complemented with a dusting of coarse salt on the crust. The side of apple butter is pleasant but not really necessary.
Southern Rail offers popular fried appetizers associated with its regional cuisine. Fried green tomatoes come four to an order, well suited for sharing with a table. Like the fried okra, they’re covered with a light cornmeal crust. Chilled corn soup has a silky texture and bit of richness from a drizzle of creme fraiche. The gumbo is complex in its flavor, although it could benefit from a bit more heat (in terms of spice, not temperature). The broccoli, cauliflower, leek, and rice casserole is an indulgent bowl full of all those ingredients and a whole lot of dairy.
Among the entrees, the duck confit doesn’t seem an obvious fit with stereotypes of Southern food, but it’s a standout entree served atop dirty rice with collards. Seafood dishes include smoked trout and peel-and-eat shrimp. In the latter, a dozen huge prawns arrive in a tangy tomato-based sauce with slices of baguette on the side to slurp up the extra liquid. The same crustaceans are also available as an add-on to the gumbo. Chicken and dumplings is a bowl of pulled poultry in an earthy broth with mushrooms, thin slices of carrot, and soaked biscuits.
In addition to the regular menu, there are day of the week specials. Monday, it’s the classic New Orleans dish red beans and rice. Tuesday is barbecue night, but that doesn’t necessarily mean pulled pork or beef brisket. On one recent visit, the slow cooked meat was short ribs. Wednesday is fried chicken night. The plate is loaded with several pieces, all crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, along with a featured side such as charro beans. Thursday goes all out on the comfort theme with meatloaf, and Friday is the night for a varying seafood preparation.
Lunch at Southern rail means not only smaller versions of dinner entrees, but also po’ boys, New Orleans style sandwiches on slightly crisped baguettes. Fillings include roast beef, shrimp, catfish, Cuban, and a meatless one of fried green tomatoes with pimiento cheese. Order it “chef’s way,” and it’s even more flavorful, although no longer vegetarian, due to the addition of tomato bacon jam. Sunday brunch adds morning-oriented dishes such as bread pudding French toast and Dutch pancakes, as well as the ability to put an egg on almost anything from the menu.
Desserts include Southern classics such as bread pudding, coconut cake, and a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting. All those are quite good, but the pie-in-a-jar was a bit of a letdown when sampled since it had only about half a dozen blueberries mixed in with the shortcake. That’s a minor gap in the track compared to all that is right at Southern Rail. The Sunset Limited train may be relegated to a remote exurban station for the foreseeable future, but Southern Rail has arrived in a much better location in Phoenix proper, right next to the city’s own light rail track.
300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix AZ 85013
Central / Camelback Station