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 restaurant, appropriately named Southern Rail, 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 Beef Eaters Restaurant at Third Avenue and Camelback. Jay Newton’s restaurant was huge, so it was divided to make way for multiple tenants. Southern Rail occupies, appropriately enough, the southern portion of the building along Camelback Road. A Phoenix branch of Tempe’s Changing Hands bookstore and a gardening shop occupy the rest of the rehabilitated structure.
Bike racks are located right outside the entrance, and a large, shaded patio addresses Camelback. For cool winter evenings, a fireplace enhances the outdoor dining area. Inside, there’s a wall of vintage booths salvaged from Beef Eaters, along with chandeliers from the old restaurant. While some elements of the steak house have been preserved, the dark cavern feel is gone due to the addition of windows and skylights. Plenty of natural light showcases the wood furnishings, and 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 a Creole Lemonade, which mixes four spirits — vodka, rum, tequila, and Pimm’s — with lemonade and hot sauce for a powerful interplay of sour, sweet, and spicy notes. There are ample choices of wine and beer. Options without alcohol include iced tea, a natural for the Southern theme, and honey lemonade.
The restaurant foregoes a complimentary bread basket, now becoming 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 are a regional specialty well suited for sharing around a table. Like the fried okra, they’re covered with a light cornmeal crust. Corn soup has a silky texture and bit of zest from a drizzle of pesto. The gumbo is complex in its flavor, although it could benefit from a bit more heat (in terms of spice, not temperature). The house smoked trout is a light meal in itself. Lemon tomato jam adds flavor, and a slightly crisp sweet pea cake contrasts with the tender fish.
Among the entrees, some seem like straightforward interpretations of classics. Red beans and rice is accentuated with ham hocks, bacon, and the “holy trinity” of onion, celery, and bell pepper. The fried chicken is four generous pieces with a crispy coating paired with smooth mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. Other entrees play more boldly with established traditions. Southern rail’s colorful version of chicken and dumplings is a hearty bowl of pulled poultry in an earthy broth with mushrooms, thin slices of carrot, and soaked biscuits.
There are two meatless entrees that are entirely satisfying even if outside the boundaries of Southern food traditions. Mushroom, leek, and potato enchiladas are more Southwestern than anything else, but the smoky flavor makes the dish at home among the more traditional items on the menu. A broccoli, cauliflower, rice, and leek casserole is rich with plenty of melted cheese. At the other end of the spectrum, the muffaletta burger is a burger patty topped with cured meats and provolone. A changing barbecue platter is offered on Mondays and Tuesdays as a special.
Lunch at Southern rail means not only smaller versions of dinner entrees, but also po’ boys, New Orleans style sandwiches on 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 shrimps with grits and buttermilk biscuits with andouille gravy, as well as the ability to put an egg on almost anything from the menu.
Desserts include classics such as beignets, a New Orleans favorite; brioche bread pudding, German chocolate cake: and a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting. The most inventive sweet is the supple banana pudding, made with ginger snaps and banana chips instead of the usual vanilla wafers and served in a small jar. The Sunset Limited train may be relegated to a remote station for the foreseeable future, but the Southern Rail restaurant runs every day in a more accessible location in Phoenix proper, right next to the city’s present-day light rail tracks.
300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix AZ 85013