First Taste

Justin Beckett's Southern Rail: Southern Food Requires A Little More Soul

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Southern Rail Location: 300 W. Camelback Road Open: Over a month Eats: Southern Price: $30+ per person

For four years chef Justin Beckett has been serving up New American fare at his Arcadia area restaurant, Beckett's Table. A few weeks ago, he expanded his repertoire to include a second restaurant, Southern Rail, this time focusing on elevated Southern cuisine.

The new restaurant's location -- inside The Newton, a mixed-used development that took over the former home of Beef Eaters Restaurant -- is almost as much of a draw as the chef's name. Southern Rail shares the space with a second location of Tempe's well-loved Changing Hands Bookstore and the (coming soon) gardening supply shop Southwest Gardener.

See also: Sumo Maya in Scottsdale: Mexican Style Pho and Korean Beef Tacos

The space itself is pretty impressive. Everything from the reclaimed-looking painted wooden ceiling to the chandeliers fits the restaurant's persona as an upscale Southern dining spot.

And upscale it is -- or at least the price tags are. Entrees start at $20 a person and top out at $27 for prime flatiron steak. Small plates range from $8 to $12, while salads and sides of vegetables will set you back about $10.

We started out with a drink from Southern Rail's cocktail menu, the That Dog Don't Hunt. We were intrigued by promises of two spirits -- rye whiskey and mezcal -- mixed with maple syrup, lemonade, and two kinds of locally made bitters. On the first sip we mostly picked up the distinct aromatic orange flavor of AZ Bitters Lab's Orange Sunshine Bitters, as well as a touch of sweetness from their Figgy Pudding Bitters. With a second sip we thought we detected the smokiness from the mezcal, but mostly the drink just tasted like bitters and lemonade.

We paired the cocktail with an order of cornbread muffins ($5). The starter comes with three good-sized pieces of cornbread and a side of black pepper honey butter. The bread is baked with pieces of corn, bell peppers, and other veggies, which unfortunately did little to boost the bland biscuits. Maybe they were designed that way to let the delicious butter shine? If so, it worked. We were looking for anything to spread the peppery, sweet butter on. If it were sold by the tub, we'd be buying.

Off the small plates section of the menu we chose an order of fried green tomatoes ($9) and smoked chicken and andouille gumbo ($8). The trio of battered and fried tomatoes comes with a spread of spicy pimento cheese and two stems of green leaves. It wasn't until we looked back at the menu that we realized they weren't just decoration, but rather "local greens." To us, they were superfluous. The tomatoes themselves were salty -- maybe even overly -- thanks to the heavy cornmeal batter and pieces of chunky sea salt. We would have preferred a lighter batter and juicier tomatoes, but the pimento cheese added a nice heat to the dish.

The bowl of gumbo, a bit small for $8, may be troubling to those with a real affinity for the dish. For starters it's served with a giant scoop of white rice in the middle (as opposed the gumbo being on a bed of rice, not a deal breaker on its own) and a fork. Sure, gumbo can come in a range of thicknesses, but we prefer to eat -- and to need to eat -- ours with a spoon.

Had we not known the chicken in the stew was chicken we would have guessed it was beef, as it was rather tough. But the andouille sausage was even worse, with a texture reminiscent of chewy meatloaf. We mostly left the sausage untouched.

On the recommendation of our server, we also ordered a dish of collard greens ($8), which come dressed in hot sauce and vinegar and mixed with ham hock and bacon. The kitchen must be slow cooking their greens since they arrived at the table an unattractive shade of greyish green. For those who like the sour, bitter taste of vinegar these will be a pleaser. They're also likely to be a winner with Tabasco fans; the sauce practically oozes out of the leaves when you go to cut them into more manageable pieces. We saw, but couldn't taste, the pieces of ham and bacon.

Finally, we tried the Tuesday special -- Southern Rail offers a rotating menu of daily specials that includes such Southern favorites as red beans and rice, fried chicken, and meatloaf. On Tuesday you can get a plate of slow smoked bbq, done Texas-style and served sauce on the side. Our order included two large sausages, heavy on the smoke but with a nice bit of snap to the casing. Our dining companion declared they tasted like "licking a grill." And we have to admit the flavor was intense enough to feel as if you were holding a mouthful of smoke, rather than food, in your mouth at times. The four thin slices of ham were enjoyable if quite spicy; we only wish there had been more ham and less sausage.

The plate also included a trio of deviled eggs that, while in keeping with the Southern theme, seemed a little out of place on the plate. At least the eggs were better than the housemade salt and vinegar chips; the first one we tried offered zero crunch. We found ourselves chewing on a soggy piece of potato for several seconds before giving up and just swallowing it mostly whole.

There's a lot left on the menu we didn't try, but there's one thing we're sure about: Southern Rail does not offer your mama's Southern cooking -- and we don't think that's really a good thing.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria