It’s taken the nearly five years since Gourmet magazine cemented Southern food’s trendy status by devoting an entire issue to it, but Philadelphia may now have more restaurants that serve grits than scrapple. One of the latest additions to this flock is Rex 1516, which opened its doors on the burgeoning western half of South Street in March. It’s a deceptively simple-seeming place whose easygoing and unpretentious atmosphere springs from its embrace of complexity and contradiction.
Behind the wrought-iron railing that abuts its full-height accordion windows, Rex 1516’s red-brick interior is as cool and dark as a springhouse. Wooden chandeliers overhang leather-topped tables and a long church pew that draws your gaze toward the restaurant’s depths, where a creamy marble counter caps a bar constructed from reclaimed parts of the one at Frank Furness’s old Rittenhouse Club. Muted classic movies play on a back-wall flat-screen while the stereo crackles and glides with the golden era of the jazz trumpet, from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven to Birth of the Cool. When you glance up from an exquisite rooibos-infused vodka cocktail to take in Rear Window re-scored to a Clifford Brown ballad? That’s when you know you’ve broken free of all Confederate clichés.
So too, in a way, has Regis Jansen. The Alabamian chef draws freely from the three main branches of Southern cooking—Lowcountry, Creole and Appalachian—and plays loose with each. His shrimp and grits finds the former blackened, Louisiana-style, and the latter humming with a mellow buttermilk tang. (If he used Anson Mills, they might be the city’s best, but the price point precludes it.) He brings sweet potato biscuits and gravy out of their mountain hollows with Mexican chorizo, whose spicy zip plays nicely off the sweet biscuits.
Rex is best at brunch. The Monte Cristo sandwich is a small miracle: Swiss and pepperjack melting into smoked ham and fig preserves between lofty slices of brioche, the whole caboodle having been battered and deep-fried. And when I popped in one weekday for a profound bowl of lunchtime pulled-duck jambalaya, I found myself ordering an even more surprising soul-soother. Remember the $3 pint? It’s back! And as PBC’s Newbold IPA, no less.
Dinner is fine and fairly priced, but doesn’t merit a crosstown trip like brunch. A roulade of pork loin, cornbread and andouille sausage stuck more mightily to my ribs than my memory. Atlantic salmon was fruited with an oversweet blackberry sauce, and a brisket/filet-blend burger was cooked too dry.
But thankfully, there are other hours of the day in which to eat and drink. And I fully expect Rex 1516 to soak up more of mine.