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Rex Café

La Folie Chef Crosses the Road

On Polk Street between Union and Broadway, there are over a dozen places to get a bite. In three short blocks, you can take your pick from French, Italian, Japanese Mexican, Pizza, seafood, Thai, or Vietnamese food, but for solid Cal-American fare, casual and comfortable Rex Café is a standby.

Rex serves everything from hamburgers to tuna tartare -- with more than a few French touches here and there. The French flair is not surprising; John Pauley recently signed on as chef after departing acclaimed French restaurant La Folie across the street.

The restaurant was remodeled in 2007 when Pauley took over the kitchen, and dark shades of red, burgundy, and large mirrors combine with high ceilings to make the space cozy and spacious simultaneously. The large bar in the center of the room provides a friendly spot for single diners, and service is friendly and informal, remaining efficient even when the restaurant gets busy.

Between 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm, a 2-course prix fixe option gives diners the choice of any appetizer and almost any entree for $20. Many of the appetizers and salads are large enough to be shared, notably. A rich baked onion soup ($8) is hearty and satisfying, like you might find in a Parisian bistro. The mini catfish corndogs are a fun starter, but the duck paté ($10), topped with a port gelee and served in a glass jar with toasted baguette, shows this chef's skill in preparing more refined fare. It’s the same caliber as what you'd find at any top French restaurant.

The sliced beets in the beet carpaccio aren’t as thin as the name would suggest, but the feta and microgreen topping is a decent twist on the ubiquitous beet and goat cheese combination. Another favorite, the Caesar salad, features a poached egg and a garnish of thin, crispy slices of pancetta. As with the paté, the portion is easily large enough to share.

The menu changes often but almost always offers some type of expertly braised lamb or beef dish, fresh fish, and “Rex’s” Chicken & Waffles ($15). Three pieces of perfectly crispy fried chicken are served with half of a large Belgian style waffle. While the tiny pitcher of maple syrup is optional, we’d suggest requesting that the chef hold the whipped cream garnish. The gnocchi is always good, but pastas are sometimes a bit gummy. We loved both of the braised beef dishes, beef cheeks and the Niman Ranch beef shank.

Desserts ($7 each) are good though not outstanding. The chocolate cupcake sundae is fine for those needing a chocolate fix, but we prefer the dense bread pudding served with ice cream. Is Rex Café a great neighborhood place or does it edge into destination restaurant territory? We can’t decide, but we don't have to -- we live close enough to be regulars.

Rex Cafe
2323 Polk St @ Green
San Francisco 94109

Sunday through Thursday: 5 pm -10 pm
Saturday & Sunday: 10 am -3 pm
Russian Hill

Reservations Essential? No