Southern-inspired burger takes first

Justin Swain, the executive chef at South Street restaurant Rex 1516, won this year’s Battle of the Burger for his pimento cheeseburger.

Philadelphia native Justin Swain beat 19 other local chef’s with his pimento cheeseburger in this year’s Battle of the Burger. Meaghan Pogue | TTN
Philadelphia native Justin Swain beat 19 other local chef’s with his pimento cheeseburger in this year’s Battle of the Burger. Meaghan Pogue | TTN

After all the patties had been flipped and as the aroma of sizzling beef lingered in the air, Rex 1516’s pimento burger rose from the charcoal to be declared the winner of Philadelphia Magazine’s Battle of the Burgers on Sept.10.

A culinary creation of Rex 1516’s executive chef, Justin Swain, the burger took down 19 other restaurants during the final round of the competition. The pimento burger’s blend of pimento cheese, bacon, red onions and crisp lettuce allowed it to rise to victory over more than 50 other Philadelphia eateries competing in the competition.

Swain, a 27-year-old graduate of the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, attributed his burger’s success at the event to the swift but steady hands of himself and his fellow chefs.

“We come in with our heads down ready to work,” Swain said. “Our goal is to never have a line. It’s probably the key to our success. We take pride in our food and our work.”

Swain has worked at Rex 1516 since its opening just over two years ago, and has been in the restaurant business for four years. The idea for the pimento burger sprung from Swain’s experimentation with pimento cheese on a burger for his own enjoyment, and later became a part of the restaurant’s menu. Unlike conventional burgers, the pimento burger’s cheese is scooped and placed onto the patty rather than thrown on as a slice.

For Swain and the rest of the staff of Rex 1516, there was no hesitation in deciding to enter the competition.

“We wanted to be part of it because we are proud of our burger,” Swain said. “We knew we could get to the final together.”

This year’s Battle of The Burgers, held at The Piazza at Schmidt’s on North 2nd Street, kicked off with a preliminary round of voting where the public was asked to vote on their favorite Philadelphia burger through Philadelphia Magazine’s website. The top 20 restaurants from that round were then selected and competed in an all day, buffet-style cookout, where attendees were able to sample every eatery’s different burger and cast a vote for its favorite. For the victory, Rex 1516’s staff members won a vacation trip to Miami.

For Swain, the first taste of absolute victory came with a platter of positive emotions.

“[I just thought] we finally did it,” Swain said. “We had done competitions in the past and almost made it, so we were relieved to finally win one.”

Although Rex1516 has had success with various other culinary competitions, including the Philadelphia Burger Brawl, this year’s Battle of the Burger marks the restaurant’s only first-place win.

During the fury of the competition, the only problem Swain said he was having to leave his grill to be interviewed by the press.

Since the pimento burger’s success at the burger showdown, business has been booming at Rex 1516, according to Swain.

“People come in all the time now to try the different burgers,” Swain said.

While it was Rex’s 1516’s burger that earned them a first place prize, the eatery specializes in far more than just burgers. When he’s not preparing his signature sandwich, Swain enjoys cooking beef brisket. Rex 1516 also plans on participating in the High Steaks Great Philly Cheesesteak Challenge on 16th and 17th streets Oct. 12.

Despite the fact that it was his own burger that won his home-restaurant the competition, Swain makes it very clear that victories like these are not an individual effort.

“We have a lot of great staff here,” Swain said. “It took the entire kitchen, servers and everyone in between to make this possible.”

Eamon Dreisbach can be reached at

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