Kpod finds middle ground between comfort and luxury in college town
Starr and Serpico band together to rebuild a restaurant from the remains of three.
He got me with the mandu.
Six of them on a plate, seared, browned but not also brown, just a little crispy around the edges. Pork mandu with ginger and scallions, served on a simple yet aggressive metal dish with a small cup of chilli-soya sauce. That and a gin and tonic in a cut-glass tumbler, and I was in it. He had me.
And by he, I mean Stephen Starr, of course. Kpod? It’s her new baby. The place was Pod without the K for 20 years – with all its blobby design, automated conveyor belt service and pan-Asian cuisine. Pod was a sci-fi movie set, two-dimensional and shallow but often delightful. Amusing because it defied seriousness, relying on deliberate kitsch. At first it was too cool to worry about cool.
But he, I also mean Peter Serpico. Golden boy of South Street, 2013. Serpico came here from Momofuku in New York, partnered with Starr, opened Serpico with huge success. The place was bold and stylish and decidedly modern. Nobody liked him. For a while, anyway.
The pandemic closed both restaurants. Then Serpico (the chef) tried to pivot. He did delivery and takeout from his restaurant’s quiet kitchen and empty dining room, calling the concept “Pete’s Place” and serving a “kinda Korean” menu of casual fare that was both a wink a look at his Korean American descent and an acceptance of the reality of COVID Meals. People wanted comfort, not lemon mousse and meat glue. He offered the first.
Pete’s Place went well. Pod stayed dark – at least until a few months ago when Starr and Serpico decided they might try again. Kpod is what they found, a culinary Voltron, a restaurant rebuilt from the scattered pieces of the owners’ past: Pod with a new pastel color scheme, Pete’s Place with table service, Serpico without too much shine.
And when I walked into Kpod, everything about the place baffled me. From the chic plywood design elements to the underwater curves that looked like Pod’s bones with new skin stretched over them, it all felt odd. Intellectually, I understood. It was Pod, redone. Pod has been redesigned to produce 200 covers per night for a new UCity crowd that may not even have been born when Pod opened. But sitting there was like saying hello to an old friend and casually mispronouncing your name. For the first moments of dinner, anyway.
If Pod was looking to look to the past to glorify a plastic fusion future that never quite happened, Kpod is about tomorrow’s vibes sketched in pale wood, orange and pink glow and K-wave flavors. Peter’s menu is approachable and light, about as far from Serpico’s bright, high-end experimentalism as you can imagine. The kitchen offers Honey Butter Fries and Crispy-Skin Chilli-Glazed Korean Chicken Wings, as well as Shrimp Cocktail with Kimchi Cocktail Sauce. There are kimchi buttered prawn ssam platters with a little garlic skewer, white rice, lettuce wraps, and a great ssamjang chili paste that brings a depth of flavor to the feast that buttery butter lacks. kimchi alone. Kpod’s menu is as ideal for couples nestled in the banquette as it is for large groups crowding into the color-changing dining pods that have survived the renovation.
Those mandu I mentioned? They’re the entry point, deep-fried gateway drug that takes you deeper down the rabbit hole of this menu. If Kpod’s kitchen can hook you with those golden, blistered skins, ground pork, or carrot and tofu filling, then the restaurant can delight you with a sesame ranch dressing dip served with fried chicken with a smashing crust. and powdered instant ramyun. spicy bite.
Kpod’s Korean hand rolls are gorgeous, presented in wooden boxes, surrounded by grilled nori sheets, stuffed with rice, then topped with artful presentations of fatty tuna belly and caviar or scrawled fried prawns with spicy mayonnaise. They left in two bites, but memorable. They’re deconstructed in style, presented with a simplicity and unpretentiousness that begin to define the whole experience: the simple white bowls of banchan, the charred shallot flavor of the thick, sliced seafood crepe, thick with chopped shrimp and crab chunks. The ssam platters are made to be shared and scooped until your fingers are sticky with the Asian pear and soy marinade from short ribs pulled off the bone.
Ultimately, Kpod runs on its food. You will blend into the new space and float to the jerky rhythm of the plates arriving at your table. Kpod works because together Serpico and Starr have struck a balance between comfort and luxury, between what worked 20 years ago and what people want now. It’s a precarious balance. Because what Kpod is looking for isn’t necessarily the moment we’re in. This is the next moment.
3 stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you are around
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Published as “The Moment That Comes Next” in the June 2022 issue of philadelphia cream magazine.