If you came expecting one of his famous duck legs torqued into a hot dog with meat glue — but with a Korean twist — you may be in for a surprise.
Kpod is not the most obvious sequel for Peter Serpico, the modernist wizard whose Franken-lamb fantasies, frozen foie gras snow and poppy-dusted buttermilk scallops earned acclaim at his now-closed eponymous restaurant on South Street. He’s taken a pause from the contemporary creativity that had defined his culinary rise to date.
The chef you’ll find at the much-awaited makeover for Stephen Starr’s 22-year-old Pod in University City is diving diligently into Korean classics such as bibimbap, pajeon and budae jjigae, albeit with subtle twists. Serpico is cooking in search of his roots to reconnect with Kyung-ho, the birth name he was given as an orphaned boy in Seoul. He was adopted at age 2 by Dennis and Sally Serpico, who lovingly raised him in suburban Maryland on Friday night mac and cheese, ranch dressing, and apple pie.
It’s been a long journey of awakening for Serpico, 40, who had little interest in his Korean heritage through young adulthood. His marriage to a Korean American woman in 2015, however, immersed him in that culture and its flavors, enveloping him in the embrace of his mother-in-law’s limitless banchan, black bean noodles and blue crabs simmered in spicy anchovy broth.
“My palate is really an American palate,” Serpico told me. “But there’s something to be said about when you taste something and there’s a feeling towards it. I’m starting to get that emotion when it comes to Korean food, because my daughter, Charlie, spends a lot of time with her grandparents.”
Serpico felt uneasy about where he fit in growing up, as he writes in Learning Korean: Recipes for Home Cooking, his debut cookbook to be published in May: “I’ve often felt stuck in a holding pattern between two worlds: a birthland I didn’t know and a homeland that didn’t always seem to know me... But food is what ultimately helped me unearth a part of myself that I didn’t know existed.”
That the menu at Kpod is rooted more in Korean tradition than modernist invention is clearly a result of that personal awakening, one that began with Pete’s Place, the ghost kitchen focused on delivery during its brief run whose preparations Serpico humbly referred to as “kinda Korean.”
The larger menu here also includes Korean-style hand rolls plumped with creamy uni and fatty tuna belly, a wide range of classic stews and noodles, chewy rice cake variations, and ssam platters for sharing — like the magnificent short rib. Marinated for a day with Korean pear and tamari, then slow-roasted to tenderness, its flesh can easily be plucked off the bone and wrapped inside a lettuce leaf bundle with rice and a dab of ssamjang chile paste — a dramatic centerpiece for a party inside one of the light-shifting dining capsules that are one of the few design holdovers from Pod 1.0.
I love Richard Stokes’ humanizing redesign for Starr’s once-futuristic Y2K restaurant, jettisoning the cold, hard plastic edges, foam furniture, and robotic sushi conveyor belt, and warming it with K-pop pastels, lacquered wood, and a ceiling fringed with ruffles. A pink flipboard sculpture pays homage to the Amtrak board removed from 30th Street Station with whirring paddles that refresh throughout the night to reveal random messages. (“Mom says: Eat your banchan.”)
It says a lot about our dining evolution over the last two decades that a onetime showplace for the fleeting trend of Asian fusion food now hosts such an earnest rumination on identity and traditional Korean cooking. But this being a Starr production aiming to regularly fill 200 seats on Penn’s campus, there must still be overtures to a cross-cultural audience of varied tastes.
A drink list with soju cocktails, kimchi-spiked martinis (”the dirtiest martini ever,” pitched our server) and blueberry-infused makgeolli sparkling rice brew boosts the fun factor. The friendly service team, which is awkwardly obliged to strap remote credit card terminals in fanny packs across their bodies, occasionally seemed overwhelmed. That’s how “I’m going to course this out for you!” suddenly became a 10-minute blitz of everything we ordered.
Serpico and his chef de cuisine, Josh Noh, who’s also Korean American, have the seemingly impossible mission of serving what Serpico describes as “grandma-style cooking” that’s both “fun and approachable” for people that “either know a lot about Korean food or know nothing about Korean food.”
With a distinctive cuisine whose essence revolves around the balance of boldly fermented flavors and spice, with functional presentations involving blazing hot bowls, where is that one-size-fits-all line? The chefs have already been called out by relatives for not bringing the soft tofu stew to the table still bubbling violently in a hot stone crock, as any traditional soondubu jjigae would: “It’s just not safe,” says Serpico.
I’m sure many have also griped that Kpod charges for banchan, the array of pickled vegetables usually offered as complements to the meal. I’m happy to pay for quality, but Kpod’s two-day-old kimchi is a little too fresh to excite me. The broccoli stem kimchi, though, blended with the smoky notes of charred florets, is surely worth $2.50. The $24 seafood pancake is nowhere near the Frisbee-sized width of pajeon most typically served in Philly. But this delicious cake is simply made thicker, so as to better showcase the generous amounts of lump crab, shrimp, and scallops inside its delicate crust.
Serpico insists he hasn’t “dumbed down” any flavors for non-Korean tastes, and I mostly agree. The fundamental taste profiles are in the right place on a classic like the seafood stew, which is electrified by a dose of aged kimchi juice. But it remains a notch too mild to showcase its seafood. The volume level on the heat and fermented funk are dialed back so much that the true personality of several dishes, like the tofu stew, can’t quite be vividly perceived — a meek 4 out of 10, when I’d prefer a bolder 7 or more.
The ramyun tossed with richly braised pork and kimchi stew was surprisingly bland. The dolsot bibimbap barely had any crisp beneath its rice, and was not worth $23 for the meager topping option of bulgogi. By contrast, the Korean Army stew, a proto-fusion legacy of the Korean War featuring American rations of Spam and hot dogs, was magnetic, its punchy crimson broth delivering a lip-tingling thrill, even with the all-in rations garnish of melted American cheese. The honey butter french fries, a gochugaru-dusted riff on the popular Korean chip, are among Kpod’s essential munchies.
The hand rolls were among my favorites on the menu, their toasty seaweed wrappers acting as snappy cradles for the textures of luscious raw fish, rice, and vegetables — like the chorus of sesame oil and pickled veggies in the kimbap. The ssam platters, which bring various grilled proteins alongside lettuce wraps, rice and ssamjang paste studded with sunflower seeds, were the most consistently delicious main courses. The meltingly tender pork belly and big shrimp encrusted in kimchi butter spice, were every bit as memorable as that short rib. The order-ahead whole pork shoulder ssam ($200 for 6-8 pounds) could surely anchor a memorable gathering.
As a source for the Korean standards that make up much of this menu, though, Kpod does not especially stand out from the many other good options (Dubu, Seorabol, Koreana) as much as I’d hoped. When these cooks flex on experimentation, some distinctive signature dishes emerge.
The inventive carrot and tofu mandu, for example, were more intriguing than the beef dumplings, whose dense stuffing is too finely ground. The ginger sugarcoated mandu stuffed with sweet rice pudding were another clever dumpling surprise for dessert, though I was even more partial to the char-roasted sweet potato with brown butter, ice cream and honey that’s a sweet shout-out to Noh’s family table.
The Korean fried chicken wings glossed in chile glaze are an easy win due to the dish’s already wide popularity. But few may also know to admire the shatteringly delicate crust Serpico painstakingly engineered (with alt-flours and vodka) for a more dynamic crispiness and adding a multidimensional crunch. It’s just as good on the Korean fried cauliflower, a veggie alternative that exemplifies Serpico’s effort to keep this menu inclusive for those with dietary restrictions (including several gluten-free options).
That crust is even more noticeable on the whole chicken, which is fried to order and dusted with the crackling spice of house ramen powder and served with a side of sesame ranch. The dip, in fact, is just Ken’s buttermilk dressing boosted with yuzu rice vinegar, toasted sesame, and gochugaru chile flakes — not exactly the gastronomic wizardry Serpico is known for.
So, is this the ultimate expression of a chef’s compromise between creative ego and selfless generosity to simply make food people enjoy? A wholehearted appreciation of the ranch dressings of his American upbringing that’s all the more poignant while he explores his Korean roots? As with all things in Peter Serpico’s story, and this new life for Kpod, it’s complex. And this chef’s culinary evolution, I’m certain, is far from complete.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
3636 Sansom St., 215-387-1803; kpodrestaurant.com
Lunch Monday through Friday , 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday through Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $16-$35.
Street parking only.