There were bagpipes on South 18th Street the night Tangier closed for good, the kilted piper wheezing his dirge for the death of yet another Philly dive bar.
Many of those on the sidewalk saw this demise as the emblem of a larger loss - the steady fading of our quirky neighborhood taverns to the rise of gastropub gentrification. I knew Tangier well enough to appreciate its eccentric charms, and why the regulars were mourning. No more cheapo "mystery beers" or raucous Quizzo nights (not my strong point, anyhow). No more good $5 burgers in tight-squeeze booths beside that weird headless camel. No more tough love from the grumpy waitress. No more of those reliably tangy-spicy Buffalo chicken wings. . . .
How ironic then it might seem to anyone walking up 18th Street now past the mod, gray stucco facade of Tangier's successor, SouthGate. The entire sidewalk on balmy days is often lined with a polished young crowd at cafe tables who, almost without exception, are feasting on chicken wings.
Of course, these wings are different. These are Korean-style, double-crisped in the fryer and slicked with sauces that start sweet before the spice kicks in (if it ever does . . .). In this world of ever-cycling trends, the chicken wing has become a universal, a safe talisman that transcends the generations and multiculti flavor shifts to reassure the audience of its neighborhood-jawn status.
Whether those wings are exceptional is a question I'll be sinking my teeth into momentarily. But I, for one, was thrilled by the notion of a Korean-theme pub. With its combination of gochujang chili spice, hearty bibimbap rice-bowl meals, and fermented kimchi funk, Korean food is a personal favorite that's finally embarking on its mainstream moment.
And who better to introduce it to the rowhouse denizens just south of Rittenhouse Square than a first-generation Korean Philadelphian like Peter Hwang? Fried chicken runs in his veins: The 37-year-old's first memory is of snoozing in the back of Pine House, the American-style "broasted" chicken store at 17th and Chestnut that his immigrant parents, John and Hyun Hwang, ran before moving on to own a dry-cleaning establishment, a Jewish deli (Katz's in Bala Cynwyd), and an Oh So Good! buffet, which Peter managed.
Knowing the extent of Tangier's grungy decline over the years, I also have nothing but admiration for the effort and expense that went into rehabbing the building's decrepit bones into the stylish, modern corner hub that SouthGate is today.
So, has the death of this revered dive given way to the birth of new neighborhood institution? After winging through SouthGate's somewhat inconsistent and surprisingly bland-mannered menu - overly reliant on sweet-sauced fried things and less-than-searing-hot dolsot bibimbaps - I'm not yet convinced it has quite found that ideal but elusive groove.
Not that you'll be able to debate it much amid the deafening 98-decibel roar. Designer Kate Rohrer's evocative space taps both rustic American chic and Asian themes, with reclaimed wood, a community table, and bare Edison bulbs to warm the sleek gray-and-white cubist-patterned wall tiles inspired by Korean pojagi fabrics. But these all-hard surfaces also volume-boost one of loudest rooms I've sound-checked this year.
Ultimately, though, SouthGate's success will ride on its ability to fine-tune its menu, a tricky task for anyone pioneering a fresh mainstream interpretation of traditionally powerful and pungent flavors. And SouthGate's first instinct has been to tone the cuisine's intrinsic funk and spice too far back. Accessibility does not have to equate with indistinctive. A dusting of gochukaru chili powder atop the french fries alone is not going to cut it.
Hwang and his wife, Mindy, also a co-owner, were smart to angle for a serious chef. And fellow Philly native Clara Park, 37, has the impressive pedigree - Momofuku Ko, Gary Danko, Redd, Osteria - to stoke expectations of some deft modern interpretations of the cuisine she grew up with, too.
But SouthGate's early reluctance to push either the concept envelope or the boldness in authentic zing feels flat - a slippery middle place with several great gastropubs nearby and enough old-school Korean places between North Philly and Upper Darby to set some standards.
A potentially clever idea like Koreancini - a corn-infused twist on fried Italian rice balls - has a uniformly sweet profile that's hardly distinguishable from your standard country corn fritter. A steamed bun stuffed with pork belly sounded intriguing enough until I cracked open the stretchy dough ball to find a dry mince of bland pork inside that showed little trace of the mashed sweet potatoes blended in. The traditional honey dip on the side added little more than sticky-sweet overload, especially as we'd also ordered the deep-fried sweet potato rounds, which also came with a sweet dip spiked with a little chili.
The sweet-and-crunchy theme becomes completely redundant if you also do the KFC course here, which seems required. I've had far worse. But SouthGate's sturdily crisp batter is so armor-like and thick I think of it more as Korean Fried Crust puffed with chicken steam. But the meat deep inside is still moist and flavorful enough that I'd order it again.
But there are so many interesting non-sweet dishes in Korean cooking that SouthGate has yet to engage, from seafood-laced pajun pancakes to soondubu stews, naengmyeon buckwheat noodles and even spicy pickled banchan snacks, that it may be selling its potential short (and underestimating its customers).
Park's spot-on side dish of "grandmother's kimchi," its spicy napa cabbage crunch almost effervescent with fermented chili kick, proves she has it in her. Her delicate tempura-crisped cod with spicy mayo was also a straight-ahead pub classic hit.
And there were also glimpses of modern ideas that worked. Like her handmade dumplings filled with kimchi-tinged ground beef over a creamy gray puree of charred eggplant. Park's take on the ubiquitous kale salad, dressed here in a bright sesame dressing tinged with rice vinegar and soy, was fresh and satisfying. The tacos topped with tender bulgogi beef and gochukaru crema were solid, if not necessarily groundbreaking.
Her version of bibimbap topped with raw tuna (hwe dup bap) was also outstanding, the cool, soft cubes of sushi-grade yellowfin dressed with a gingery tingle of gochujang sesame dressing contrasting with the warm bed of rice and crunchy shreds of veggies.
We had much less luck with the spicy pulled pork sandwich, which was lukewarm and no more spicy than typical American BBQ. SouthGate's burger riff on Korean BBQ is potentially awesome - the ground meat seasoned with sesame soy like bulgogi, the garnish sauced with traditional ssamjang. But it was overcooked and juiceless atop limp greens that made the patty keep squirting out from its bun. (Why not serve it In-N-Out Burger "protein-style" inside a lettuce wrap in lieu of a bun?) Add a cushion of rice for the complete traditional Korean BBQ touch.
But the biggest disappointment was over my favorite cold-weather comfort dish of dolsot bibimbap. The usually hot stone bowl was no warmer than a radiator - at both visits. So instead of sizzling its bed of rice to a tawny crisp beneath a pinwheel of veggies, savory meats, and a fried egg, the tepid vessel steamed its fillings to a soggy mush.
Even so, it is far too early for the bibim-bagpiper to play outside SouthGate's door. The outgoing owners and chef are far too motivated, and my hopes remain high that they can make the bold adjustments and technical fixes to finally craft that elusive new generation of corner pub. The wings, with minor tweaking, can be a worthy lure. But a fresh Philadelphia vision for Korean flavors are what will distinguish this pub and keep patrons returning for more.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the Whip Tavern in Coatesville.
HIT-OR-MISS (one bell out of four)
1801 Lombard St., 215-560-8443; southgatephilly.com
The neighborhood pub meets the rising Korean food trend at this stylish corner tavern, which replaced grungy old (yet beloved) Tangier with sleekly tiled walls, Korean fried chicken, Asian-theme cocktails, and a motivated, friendly staff. SouthGate's menu is affordable and intriguing but is also still trying to find the right tone of edgy ideas, authentic Korean flavors, and mainstream accessibility - and erring on the bland side. It's a tall challenge made even more difficult by inconsistencies in the kitchen.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Korean fried chicken, mandoo dumplings, kale salad, tuna hwe dup bap, beef tacos, fish and chips, grandmother's kimchi, misugaru cake with candied persimmon.
DRINKS A small but focused drink program that adds fun Asian twists to cocktails (try the persimmon-infused P&P or "Korombian" sake punch), with several good whiskeys to choose from, and a dozen solid craft beers (Bells, Allagash, Ballast Point) to go with Korean OB lager (the perfect wings beer). There is also a small but basic selection of wines.
WEEKEND NOISE One of the noisiest restaurants measured all year, at an ear-pounding 98 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight; Sunday, until 10 p.m.
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.