Chef Peter Serpico gives University City restaurant a new Korean identity

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If you were expecting one of his famous duck legs squeezed into a hot dog with meat glue — but with a Korean twist — you might be surprised.

Kpod isn’t the most obvious sequel for Peter Serpico, the modernist wizard whose fantasies of franken lamb, frozen foie gras snow and poppy-dusted buttermilk scallops have won acclaim at his now-shuttered eponymous restaurant on South Street. He took a break from the contemporary creativity that had defined his culinary rise to date.

The chef you’ll find at Stephen Starr’s long-awaited 22-year-old Pod makeover in University City dives diligently into Korean classics such as bibimbap, pajeon, and buda jjigae, albeit with subtle twists. Serpico cooks in search of his roots to reconnect with Kyung-ho, the birth name given to him when he was an orphan in Seoul. He was adopted at age two by Dennis and Sally Serpico, who lovingly raised him in suburban Maryland on Friday nights, mac-‘n-cheese, ranch dressing and apple pie.

It was a long journey of awakening for Serpico, 40, who had little interest in his Korean heritage until adulthood. His marriage to a Korean American woman in 2015, however, immersed him in this culture and its flavors, wrapping him in the embrace of his mother-in-law’s limitless banchan, black bean noodles and blue crabs simmered in broth. of spicy anchovies.

“My palace is truly an American palace,” Serpico told me. “But there’s something to be said for you tasting something and there’s a feeling about 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 his place in his childhood, as he writes in Learn Korean: Home Cooking Recipesher first cookbook to be published in May: “I often felt caught in a pattern of expectation between two worlds: a homeland that I didn’t know and a homeland that didn’t always seem to know me. .. But food is what finally helped me discover a part of myself that I never knew existed.

That Kpod’s menu is rooted more in Korean tradition than modernist invention is clearly the result of this personal awakening, one that began with Pete’s Place, the delivery-focused ghost kitchen during its brief run that Serpico humbly described the preparations as “a bit Korean”. .”

The wider menu here also includes plump Korean-style hand rolls with creamy and fatty plain tuna belly, a wide range of classic stews and noodles, fluffy rice cake variations and platters of ssam to share. – like the magnificent short coast. Marinated for a day with Korean pear and tamari, then slowly roasted until tender, its flesh can easily be torn from the bone and wrapped in a bundle of lettuce leaves with rice and a little ssamjang chilli paste – a spectacular centerpiece for a party inside one of the light-changing catering pods which is one of the few design holdovers from Pod 1.0.

I love Richard Stokes’ humanizing redesign for Starr’s once-futuristic Y2K restaurant, throwing away the hard plastic cold edges, foam furniture and robotic sushi conveyor belt, and warming it up with K-pop pastels, wood lacquered and a ceiling fringed with ruffles. A pink flipboard sculpture pays homage to the Amtrak board removed from the 30th Street Station with whirring paddles that cool throughout the night to reveal random messages. (“Mom says: Eat your banchan.”)

It says a lot about the evolution of our catering over the past two decades that a former venue for the short-lived trend of Asian fusion cuisine is now hosting such a serious rumination on identity and traditional Korean cuisine. But this being a Starr production aiming to regularly fill 200 seats on Penn’s campus, there have yet to be openings to a cross-cultural audience with varying tastes.

A drink list with soju cocktails, kimchi-based martinis (“the dirtiest martini ever,” our waiter chimed in) and blueberry-infused makgeolli fizzy rice infusion ups the fun factor. The friendly service team, who are awkwardly forced to strap remote credit card terminals into fanny packs on their bodies, seemed overwhelmed at times. It’s like “I’ll explain this to you!” suddenly became a 10 minute blitz of everything we ordered.

Serpico and his chef, Josh Noh, who is also Korean American, have the seemingly impossible mission of serving up what Serpico describes as “grandma’s cooking” that is both “fun and accessible” for people who “know a lot about Korean food or don’t know anything about Korean food.

With a distinctive cuisine whose essence revolves around the balance of boldly fermented flavors and spices, with functional presentations involving searing bowls, where is this unique line? Chefs have already been called out to by relatives for not bringing to the table the chewy tofu stew that was still bubbling violently in a hot stone crock pot, as any traditional soondubu jjigae would do: “It’s just not not sure,” Serpico says.

I’m sure many have also insisted that Kpod charges for banchan, the range of pickled vegetables usually offered as an addition to the meal. I’m happy to pay for the quality, but Kpod’s two-day kimchi is a bit too fresh to excite me. The broccoli stalk kimchi, however, mixed with the smoky notes of the charred florets, is surely worth $2.50. The $24 seafood pancake is a far cry from the width of Frisbee-sized pajeon most often served in Philadelphia. But this delicious cake is just thicker, to better showcase the generous amounts of chunks of crab, shrimp and scallops inside its delicate crust.

Serpico insists he hasn’t ‘tipped’ any flavors for non-Koreans tastes, and I generally agree. Fundamental taste profiles are in their place on a classic like seafood stew, which is electrified with a shot of aged kimchi juice. But it remains a notch too sweet to showcase its seafood. The volume level of heat and fermented funk is so reduced that the true personality of several dishes, such as tofu stew, cannot be clearly perceived. – a soft 4 out of 10, while I would prefer a bolder 7. or more.

The ramyun mixed with richly braised pork and kimchi stew was surprisingly bland. The bibimbap dolsot barely had any crispiness under its rice and wasn’t worth $23 for the meager bulgogi filling option. By contrast, the Korean Army Stew, a proto-fusion heirloom from the Korean War with American rations of spam and hot dogs, was magnetic, its punchy crimson broth providing a tingling chill on the lips, even with the garnish of complete fondue rations. American cheese. Among Kpod’s essential cravings are the honey butter fries, a gochugaru-dusted riff on the popular Korean fry.

The handrolls were among my favorites on the menu, their grilled seaweed wrappers acting as eye-catching cradles for the textures of succulent raw fish, rice and vegetables – like the chorus of sesame oil and pickled vegetables in the kimbap. The ssam platters, which bring various grilled proteins alongside ssamjang wraps, rice and batter sprinkled with sunflower seeds, were the most delicious main courses. The meltingly tender pork belly and the large prawns encrusted with spiced kimchi butter were just as memorable as this short rib. The pre-order whole pork shoulder ssam ($200 for 6-8 pounds) could surely anchor a memorable gathering.

As the source of the Korean standards that make up much of this menu, Kpod doesn’t particularly stand out from the many other good options (Dubu, Seorabol, Korean) as much as I had hoped. When these cooks flex on experimentation, some distinctive signature dishes emerge.

The inventive carrot and tofu mandu, for example, was more intriguing than the beef balls, whose dense stuffing is too finely ground. The ginger sugar coated mandu stuffed with sweet rice pudding was another nifty dumpling surprise for dessert, although I was even more fond of the charcoal roasted sweet potato with brown butter, ice cream and honey that is a sweet cry to the Noh family table.

Korean fried chicken wings covered in chili glaze are easy to win due to the dish’s already huge popularity. But few also know how to admire the incredibly delicate crust that Serpico has painstakingly designed (with alternative flours and vodka) for a more dynamic crispiness and adding a multidimensional crunch. It’s equally good on Korean Fried Cauliflower, a vegetarian alternative that exemplifies Serpico’s efforts 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 sprinkled with the crackling spices of homemade 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 pepper flakes — not exactly the gourmet magic that Serpico is known for.

So is this the ultimate expression of a leader’s compromise between creative ego and selfless generosity to simply please people? An unqualified appreciation of the ranch dressings of his American upbringing that’s all the more poignant as he explores his Korean roots? As with everything in Peter Serpico’s story, and this new life for Kpod, it’s complex. And the culinary evolution of this chef, I am sure, is far from complete.


The Inquirer does not currently give bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.

3636 Sansom St., 215-387-1803; kpodrestaurant.com

Lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner from Sunday to Thursday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., from Friday to Saturday, until 11 p.m.

Dinner entrees, $16 to $35.

Wheelchair accessible.

Street parking only.

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