Thursday, February 24, 2011

Khyber Pass Pub's One-Night Izakaya

Ever since coming to Philadelphia, one thing I’ve been on the hunt for is delicious and affordable Japanese food. Sure, there’s Pod and Morimoto, but these places can be pricey and are generally reserved for special occasions. This past Monday, however, East met West in the form of a pop-up izakaya (Japanese pub) at Khyber Pass Pub.

A pub normally known for their Southern fare, Khyber adopted a Japanese-cuisine menu for one night only. What’s interesting is that when the place was undergoing renovations last fall, it was originally planned to be an izakaya. However, response from the community drove it to take up a Southern-themed menu. Still, Khyber co-owners Stephen Simons and Dave Frank (heads of the Royal Tavern restaurant group) refused to give up on the idea of Japanese fare: a place called Royal Sushi and Izakaya is rumored to be in the works. Until then, they offered a taste of what’s to come via Monday night’s pop-up izakaya. According to Simons, the pop-up is “probably the first in a series and the only one where ramen will be the featured dish.”

Chef Todd Dae Kulper of Ro-Zu fame was at the helm of the Japanese-inspired menu that evening. The menu was expansive for being a pop-up, with options for both meat-eaters and vegetarians. From nasu miso sando (grilled eggplant buns) to kawahagi (grilled trigger fish jerky), mentaiko meshi (spicy cod roe with rice) to jaga-imo furai (french fries with wasabi kewpie mayo), there was something for everyone’s tastes. As delicious as everything sounded, there was no way I’d be able to try everything. So, I settled on tori no kara-age (fried chicken) and hakata-fu tonkotsu ramen (Hakata-style pork broth noodle soup).

A plate piled with a generous mound of Japanese-style fried chicken arrived first. Let’s just say these were no ordinary chicken nuggets! The meat was flavored with a deliciously sweet soy sauce-based marinade, then dredged with a potato-like starch and deep-fried until golden brown. The excellent coating—light and crispy—gave way to an incredibly moist interior that was tender and juicy. A dipping sauce composed of chili, grated daikon, scallions, and ponzu accompanied the appetizer; the pungent vinegary dressing perfectly offset the sweetness of the chicken. Each piece was the perfect bite-sized portion: overall, it was a wonderful start to the meal.

Up next was the featured dish of the evening: the Hakata-style ramen. The steaming bowl was filled with a large portion of ramen noodles; each strand had a complex texture with just enough resilience and a certain springiness. Atop these noodles was an array of ingredients that worked harmoniously together in terms of texture and umami (the Japanese “fifth taste” relating to savoriness, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). The two contrasting cuts of pork—buta kakuni (slow-roasted pork belly) and nibuta (braised pork shoulder)—were tender and unctuous, filling my mouth with the right touch of fattiness. The acidic karashi takana (spicy pickled mustard greens) perked up the dish, while the kikuage (seasoned wood ear mushrooms), moyashi (soy bean sprouts), ajitsuke menma (bamboo shoot), and negi (scallions) added a vibrant freshness to the full-bodied nature of the ramen. Hanjuku tamago (seasoned boiled egg) also enhanced the dish’s texture with its solidified whites and barely-thickened yolk. The heart of the ramen, however, was in the tonkotsu broth. Known for its signature milky white color, the soup broth extracts its flavor from the marrow of pork bones cooked for at least 23 hours. The soup base was rich and warming, taking the various components and unifying them into one satisfying bowl of ramen.

Overall, the food was filling and expertly-prepared. Chef Kulper brought some of Japan’s rich cuisine to life in Philadelphia for this special one-night-only event. I’m looking forward to future pop-up events run by the Royal Tavern group. While it’s a great way for us as consumers to try dishes not usually offered at restaurants, it’s also the perfect opportunity for restaurants to test new menus and judge customer satisfaction. With regards to the delicious meal I had on Monday, I can only hope that Royal Sushi and Izakaya opens soon so I can get my Japanese food fix!


  1. I enjoyed reading all your descriptions of each dish. The crispy and moist Japanese-style fried chicken with dipping sauce sounds so delicious! YUMMY!

  2. Everything looks amazing. It's a shame there aren't too many Japanese returants in Philly. However, the ramen sounds delicious, especially in this cold weather.

    Can't wait 'till your back home. :D

  3. Everything looks amazing. It's a shame there aren't too many Japanese returants in Philly. However, the ramen sounds delicious, especially in this cold weather. おいしいですね!



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