The little brown bag arrived at our table at the Khyber Pass Pub mottled with grease spots already soaking through. Oh, so inviting. Spice-dusted popcorn spilled out, and the billowy white puffs glistened with rendered Benton's bacon fat, a smokehouse glow so incandescent, so dangerously magnetic, that even the early resisters at our table - the ones who first crowed "ewww!"; - could be seen reaching guiltily back, back, back into the pile for more.
When you possess an indulgence as powerful as popcorn porn - and the Khyber's bacon-greased lovelies are just $3 a bag! - it threatens to overshadow the entire show. The kitchen run by chef Mark McKinney, who once, long ago, was a vegan, can go through as much as two gallons of grease a night. Corn junkies even stop by to stock up on their way to the Ritz Theaters.
But the new incarnation of the Khyber Pass Pub, once among the city's grittiest rock-and-roll bars (where the beer was prime, and the food was an afterthought), has remade itself into so many other good things worth paying attention to, as well.
The beer list is still full of top-notch choices - from St. Somewhere saison to Rochefort 8, and Weyerbacher's Blithering Idiot in bottle and Cricket Hill ale on cask - a proper homage to the Khyber's long-standing roots in Philly's craft-brew movement. The servers were impressively well-versed and enthusiastic on that front.
But it is McKinney's inspired Southern menu - especially the Louisiana classics - that really moved my meter. There may be a little overreaching here with the additional forays into barbecue and fried chicken, some worthy but imperfect efforts that I'll get to in a moment.
It has been a long time, though, since I've tasted Louisiana flavors that resonate quite as true as what the Khyber is serving right now. The richly spiced house gumbo with chicken and sausage is as black as midnight in Lafayette, where, in fact, they buy sausage from the Best Stop, my absolute favorite andouille butcher on the planet. (If anything, I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of that sausage in the bowl, not to mention elsewhere on the menu.)
An even more startling delight is the authentically delicate crust and cottony interior of the rolls Khyber uses for its po-boy sandwiches. That's because they're genuine Leidenheimer French breads shipped up from New Orleans - a shock equivalent to finding a hoagie on a seeded Sarcone's loaf in Miami Beach.
Better yet, McKinney does those Leidenheimers justice with an array of spot-on fillings, smartly dressed up with shredded lettuce, mayo, tomatoes, and pickles. My favorite could be the perfectly fried shrimp in cornmeal crust, or the Mississippi catfish fried with a little extra Cajun zip. Or the memorably flavorful and sloppy roast beef that's a dead ringer for the Garden District classic at Parasol's, the tender round boiled and braised in a garlicky gravy thickened with roux and "debris" (pronounced day-bree), the little bits of meat that fall off in the pan, only to resurface in precious gravy slathered over everything from french fries to ham sandwiches.
Considering that he's never been to New Orleans, McKinney's execution is impressive. But a large part of the credit must go to co-owner Dave Frank, a longtime Khyber vet who has partnered here with Stephen Simons since 1997, and who is about as obsessed with New Orleans as a Northerner can get. On his frequent journeys there (up to six times a year), Frank has thoroughly explored the city's rich and diverse repertoire of flavors, both high and low, and has strived to re-create many with some faithfulness.
What a delight to find a nightly special of "shrimp Uggie," the spicy shrimp and potato stew from Uglesich's, the iconic seafood joint that closed before Frank even got to try it. Or the house-made boudin balls, deep-fried croquettes of spicy ground pork, liver, and peppers inspired by Donald Link's Cochon. Or Steen's cane syrup for the dip that came with McKinney's impressively fluffy "big-ass biscuit." Or especially, the odd-but-delicious Bayona sandwich of smoked duck with cashew peanut butter and pepper jelly.
It's a nice wink to the smoked-duck club that is a standard at the Royal Tavern, which Frank and Simons also own, along with Mexican-themed Cantina Los Caballitos and Cantina Dos Segundos. There has always been McKinney-driven quality in those bar kitchens, too, but I sense a deeper personal passion in the specials going up on the Khyber's blackboard these days.
Perhaps, though, a smidgen too much enthusiasm for all things Southern occasionally causes the Khyber to lose its focus. There is an entire side trip to barbecue country, but it's less convincing. The brisket and pulled pork splashed with vinegar sauce were in the ballpark (the fat-cushioned brisket was actually quite good), but the "Carolina-style" ribs were just burnt and unpleasantly chewy. The fried chicken, inspired by Gus' in Memphis, was perfectly fine. But its delicate crust lacked the zip to stand up to the rest of the meal - let alone Philly's other, new-wave chicken masters. Even the burgers here, a comfort spot at the Royal Tavern, seemed fairly ordinary in the bigger, burger-scene picture.
The hush puppies, which should be a slam-dunk, were just bizarre, rubbery squiggles that tasted like deep-fried packing peanuts. The chicken wings, slathered in a trio of overly spicy-sweet barbecue sauces with a too-chunky blue cheese dip, also seemed way off topic - as if to emphasize the Khyber's reluctance to go all-NOLA-all-the-time.
There were a few slips in that genre, too - a skimpily filled muffuletta sank to olive-salad-soaked sogginess on the flimsy puff of a house-baked roll (a disappointment given the Leidenheimer effect on the po-boys). My fried oysters were slightly overcooked. The spice levels, overall, were just a shade too high for complete accuracy.
For the most part, though, the Louisiana flavors here brim with a joy and authentic swagger that I've rarely tasted in Philly this last decade. Rarities like the spicy goodness of pureed greens (mustard, turnip, spinach, collards, garlic tips, among others) in the vegan "gumbo z'herbes," or the fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp rémoulade, or a buttery crawfish étouffée more flavorful than what most French Quarter tourists will ever know, are absolute reasons to come. And Frank has a laundry list of other future "projects," from jambalaya and fried eggplant with powdered sugar to the fluffy New Orleans-style water ice called "snow balls," inspired by Hansen's Sno-Bliz, that make me hungry all over again.
There are already plenty of other fine desserts, though, to sate me in the meanwhile, including a pecan pie based on the Camellia Grill's (though it needs a good facedown griddling), a craggy hunk of moist bread pudding studded with chocolate chips, and a silky crème brûlée infused with sweet potato.
Is it so bad, then, that after all that, we still took our bag of leftover popcorn to go?
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Luke Palladino
in Northfield, N.J. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.