Tuesday Burgers, Korean Tacos and Candy-Fried Wings: SouthGate Reviewed

Southgate’s Korean fusion sounds great on paper, but can an ex-Momofuku cook pull it off in Philly?

southgate-bar-aaron-hernandez-940

SouthGate | Photo by Aaron Hernandez

I have lied thousands of times.

Across countless dinners in half a dozen cities in four different states, I have been asked more times than I can recall: How is everything tonight?

How are you enjoying your tofu and pomegranate potpie? How is that ridiculously undercooked quail? Why are you just pushing those mushy snails around on your plate and not really eating them?

And, oh, I say, everything is fine. It’s wonderful. Excellent. I’m just not as hungry as I thought I was, but can I maybe get a box for the rest of this grilled guinea pig? I can’t wait to have it for lunch tomorrow. …

At Southgate, the bartender stopped by to see me at the end of the bar. He asked, “So how’s that cheeseburger?”

AT A GLANCE

★★
SouthGate
1801 Lombard Street
215-560-8443

CUISINE: Korean-American Gastropub

PRICES: $$ (everything is under $20)

RECOMMENDED: The burger if you’re feeling lazy, and the Korean chicken wings if you don’t mind making a mess of yourself and everything around you.

SNAP JUDGMENT: Better, friendlier and more fun than it looks from the outside, Southgate pulls off Korean-American gastropub fusion in a way that’ll make you jealous if this isn’t already your neighborhood joint.

And I looked up, smiled (my face likely smeared with pickle juice and ssamjang mayo), and said, “That is a great goddamn Tuesday burger, man. I mean it.”

And though I’m a liar by necessity (and occasionally just because I’m not always the best man I could be), this time I was telling the absolute truth. Southgate’s burger—which by all rights ought to have been a throwaway, some terrible fusion-y mess of Korean-American nonsense ruined by the strictures of a Korean-inspired gastropub concept—was awesome. Perfectly medium rare, the patty marinated before its trip to the grill and then floored with green leaf lettuce slicked with that spicy orange ssamjang mayo and sweet house-made pickles, it was, just like I told the man, a great Tuesday burger. Not the burger you’re looking forward to, not the one you know going in is supposed to be good, but a surprise burger.

The burger would’ve been enough. God knows I’ve fallen for places for less. But my Tuesday at Southgate’s long, dark wood bar was just a pop-in. A double-check on a place that I’d liked more than I thought I would from the first time I went there. A long, narrow space with easygoing service and a neighborhood crowd dotted here and there with hunching grubniks going all Avedon with their smart phones over Korean sweet potato fritters and stone bowls of bibimbap with drooling fried eggs slumped on top; with chef Clara Park in the kitchen (ex of Town Hall in San Francisco, Momofuku Ko in Manhattan, and Chopped on the Food Network, where she was a champion), banging out long white plates of double-fried Korean chicken wings dressed in shatteringly crisp shells and gently sweet-hot gochujang sauce; with kids and babies everywhere on a Sunday night and Hendricks gin behind the bar and a cocktail list that made my wife (who hates whiskey) drink whiskey and pomegranate and fresh lime and want to come back the next night for two more.

Drink List | Photo by Aaron Hernandez

Drink List | Photo by Aaron Hernandez

Chicken katsu is the dish you put on your fusion menu so that people who hate Korean food, spicy food, complicated food, foreign food and, really, just food in general have something to eat while they sulk. Here, it was … chicken katsu—panko-breaded, fried, sliced into strips and served with rice. But it was also the best chicken katsu I’ve had in longer than I can recall, because (like that Tuesday burger) it wasn’t treated like a throwaway. The chicken was tender and juicy. The rice was sprinkled with Japanese togarashi, all capsicum-bright and bluntly spicy. It was simple but solid and treated with respect, which is admirable. I mean, still boring as hell, sure, but necessary. And not terrible, which is sometimes all that’s required.

On a crowded night, pressed in close to the banquette-back tables on either side of us, my wife and I ate mandoo dumplings stuffed with ground beef and scallions then deep-fried, and ho-bbang steamed buns that were giant, magical white and puffy clouds filled with soft Korean sweet potato and braised pork belly and then dipped in a bowl of honey. The ho-bbang ruled the table until the wings came (sweet soy garlic sauce this time, sticky and perfect, fading into cloying after the third wing), and then the wings ruled the table even after my Korean tacos arrived, because even though the tacos were good (sliced sirloin, marinated in soy, ginger and scallion—the Asian mirepoix—served with pickled red onions and gochujang crema), the wings were just better: the shells like candy, the meat sucked off the bone shamelessly as we ran through Handi-Wipes faster than the server could bring them.

Southgate has problems, but they’re small ones. Fixable, except for one that’s a little bit damning. The lettuce on that great Tuesday burger was chopped (which can sometimes be fine) but hadn’t had the spines trimmed out (which isn’t). Park seems to lean a little heavy on the sweet side of things. She balances that nicely with sour, but seems scared of bringing any serious heat. Maybe that’s deliberate. If it’s not, it’s a problem. And on the plate of mandoo dumplings, there’s an eggplant puree that’s gray. It tastes fine, but it looks like a puddle of industrial grout.

Nothing on a plate should ever be gray. Really, nothing in a restaurant should ever be gray. And yet Southgate is largely gray. The gray and white tiles on the walls aren’t too bad. They set off the dark wood of the bar and the blond tables. But the untiled parts of the walls are dark gray, as are the window frames and the back bar. Outside, the building is wrapped in a long gray stripe, and it makes the place forgettable. Easy to miss.

But if you’re in the neighborhood, find it. Because Southgate is one of those very rare places that reach unashamedly for fusion cuisine and nail the chaos and the joy of it perfectly. Southgate isn’t dogmatic. It’s not traditional or serious or fine. Chef Park, her crew, the neighbors—they all seem to remember something important about eating out.

That, first things first, it’s supposed to be fun.

And having a great goddamn Tuesday burger never hurt anyone.

Two stars – Worth the trip if you’re in the neighborhood

SouthGate [Foobooz]

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