When word spread that the old Khyber would be donning the proverbial toque and going all gastro on the neighborhood, the news was widely met first with incredulity, then uncertainty and then, finally, resignation. It had been a solid run for the old music-and-beer-and-a-shot joint, but life moves on. Many of us feared this would be an ignominious end to a beloved bar, a last-gasp shift that seemed like the booze equivalent of Joan Rivers’ plastic surgery, ultimately doomed to masklike awkwardness.
But then it opened back in November, and something unexpected happened: The charmingly new Khyber Pass Pub gained well-earned traction, began to grow a following and ultimately proved to be wildly winning in its transformation. It was new, yes, but it had enough of the old (the gargoyles above the original wood bar still roar silently at the door, as they have for more than 100 years) to retain its neighborhood cred.
The food is certainly a significant factor in its success. This is a menu that shows off the pedigree of the owners, who for years have filled bellies and swelled livers at Dos Segundos, Cantina Los Caballitos and Royal Tavern, with which the Khyber Pass Pub now shares more than a few strands of ideological and culinary DNA.
Like those other gems, the Khyber is all about preparing the familiar well enough to make us reconsider their inherent merits—Chef Mark McKinney is clearly at home in his new digs. Fried green tomatoes, for instance, are about as textbook as you’ll find—no flights of fancy here, no panko crust, no foam-light sauce. Just palm-thick slabs of meaty green tomatoes (so much better than the mealy, greenhoused-and-warehoused reds that have marred salads all over the region since late fall) cloaked in a nutty, thick sheath of batter, and plated with a ketchup-based N’Awlins-style remoulade. If this is vegetarian eating, then sign me up for PETA.
Creole caesar salad was essentially just a kicked-up version of the classic, but the judicious use of creole mustard and house-blended cajun spice added that little bit of love that made it worth ordering.
Bacon grease popcorn, which has caused a justifiable buzz around this pig-happy city of late, is magnificent. The smoky-sweet rendered Benton’s bacon fat underpins it all (the Pub has taken to collecting the fat from its three sister restaurants and going through five-gallon vats two or three times each week). Dangerously addictive, this popcorn is the swine lover’s version of smack. Halfway through the fat-sweating bag you’re likely to reach your tipping point, though. This is seriously rich stuff.
Earning its “Pub” status, there’s a smart selection of beer at Khyber, well-balanced between the familiar and the less so, the bottle and the draught, the latter shifting daily. I wish more bars and restaurants would specify, as the Khyber does, what kind of glass your brew will be served in—the little chalk drawings of goblets and pint glasses next to the listings on the wall in the dining room are ingenious.
And the staff is well-versed enough in their beer to be able to make some excellent recommendations. A crisp, light-spirited kolsch was a perfect starter beer, and the Sly Fox Gang Aft Agley’s maltier notes matched up beautifully with the hush puppies (better with the side of molasses butter than with the pepper jelly, which obscured the flavors of the fried cornbread rather than helping them along).
Po’boys are gloriously standard, which is to say authentically conceived and not overly crapped up with unnecessary flourishes. The smartest move here—aside from the hyper-consciousness of the cooking time of the catfish, if that’s what you order—is the fact that the vessel for these messy sandwiches is the thin, crumby-crusted Leidenheimer’s roll, as beloved in New Orleans as Amoroso is here, and just as integral to that city’s emblematic sammy. The burger, thick but not obscenely so, is chin-drippingly juicy and impeccably seasoned.
Barbecue is also a hit, though the ribs more so than the pulled pork, the former a result of its proximity to the bone and subsequent added moistness. But both are worthy, and fairly priced for the generous portion you get. Sides work much the same way: Competence and attention to detail take them from the common to the remarkable. Mac and cheese, made even less healthy with cream cheese added to the cheddar, is compulsively gooey beneath its charred breadcrumb-and-parm crust, and sweet-tangy collard greens actually made me consider downing the juice remaining at the bottom of the bowl like a shot after I was done.
My biggest complaint is with the dessert menu. On the wall, the chalkboard asks guests to inquire about vegan desserts, which implies that there’s a separate listing of them. Unfortunately, the German chocolate cake is vegan, but the menu makes no mention of this. As a result, it possesses the vaguely plastic character that too often betrays the animal-product-free pedigree of an item that’s traditionally not. Crafting a vegan German chocolate cake requires a fair number of changes to the recipe—no butter, eggs, milk, buttermilk or cream—and noting this seems necessary. Fortunately, the white chocolate bread pudding is better—excellent, in fact, with its fluffy center and gently charred stalactites of dough on top.
As for the transformation of the space, it’s lighter and more welcoming, yes, but it hasn’t lost its soul in the process. This is a neighborhood place, and perfectly suited to Old City with its mix of young and aging musicians and artists, new families, googly-eyed college kids and everyone else the hood attracts these days.
All that fear of a lost-soul Khyber that floated around last fall has proved to be utterly unfounded. If only all makeovers were this successful. Joan Rivers’ surgeon should take note.
56 S. Second St. 215.238.5888. khyberpasspub.com
Cuisine type: American, with a southern drawl.
Hours: Kitchen daily 11am-1am; Bar 11am-2am.
Price range: $3-$36 (though most food is less than $16).
Atmosphere: Woody, well-loved and easy to spend hours in.
Food: Solid the whole way through.
Service: Pitch-perfect for the space and the hood.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014