Pod: A Philly Classic for Japanese Cuisine

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Over the last decade, there’s been a whole load of amazing new restaurants to hit the Philly scene, but sometimes we forgot about those classics that have defined the city for year. University City’s Pod Restaurant is exactly one such spot. And you need to get back there!

Remember Pod? How could you forget? One of the original “new wave” restaurants in Philadelphia, it was opened by Stephen Starr in 2000 adjacent to U Penn in University City. It had a pan-Asian menu, a kitchy sushi conveyor belt, the bubble chairs that weren’t that comfortable, the polished white surfaces, and you couldn’t get enough of it.

Pod was an anchor in the Stephen Starr empire for years, one of the original restaurants that garnered him a nod as a James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Restauranteur (an award he eventually won a decade later). Be assured, it stands the test of time.

Ribeye Sukiyaki with Udon Noodles and Shiitake Mushrooms in black bowl
Ribeye Sukiyaki with Udon Noodles and Shiitake Mushrooms

Over the years, Pod Philadelphia has had a couple of iterations. First a heavily sushi-inspired menu (until the opening of Morimoto), which then pivoted into pan-Asian cuisine. And then the restaurant morphed into Korean during the short-lived pandemic-pivot known as Kpod. And now back to its roots with a solidly Japanese-ish menu that leans heavily on sushi (without the conveyor belt).

Don’t worry, some of your favorite menu items (the JFC Karaage – Japanese Fried Chicken) from the Kpod era can still be found. With all of the changes over the years, this latest iteration may well be its finest. And if you haven’t been lately, you really need to go.

Marble plate of sushi and fluke crudo on yellow plate
Sushi and the fluke crudo

Over the last few months, we’ve revisited Pod again and again. It’s been like getting reacquainted with an old friend, while falling in love with all the ‘newness’ that makes it so great. Under the watchful eye of sushi guru Kevin Yanaga and chef Kenjiro Omori, Pod has rolled out a menu that is equal parts ‘chose your own adventure’ and ‘don’t even try to guess because we’ll surprise you.’

And we absolutely love it. Please obey all traffic laws, but get here as soon as you can. This Pod has everything you remember, plus a few new surprises to rekindle that romance.

The Menu

Croquettes on black marble plate
The snow crab croquettes

The food at Pod is all Japanese or Japanese-ish, and is designed for sharing. The small cold and hot plates feature perennial favorites (salted edamame and cooling seaweed salad) alongside creative interpretations like tuna nachos and snow crab croquettes.

If there’s a signature menu item, it may well be the “JFC” – the Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage. It’s hearty and tangy, and you’ll see the distinct white buckets on every single table in the restaurant.

The proteins from the robata Japanese grill all sing in their simplicity. The meats and shrimp that are carefully seasoned and grilled are among our favorite items on the menu.

Sushi crab rolls next to bowl of butter
The Butter Krab Roll with warm, clarified butter and ponzu

But Pod’s a Japanese restaurant and their sushi menu is among the most interesting in the city. The Butter Krab Roll (made with kani) and paired with a small bowl of warm clarified butter + ponzu. It’s an insane combination and unlike any sushi roll we’ve ever tried.

There’s no bad options. So bring a few friends and try the menu.

The Vibe

Main dining room at Pod in University City
The main dining room and sushi counter

Pod has a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Your server walks up sporting a fanny pack, gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, and a smile. The server acts more like a friend or a guide through unusual and potentially unknown ingredients.

Stephen Starr has described the current iteration of Pod as “grown up sushi.” The gimmicks are gone: the bubble chairs, the sushi conveyor belt, the red lacquer, and the vivid pastel colors projected on white surfaces. But long-time fans will be happy that some of the more famous elements remain, including the colorful message board and the private pod booths with the color lights.

As we’re eating, Chef Kenjiro Omori passes by our spot at the sushi bar and suggests we dunk something into the hot mustard. That led to a brief conversation about college football (we went to the same university) and food. He’s passionate about his cooking – and sharing with guests. Despite being a busy Saturday night service, he has a relaxed attitude.

Pod is exactly the kind of sushi spot we are craving right now – sophisticated food in a friendly, unpretentious environment.

Price Range

Skewers of short rib from the robata grill
The short rib skewers off the robata grill

The menu options are all quite affordable with the idea of sampling lots of different items. Cold dishes run from $9-29. Hot menu items are $7-18, plus a couple of larger options that are $32-68 and meant for sharing.

The robata grill has skewers from $12-19. Rice and noodle dishes from $10-29. Sushi is updated frequently based on market prices.

For happy hour, snack options range from $5.00-$12.00. They also have beverage specials for $8.00. These represent a good discount off the regular menu.

The restaurant also has a fantastic happy hour in the bar from 5-7pm on weeknights. Some of the restaurant’s greatest hits (including the incredible butter krab roll) can be had on the cheap.

Reservations

Private dining pod with red lighting
Reservations are helpful, but critical for the private dining pods

Reservations at Pod are extremely smart. You can reserve a table on the Resy app or the Pod website. We’ve had reservations on the weekend. We’ve also walked in on weeknights with no reservation without a problem.

If you’re looking for happy hour in the bar, it’s walk-in only.

Location

Dessert of oishi red strawberries and white teardrop frosting
The oishi strawberry dessert

The Pod Restaurant can be found at 3636 Sansom St. in University City. The nearest parking garage is the Walnut 38 garage around the corner from the restaurant at 3731 Walnut St. We have also had good luck finding street parking along 36th Street, Chestnut Street, and S University Avenue near the restaurant.

The restaurant is well served by public transit. The Bus #21 stops at 37th and Chestnut, and the 36th Street Trolley (#11, 13, 34 and 36) is one block away. The 34th Street Station on the Market-Frankford Line (MFL) is 3 blocks away.

Visit the Pod website for more information.

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