Review featured in AsianWeek, December 26, 2008
When I heard about a soul food restaurant in the Dogpatch run by a Vietnamese guy from Texas, I had to check it out.
Hard Knox owner Tony Hua grew up on southern comfort foods like BBQ ribs and collard greens. Living in San Francisco, though, he found that his cravings for the flavors of his childhood were left unsatisfied. In 1999, he took matters into his own hands and Hard Knox Café was born.
The goal was to bring good, homey food to the table in a comfortable setting where people could relax, enjoy, and not spend too much money. This game plan has proven successful and Hard Knox expanded to a second, roomier location in the Outer Richmond this past April.
Both restaurants are outfitted in the same kitschy diner meets roadside grill look, with walls lined in corrugated steel and a mishmash of vintage prints, divey bar décor, and baseball paraphernalia.
What keeps the steady flow of people through the door? Value. And some Bomb Ass Fried Chicken. Take a big bite through the satisfyingly crispy skin and sink your teeth into some seriously juicy, tender meat. The seasoning is right on, and the golden crust is pumped up with garlicky goodness. This dish is an absolute steal at $10.00 for a trinity of breast, thigh, and wing or drumstick, plus two sides of your choice and a pair of corn muffins. Helloooo, foodbaby. Come to momma.
The Corn Muffins get a lot of love here. Sweet and light, with a crunchy top that’s worth fighting over. Served warm out of the oven, this complimentary starter hits the spot every time.
The kid in me squealed with sugar-high mania when I saw the many flavors of Thomas Kemper and Stewart’s Specialty Sodas available: Vanilla Cream, Classic Grape, Orange Cream, Ginger Beer, Cane Sugar Root Beer, Key Lime, Peach…wheeeee yay for sodies!
Hua mentioned that there are actually many similarities between southern and Asian cuisine. I understood what he meant as soon as I tasted the fist-sized Oxtails smothered in gravy. The gelatinous meat, slowly braised to falling-off-the-bone consistency, reminded me of my mother’s oxtail soup. Maybe that’s why I kept wanting a shot of Maggi soy sauce with it. The flavor was slightly bland, but the brisket-like tenderness was just right.
My favorite dish was the BBQ Spare Ribs. Four meaty pieces piled high and slathered with a finger lickin’ sweet and tangy sauce. Pair it with some mac n’cheese and yams and you are in soul food heaven.
Let’s talk sides for a second. With such an extensive list, there were bound to be hits and misses. The Macaroni and Cheese was strangely both. The noodles were cooked to mush and no longer had the chew of real pasta, the sauce was a little heavy on the garlic powder and salt, and there was no trace of aged cheese anywhere. This was good ol’, probably processed, American cheese. Despite all of this, I ate every last bit of melty, warm cheesiness. It nostalgically reminded me of the ghetto version I used to make as a kid with Kraft singles, and the microwave. Hard Knox’s version is nothing fancy, but it gets the job done and you are satisfied after you’ve finished it.
The Green Beans and Collard Greens are both simmered in chicken broth for an extra boost of flavor. The beans are cooked much longer than I usually prefer, but they were flavorful and I couldn’t stop popping them in my mouth. The collard greens were heavy on the salt, but I liked the bite of bitterness that countered the richness of the entrees.
The Yams, partially mashed with some chunks left for texture, provided a sweet balance of sugar and spice and everything nice to the meal.
I wasn’t a fan of the French Fries, which lacked flavor and tasted a bit undercooked, or either of the rice dishes, one served with smoky black eyed peas, the other served with gravy.
Hard Knox is all about comfort and value. With the generous portions offered, meals here are meant to be shared. And, with two sides included with each entrée, you are able to get a broad sampling under your (substantially loosened) belt.
Good for the wallet, good for the soul … maybe not so good for the waistline.
Third Street Location
2526 3rd St.
(between 22nd St & 23rd St)
San Francisco, CA 94107
Clement Street Location
2448 Clement St.
(between 25th Ave & 26th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94121