Hard Knox Cafe: Reviews

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Hard Knox CafeHard Knox CafeHard Knox Cafe
Oxtails with Red Beans and Rice and Yams, Fried Chicken with Mixed Vegetables, Barbecued Spare Ribs with French Fries, Macaroni and Cheese, and Corn Muffins

GaryName: Gary
Occupation: Dean, Science, Technology, & Allied Health Programs
Location: Oakland
Favorite Restaurant: Hard Knox Cafe
Reviewed Hard Knox Cafe: Tuesday, October 4, 2005

As an Asian-American growing up in Oakland, I did not taste soul food cooking until I went to Boot Camp in Texas in the 60s, but I surely do remember my first bite of barbecued beef, sliced from the brisket, served on butcher paper, and eaten with sides of corn and macaroni and cheese. Yet Texas and Louisiana cooking is what many Bay Area residents may have grown up on before they came to California during the 40s and 50s. Yet, except for a few small cafes around African-American neighborhoods, like Emmitt Powell’s or Lois the Pie Queen’s, there weren’t many where you could sit down and have a great entree, like ox tail, pork chops, or gumbo, with two sides, like greens and red beans and rice, accompanied by cornbread and a PBR. And you would never find one where the ambience is authentic and the chef is Vietnamese-American!

That’s Hard Knox Cafe — a wonderfully down-to-earth Texas cafe, transported to China Basin, where the owner is a Vietnamese guy, who learned to cook soul food from the best Texas chefs. The night we were there, the counter patrons were a mixture of blacks and whites just off work, having a beer and an order of crisp, flavorful, and notably ungreasy fried chicken; eating at the worn counter; and watching baseball on a plasma screen over the bar. People drop in to pick up their take-out orders. The walls are cleverly decorated with corrugated steel sheeting, a recycled gym floor, a large Coke logo, and a signed Giants jersey.

Every entree — and they all come with a choice of two sides — is under $11, and unlike many soul food kitchens, they come quickly. My three huge chunks of braised oxtail, slathered with gravy, came with creamy mac and cheese and sweet and chunky yams. My dining partners had: turkey wings, barbecued ribs (baked and then grilled), and smothered pork chops. My fried chicken needed a little salt, but it had the required hot, light, ungreasy, crispy crust and juicy interior (even the breast) that you can’t get from the Colonel. The cornbread is so good, you don’t need butter and honey. You drink the lemonade out of a Mason jar, and PBR out of the bottle. Probably the best dinner deal in town is the five-dollar veggie plate, which is any three sides. If you choose the mac and cheese, the red beans and rice, and any veggie, you absolutely will leave satisfied! And ask about the gumbo: the chef only makes it when he has time, because, he says, it takes two days to prepare.

My wife and I have been married for thirty years, and I would say that Hard Knox is the kind of place that’s great for a date — either a first one, when you don’t want to spend too much money and you want to have a lot to talk about or to look at if there’s nothing to say; or a married one, where you don’t need to impress anyone, yet you know her well enough to know what counts over the long haul: honesty, creativity, quality, and fun.


EileenName: Eileen
Occupation: Software Support Sales Operations
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Old Krakow
Reviewed Hard Knox Cafe: Friday, September 30, 2005

Today was one of those perfect days to wander into the Hard Knox Cafe. Indian summer is in full swing and the Blue Angels are practicing above. My best friend since I was a tot, also a native San Franciscan, joined me for our review. Half the treat was breaking up the day in super-casual attire to go to a part of town we both knew well, but hadn’t visited in a while. 3rd Street is ripped up in the final stages of laying down trolley tracks, but heading toward its big, new era. Lucky for Hard Knox, it will be a quick jump on the streetcar to the park, as it sure beats their food and prices.

It pains me to say this, but I could not help but compare Hard Knox to my favorite Southern food restaurant in Houston, Treebeards. Hard Knox is good, don’t get me wrong, but the food wasn’t fantastic. As a package, the atmosphere, the lazy “I am Jimmy Buffet today” feeling, was awesome. (I was kind of put off by the Asian staff serving soul food — kind of like, “What the heck do y’all know about soul food? Is this going to be authentic?” I also noticed that the clientele was a mix of races, but mainly white. Hmmm.) The blues music and killer flat-screen TV made this a place you didn’t want to leave. I really, really wanted to be unemployed and twenty-one again, bad.

I would return for the flavorful ribs and because I want to try more of the twelve different side dishes. There are tons of appetizing choices on the menu, and I know that I would find a handful of favorites that would have me come a’ cravin’ sooner or later. So, the food didn’t blow my mind as a whole because of the sides we picked. Again, I was heavily comparing this to my many visits to Treebeards (whenever I had to go to Houston for work, I would insist that we lunch there. We had to get down to the tunnel location by 11:15am as the lunch line starts to form before they open. So, my reference point is a really great place by many standards — long line before opening: dead give away it’s good.)

The collard greens were slow-cooked, but there was not a lot to them. I make mine with bits of potato, carrot, and bacon. These were onion and greens, and I’m not sure what they used to slow-cook them, but they weren’t inspiring. Needed more salt or something to perk them up. The yams were deadly. They were a shocking sugar concoction with a packet of pumpkin pie spice dumped in. The texture was fine, but the sweet spices were overpowering. After a couple of bites, I was done. The macaroni and cheese was out of a box. Yes, like Kraft mac and cheese for kids, except the pasta size was larger. If you’ve ever had homemade macaroni and cheese, you want to see and taste some cheese and have bits of breadcrumb topping browned and crunchy on top. Sorry, not here. Finally, the red beans and rice were nice. They were on the watery side, but I’d rather have watery than dry any day. The beans were firm, but there wasn’t much going on in terms of flavor with this dish, much like the collard greens. We tried the Cajun meatloaf, and that was interesting. Spicy and hearty.

My friend adored the place. And she liked the food just fine. She was less forgiving of the meatloaf. She felt that meatloaf and Cajun had no business together after all. I was disappointed by the side dishes.

The best thing about Hard Knox Cafe is the package: huge menu selection of inexpensive favorites, great easygoing atmosphere, and super-nice and efficient staff. If the food isn’t just right, who cares — it’s cheap and good enough. But if you know better, it might really bug you that they didn’t pull it off with flying colors. I’m going back but expecting good, not great.


BruceName: Bruce
Occupation: CEO, founder of a wireless healthcare company
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Incanto
Reviewed Hard Knox Cafe: Sunday, October 2, 2005

What is a quaint Southern cookin’ roadside joint doing in the middle of the Dogpatch? Who cares — it belongs. And, in fact, it probably helps define that scrappy stretch of town. My bet is that once that 3rd Street line finally goes live (who the heck knows when that will be), they will have steady stream of UCSF Mission Bayers filling up the tables at lunchtime.

The place has an engaging layout, décor, and vibe about it. It feels like a cross between Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes inside — providing that you do not look at the nice flat-screen TV showing the latest ballgame.

The protein in the center of your plate is solid — good flavor, temperature, texture, execution. The side dishes, which are all carbs, hold great premise and promise but are a real weak link in the meal — no zip. For example, the mac and cheese: once it cooled off a bit, it could be used to fill some of those potholes on 3rd street.

When we asked for dessert, they were out of their one offering, bummer, so the meal then ended on a shortened note. I would take some of my adventurous Southern friends out there and get their read.

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  • Tony

    I’ve driven by the Hard Knox Cafe quite often on my trips to the baseball park. After watching the show, I had to stop in and give it a try. On this occassion, I ordered the Chicken, Mixed Vegetables, Red Beans and Rice. The taste was good, portions were large and filling. But, they lacked the down-home country feel and flavor. The Chicken was not greasy (a good thing), the Mixed Vegetables, Red Beans and Rice lacked emotion. Which in turn was probably good for my health. I will be stopping in during the baseball season for lunch on the run. Overall, the meal was good, but I would not call it cajun or soul food.

  • James

    Hard Knox Cafe is a great place to hang out and fill up the tummy that will last the whole day through. The decor is , hip, unique and comfortable. The menu is varied for almost all appetites and the portions are large. It’s certainly more bang for the buck. My personal favorites are the ribs with the sweet yams and fries. The service is attentive and has a down to earth feeling. I would definitely be back to try out more of the menu and invite my friends to hang out at the diner.

  • B

    Drove up from South Bay today just to eat at the Hard Knox Cafe and find a line out the door and the placed filled (we were seated within 15 minutes)! Many couples were talking about how they saw the show and had to come try and it was well worth the travel. The fried chicken was excellent, a crispy skin and tender meat. The mac and cheese is deliciously home-made (definitely not wanting to go to boxed versions again) and the yams were good, though a bit too sweet and cinnamon-y. The cornbread was served warm with a great sweet taste and a fluffy inside. My friend had the ox-tail and it was stewed or braised so perfectly and melted with the gravy. We wanted to hang out in the city for a couple hours and come back for dinner! The service was great, they’re friendly and attentive – never slow or forgetful about any request. This is a great restaurant, and a great recommendation from Gary. I don’t hear too many raves about casual dining and this is a rare treat!

  • Dining Diva Carol

    I couldn’t wait to try Hard Knox. Knowing what a foodie I am, 5 friends called to tell me about it. I went today and was not disappointed. Had the fried catfish and my friend had the fried chicken. Tried the sides of black eyed peas and the yams. She had french fries and mac and cheese. The Lemonade was very good. Both meals were very good. So good in fact that I took an order of fried chicken home plus the gumbo had just finished cooking so I ordered that. We both will be back.

  • chris

    I was curious about the sides. Tony , the owner, explained that because many of his customers were vegetarians, he wanted to be sure that the sides that they might like, esp the red beans and rice, and the greens, were made without meat,. While I myself prefer those dishes with smoked turkey necks, or ham hocks, I tasted them in a different way the last time I came; with the bbq sauce from the ribs mixed in, they were great!!!

  • Jay

    i love this place and had mixed feelings about the press from this show. i want Hard Knox to be as successful as it can be, both because of the excellent food and the great owners, but when i went there, i was a little put off that most of the people there were eating because of the show…i felt a little like i was losing “my place.” i thought the causcasian lady was a little condescending in both her written review, and on the show. i live in the area and her description of the area being “safe” (you’ll have to excuse me for not remembering her exact phrase…i just remember being somewhat offended by her statement essentially okaying the area for non-blacks {i am japanese-american)) and her constant comparing of Hard Knox to Treebeards. My opinion is that the cafe should stand on it’s own, rather than being compared, and lessened, by a comparison to a place you already have a strong bias for. anyways, thank you for showcasing this wonderful place and i look forward to your future shows.

  • Michael Nelson

    Went there this morning (Sunday) and arrived before they opened. The owner saw me looking in the window and said they didn’t open until 11AM. I said I knew that, but was looking for a place to lock up my bicycle. He said “Oh, you can just bring it inside.” +2 stars right there.

    I was the first person seated and served. The coffee was great, served in a cup big enough to double as a hot tub.

    After perusing the menu, I decided on smothered pok chops, mac & cheese and green beans. When it arrived, the portions were quite large and accompanied by two warm cornbread muffins and enough butter to satisfy even me.

    However, everything was really bland. The chops were stewed to falling apart in some tasteless brown gravy, the green beans seemed like Del Monte canned ones (I think they were fresh though, but overcooked), and Kraft makes better mac & cheese.

    The place was packed (all the tables and the bar). It’s very clean and the folks are very nice, but the food is just too much of a yawner for me to go back.

  • Eldon

    My primary reason for posting a comment is in response to Eileen’s (the reviewer) comment, (“I was kind of put off by the Asian staff serving soul food–kind of like, ‘What do y’all know about soul food? Is this going to be authentic?’ I also noticed the clientele was a mix of races, but mainly white. Hmmm.”)
    First of all, she calls herself a native San Franciscan. Mixed race clientele? Of course, THIS IS SAN FRANCISCO!!!
    Secondly, “put off by the Asian Staff….what do y’all know about soul food”—It may be a surprise to Eileen, but Asians live ALL over America, yes, EVEN TEXAS!Wouldn’t Texans know how to cook their region’s cuisine, despite their race? Why WOULDN’T they know about soul food?!

    By the way, Hard Knox is a great place.

  • JulieC

    I’ve had dinner at the Hard Knox Cafe 3 times — all before the show had aired. (And I’ve seen Check Please! a few times but I missed this episode.)

    I’ve had a reasonably decent jambalaya, very memorable fried chicken, and ox tails to die for. The side I especially can’t get enough of are the yams — must be something about the sweet happy holiday taste that makes me all warm inside. Twice my dinner mates have ordered extra corn muffins to go; I think those are heavenly warm cakes of sunshine!

    Warmest regards,
    Julie (raised in the Inner Mission, Outer Sunset, Inner Richmond, and Excelsior)

  • Andrew

    Since I live in the neighborhood, I have been going to the Hard Knox for years, and there is no other restaurant in the city that I would rather support. The food is inexpensive and great. Tony and Teresa, the proprieters, welcome most people by name. This is practically the most unpretentous place to eat in the entire city which makes it the exact opposite of the woman who reviewed Hard Knox on the show.
    The Hard Knox is a great neighborhood place in the middle of the Dogpatch. Great laid back, diverse environment. Highly recommended. Try the fried red snapper. Get some extra corn muffins.

  • LIZ

    Hard Knox does an outstanding fried chicken. Crisp, tender, juicy, non-greasy, and hot–just out of the fryer. The service was mediocre at best, with the owner’s wife a bit aloof and not helpful–the owner behind the bar also aloof. They seemed overwhelmed yet the place was not that that busy. The owner’s wife finally came over and took our order—they all could have been more attentive and more welcoming. Another waitress came over at the end of our meal and I asked if the bbq sauce for the ribs was home-made. She said they used Master Piece BBQ sauce. That was greatly disappointing to me as I had expected a house-made bbq sauce from such a restaurant rather than a commercial sauce that I can buy from the supermarket! I would, however, return just for their fried chicken dinner.

  • chris

    I just read the comment about Masterpiece BBQ sauce. Amzingly, I was watching one of the food network programs about bbq, and apparently, a majority of true southern style bbq sauces start with MPBBQ sauce as the base, and apparently it only became available to the public some time ago . anyone know if this is a fact, or urban legend? By the way, check out the hard knox tee-shirt… pretty cool.

  • chris

    Congratulations are in order for lovers of fried chicken. Hard Knox received the SF Express vote for “best fried chicken.” Well deserved.

  • Nate

    Sorry to say this, but we are not in the south, we are in Northern California. Finding soul food this good and authentic around here is pretty hard. Hard Knox makes this happen. Amazing fried chicken, authentic tasty sides, and great wine/beer selection. Cool atmosphere and really friendly service completes the soul food dining experience that I enjoy each visit. In terms of race(which shouldn’t matter), the owners are I believe Korean and it is a family run joint, but of course like ALL San Francisco reasturants the cooks are from latin america, so the waiters/owners race shouldn’t matter. When I go the crowd is usually mixed, not mostly white like the one reviewer above stated. I’m sure she went for lunch, when the crowd is alot of tech buisness lunch breakers, but for dinner it is a more mixed crowd. I couldn’t think of a better place to hang out with some friends, get a few drinks and eat some good soul food. So If you can’t all ready tell, I highly recommend The Hard Knox Cafe!

  • Korika Wright

    Every time I leave the Hard Knox, I leave Saying Yum Yum.. They are the best soul food in town…Must Try..
    Thanks, Hard Knox for bringing the Authentic back in fried Chicken..(recomend everything I had it all) Love It

  • Allen Wright

    I’ve gone there several times now. Each visit has been a pleasure. It satifies my craving for comfort food and good beer. It has a unique ambiance that may not appeal to all but I like it jut fine.

  • Brian Catania

    I tried Hard Knox today after seeing the show a while back. I had the fried chicken, mashed potatos and red beans and rice. strange combination but I had to try the red beans and rice. they were very good. as someone esle said they were bland, perhaps a bit but i always add hot sauce to mine anyway and they were great. the fried chicken was the best i’ve had in a restaurant. The potatos were great too. The service was excellent. Very friendly and attentive. At least while I was there it was busy and the crowd was probably 70% African American which made me feel comfortable that this was an authentic place. I’ll definitely go back

  • Dining Diva Carol

    Please go by the just opened second location on Clement & 26th Ave. Bigger space, still great food and the lines are still out the door.

  • James

    My wife and I have wanted to try the Hard Knox Cafe for the longest time but making across town was difficult. We finally made it to the cafe. We ended up at their second location on Clement and 26th. For me, when I hear great reviews about movies or food, I always end up disappointed.
    I had to try the fried chicken because of all the rave reviews. As sides I had the collard greens and red beans and rice. The chicken and the red beans and rice were good. It was fresh and well made. Collard greens is an acquired taste. My wife thought that Popeye’s fried chicken was better. She ended up ordering mashed potatos, yams, and mac and cheese. She loved the mash potatos but thought the yams were too sweet because it had too much of a certain spice. I can’t rave about the place but I plan on going back to try the other main dishes. I would recommend this place for anyone who wants to give this type of cuisine a try. I’ve been to New Orleans and Georgia for long streches at a time and loved the southern food down there. My dad’s customers have cooked southern food for us to try and it was awesome. You don’t find this kind of food on every corner in the Bay Area. The staff was very friendly and the decor was cool. The food is fresh and plenty and very resonably priced.

  • Evan

    I have been going to the original Hard Knox for years as I used to work in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. During my first trip there, the friend I was with me to try the Country Fried Steak. I never have been a big fan of Country Fried/Chicken Fried steak, but on my friend’s promise to pay for the meal if I did not like it, I ordered it. This was five years ago, and to this day I go back just for this dish. In fact, I have never tried any of the other dishes because I do not feel the need to.
    I finally convinced my wife, who is not a huge fried food, southern food, fan to go with me to the Clement Street location which was our first trip. I ordered my usual with sides of mac and cheese and collard greens. The corn bread muffins came first and they were extremely good. Hot, moist, topped with the melted butter, a perfect start to the meal. My steak was cripsy enough, not over cooked, and was had just the right amount of gravy on it. Other reviewers often state their lack of satisfaction with the macaroni and cheese because it taste’s like out of the box. I agree, but something about the mac and cheese reminds me of my child hood!! The collard greens did not have much flavor but I felt better eating them knowing that my arteries were clogging based on the fried steak, gravy, and mac and cheese. Dinner for two, with two beers and two sodas came to $30.00 which to me is a huge bargain in the city. On top of that, my wife and I were so full after the meal we felt we going to burst. An excellent choice for a cheap, down home good meal!!

  • Petti Wilks

    I was introduced to Hard Knox Cafe on Check Please! I live approx. 30 miles south of S.F. and the trip was worth my time! At this time, I have made 3 trips to Hard Knox Cafe and was accompanied by a relative or friend, we all agree the cafe is TWO HIGH THUMBS UP!! At this point, I have enjoyed ordering fried chicken, ox tails and short ribs dinners. Also, side dishes of red beans and rice, collard greens and mixed vegetables. The cornbread muffins and cream sodas is also a big plus! In addition, ordering a dinner to go, is always a must!! On my next trip, I plan to vist the new location at Clement & 26th Ave. I wish the Hard Knox Cafe owners & staff continue success.

  • Amy

    I’m another person who found this place from Check Please! My husband and whenever we’re in SF to visit my parents, we make an effort to come here from some homestyle grub.

    So far we have enjoyed the fried chicken (extremely moist and juicy and not seasoned like Popeye’s or KFC), ribs (tender and meaty), collard greens (rather wet and bland), cabbage (this one had much better taste than the collards), mac n cheese (I realized this is not my fave. Too bechamel tasting and not enough cheese flavor to it. It got worst as it got colder); yams (very pleasing and not overly sweet), mash potatoes (pretty good).

    Atmosphere is great, employees are very friendly-but service can be slow on a busy night, parking is so quick and easy and food for the most part is delicious.