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
Occupation: Dean, Science, Technology, & Allied Health Programs
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.
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.
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.