It’s a Hard Knox Life: Vietnamese-owned soul food cafe opens second location in the Richmond District

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SAN FRANCISCO — Hard Knox Cafe may have a rough name, but the restaurant serves great food with Southern hospitality in the Richmond District.

After almost 10 years serving soul food on Third Street in the Dogpatch neighborhood, chef/owner Tony Hua’s success prompted him to open an 80-seat second location in the predominately white and Asian Richmond District. Planted next to ethnic restaurants, patrons can easily identify the baseball-font signage on Clement Street. The decor has been carefully renovated with an industrial-themed design, but antique model airplanes on the walls, booth seating and blues playing in the background create a cozy atmosphere, metal sheet walls notwithstanding.

Hua lived in Texas during his early years and learned about the soul food business from chefs and his African American godmother. Despite his parent’s disapproval, Hua took the risk and dove into the restaurant business in 1999.

Hua said customers often question what a Vietnamese chef knows about soul food. “I tell them to try the food,” Hua said. “If it is not good, you don’t have to pay for it.” Hua added that soul food and Chinese food are very similar in that meats are marinated before cooking.

Hua said that good food plays only a small part in a restaurant’s success, in addition to service and managing food costs. Although he works long hours, Hua claims that his passion to serve people has helped him along the way.

The menu offers a compact list of familiar Southern offerings. All entrees are less than $20, and sandwiches are under $10. The oxtail meat ($15) literally falls off the bone and made me wish they had added an extra piece. The three-piece fried chicken ($10) does not disappoint. Sampling both white and dark meat, the thin batter creates a crispy skin, notably not greasy, that holds in moist meat very well. Another sinful delight done well is the country-fried steak ($10), cube steak coated with a seasoned batter that is fried and dressed with a ladle of gravy.

The restaurant does a good rendition of Southern barbeque ribs ($11). Basted in a mild sauce with just the right amount of sweetness, the tender meat plays center stage. I would skip the smothered chicken (pulled chicken in a gravy sauce, $11), which lacks character.

Each entree includes two choices of side dishes. With a blend of American and cheddar cheese, the creamy mac ‘n cheese is my favorite side dish. The rice and gravy compliments the oxtail, while the beans and rice adds a soft texture to the fried chicken. Balancing the country-fried steak, earthy collard greens is a great vegetables side. With the rich sauce from the spare ribs, the mashed potatoes amplify the comfort dish. The string beans add a crunchy texture to any entree.

The Arnold Palmer (lemonade mixed with brewed tea, $2.75) served in a mason jar was refreshing. As they await their alcohol license, other drink favorites include bottled root beer and orange cream soda.
Hua emphasized that he makes all his food fresh daily. Both the entrees and sides are not over salted, allowing the flavors of the main ingredients to shine.

For five people, the total was $80 including tax and tip. Service was accommodating, and the wait staff frequently patrolled our table and attended to our needs.

HARD KNOX CAFE

2448 Clement St.
(415) 752-3770
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Monday through Saturday:
10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sunday:
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Prices: $5.50-15

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