Hard Knox Cafe

The soul of Southern comfort
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paulr@sfbg.com

The password for 2009 so far seems to be "hard," as in hard times, hard luck, hard cheese. To this list we might also add Hard Knox Café, whose time has come, though it's never really gone. By this I mean that when you can go into a place and pay $10 for three pieces of good fried chicken and two substantial side dishes, along with a complimentary cornbread muffin, chances are you'll be back, regardless of Wall Street weather. And who needs dessert when Stella Artois on tap is just $3.50?

The ironist (a.k.a. yours truly) finds plenty to like at Hard Knox Café beyond the fried chicken and the Stella. There's the fact that such a value-driven spot should have opened a decade ago, at the golden crest of the Clinton boom, and gone on thriving across 10 topsy-turvy (mostly turvy) years, only to find itself perfectly positioned — and named — for what we can hope will be a new era of value. (A second, and larger, venue opened last summer on outer Clement Street.) There's also the fact that a restaurant serving American comfort-Southern-soul food should be operated by a Vietnamese family, the Huas.

But maybe that isn't ironic at all. Maybe it's just American. And even for confirmed ironists, non-irony has its attractions. Hard Knox's interior design, of a roadhouse, is quietly witty, with wall panels of corrugated steel (shades of the original Straits Café!), floors of distressed wood, and booths upholstered in red vinyl. The crowd, like the neighborhood, is mixed: young and old, working class and tech-geek, people at a round table deep in conversation over piles of chicken bones while others wait just inside the front door for takeout.

It's not hard to see why the food has such broad appeal. If you could only have one meal a day, you'd want something from Hard Knox. No, it isn't fancy; the only foam you'll find here is the head on your Stella. But it does have that mom-is-cooking authenticity. Everything tastes good. And the portions are big. You will not leave hungry.

We did have a slight salting issue with the beef short ribs (at $13 one of the pricier items on the menu). The meat, on its bracelets of bone, was fabulously tender but timid, like a pale partygoer clutching a plastic cup in a lonely corner, waiting to be teased out. Sprinkling salt on awkward party guests isn't necessarily a winning strategy, but it does have a way of bringing beef to life — beef, which, even more than television, asks so little and gives so much.

The crusty fried chicken suffered from no such underseasoning: the coating was adequately seasoned, and the meat was tender, juicy, and flavorful. But we aren't talking about Cajun or otherwise spicy fried chicken; the batter was crisp more than tasty, and while this had the virtue of letting the chicken taste like chicken — and I like the taste of chicken — it also didn't set off any spice fireworks. Of course, none were promised.

At least as appealing as the big plates of protein are the side dishes. In fact you could make a meal of these, a kind of Southern-comfort tapas dinner. You get your pick of two with each main dish, but you can get them à la carte for $3 each, which isn't bad at all.

The lack of glamour in the sides is almost glamorous. We were particularly taken with the stewed cabbage, the mere name of which stirred unholy memories from childhood, when "stewed" could only mean "boiled to death." And stinky! Like the reek of old shoes. But this cabbage — green, cut into thick shreds — had been gently handled; it was a little more tender than stir-fried versions, and very subtly scented with, perhaps, some bacon, fatback, or salt pork. Cabbage once filled me with fear and loathing, but I could eat Hard Knox's version ... well, maybe not every day, but often.

Mac and cheese was tasty if slightly gummy.

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