Hard Knox Cafe (Dogpatch) – A Southern Perspective

I wrote about my experience at Hard Knox Cafe last Fall. But I’m from California. Northern California, to boot. What the hell would I really know about true Soul (or Southern) food?

After some agreement with the Grumpy Glutton about the sad state of BBQ affairs in San Francisco, I visited the original Dogpatch Hard Knox digs for another round. This time I brought with me Missie L., a native from Kentucky, foodie, cook, and oh, at one point in her life she worked on the Kingsford Charcoal brand. (This means that she got to go to “conferences” that I would interpret more as “state fair barbecues.”) Yeah, keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the American barbecue diet is such a pain, but someone’s gotta do it, right?

At about 7:15pm on a Thursday, we were seated fairly quickly. So fast that I only managed to caveat three, not four times, that our experience was NOT going to mimic that of a restaurant in the South. Yes, I was nervous. The ABM is from New Orleans, and he seems to not mind repeat visits to Hard Knox, but…he also puts about 5 Tbs. of Chinese red pepper hot sauce into his homemade Italian pasta sauce.

Each entree at Hard Knox comes with the choice of two side dishes, and two corn muffins. Yum. We decided to split an order of 3-piece fried chicken, and BBQ (pork) ribs.

Two key side dishes to try as a benchmark for a restaurant’s Soul food cooking, Missie L. instructed, were the green beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy. To round out the sides, I selected mac ‘n cheese, and blackeyed peas.

A party that was seated after us, got their order before we did. Missie L calmed me down with the soothing voice of an expert BBQ-eating sensei talking to her grasshopper. “They didn’t order fried chicken. Fried chicken, if they’re making it to order for us, takes longer to prepare.”

Dishes served, fingers used, side dishes tasted. The conclusion?

– Both entrees passed with high marks. Missie L. was extremely impressed with the smoky flavor of the ribs, and the coating of the chicken that trapped in the juices.
– Extremely friendly waitstaff
– Quick service

– The sides and the muffins. These certainly did not taste homemade, or prepared with TLC. Missie L. did not mince words. Here is her ranking of each side dish (from best to worst), and her quick evaluations of every one:

  1. Mac ‘n cheese: The cheese does not taste natural. (This was probably frozen) The cheese in a homemade mac ‘n cheese dish curdles a little when you scoop it, since it is a mixture of flour, butter, and cheese that will cool rapidly on a plate.
  2. Green beans ‘n onions: The green beans taste like they came out of a can. And they certainly don’t taste like they’ve been simmering for half a day in a stew pot with a ham hock and bacon in it.
  3. Blackeyed peas: I think they used Minute Rice.
  4. Muffins: Jiffy mix. Don’t get me wrong, they’re tasty…but so are the ones that I could make from my Jiffy mix. (Apparently true corn muffins are made from a cast iron muffin tin…and the base is baked scrumptiously enough to allow for quick tearing into the soft underbelly of the muffin)
  5. Mashed potatoes and gravy: If you’ve ever had fresh hand mashed and whipped potatoes (insert story about l’il ol’ cook in a random Kentucky town), you’d know something was up here.

Ouch. Missie L. did NOT mince words. But all her observations were accurate, IMHO. Fortunately, she educated my perception of Soul food cooking a little bit (so I didn’t think that the sides just tasted that way, ‘cuz…well they were supposed to).

So if you’re thinking of going, invest in the main courses. Dabble in the side dishes, but have your expectations set.

And do you disagree with Missie L’s assessment? Do you know for a fact that the above side dishes are hand made, from scratch, and full of TLC? (Given the price of fresh vegetables and anything corn-based, I think the entrees would be priced a tad higher if this were the case.) Let us know!

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