On a cold and blustery San Francisco day, the body begins to crave “comfort food”. One characteristic of what I call comfort food is that it must be heavy and fattening; I have yet to hear of one person who thinks a nicoise salad is “comfort food”. Some days, I crave heavier Korean soups like “gomtang” (곰탕) and other days — I crave soothing foods like macaroni and cheese.
In San Francisco, there is a restaurant called Hard Knox Cafe. They have two locations, one in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco and the other Hard Knox Cafe is in Outer Richmond. Having been to both, I like the Richmond one more; it’s nicer, newer and brighter, but the quality of food was the same.
Hard Knox Cafe offers true comfort food, or “southern food” — and while you may have to up your gym routine for an additional week to work off the extra calories one meal here comes with, I daresay it’s worth it.
Most popular at Hard Knox Cafe is the southern fried chicken. Almost every man I know goes here and orders the fried chicken. While good, I don’t consider it their best dish.
What I always order are the short ribs, priced at $14, shown above. The menu reads that these are oven-braised and served with gravy. The meat falls off the bone, and while totally covered in gravy — the true flavor of the beef is not masked at all. Don’t get me wrong — these are, without a doubt, going to clog your arteries and take off a few days from your lifespan, at least. But for this type of flavor, I’ll take it. It’s simply delicious.
Each entree item at Hard Knox Cafe comes with two sides. The side choices all sound great — like rice with gravy, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, stewed cabbage, or potato salad, to name a few. I usually opt for the mac and cheese and collard greens, but on my last visit, the greens were not quite cooked yet. I opted for the rice, holding the gravy to the side. The grits, as expected, are fantastic.
The macaroni and cheese at Hard Knox Cafe is terrific – most of the time. I’ve had it a couple of times when the pasta was overcooked, but otherwise, the side has always been perfect in seasoning and cheesiness. Hard Knox Cafe apparently believes what I believe about Mac and Cheese: it should never be fancy. While I can appreciate why people fancy up the altogether basic Macaroni and Cheese dish — once you add cheeses that can’t be pronounced by common folks, it may be tasty but it’s no longer the “mac and cheese” I am wanting. Hard Knox gives you true Mac and Cheese, and I can think of only one restaurant in San Francisco that serves a better one than this. Outside of the city, there’s Sante, which makes one insanely delicious lobster mac and cheese. It’s fancied up, but it’s one cheese with fresh chunks of lobster.
With your comfort food, a cold glass of beer is fitting. On this day, though, neither of us wanted alcohol so we ordered an iced tea. Hard Knox charges $0.50 more for “sweetened”, and considering they do not offer sweeteners on the table — it’s a pretty nifty way of making half a dollar more from what must be many patrons. I rather like the ingenious idea. The tea was fresh and tasty — and balanced out the heaviness of the meal perfectly.
For this dish, the potato salad and rice with gravy were the chosen sides. Again, I find that the fried chicken at Hard Knox Cafe, while good, is hardly exemplary for excellent fried chicken. It has the right amount of crisp on the outside but there’s nothing truly special about the seasoning or the meat of this chicken dish — I much prefer the short ribs. The potato salad was basic, at best. The rice with gravy is consistently a good choice.
Some other better options for “comfort food” at Hard Knox is the blackened catfish or the meatloaf. I think about 80% of the males I know consider meatloaf to be the ultimate comfort food, so perhaps that with a side of collard greens and mashed potatoes would make for an outstanding meal.
The 3rd Street location is basically a big on the ghetto side and decor is casual. The small booths are few in numbers, and bar seating is also limited. The service has always been friendly with a good family feel to the restaurant. This is the ideal place to come on a lazy Saturday afternoon with a baseball cap and sweats.
It’s winter now, and I intend to go back to try the pork chops. Pork chops with a double side of mac and cheese sounds delicious.
Hard Knox Cafe is located at 2526 3rd Street in San Francisco. Their website is available here. Parking has always been a big hassle at the Dogpatch location. I’d recommend going at non-meal times and praying to the parking gods that a space opens up. Hard Knox Cafe opens at 11 A.M. daily, and closes at 9 P.M. nightly, except on Sundays when they close at 5 P.M. The Richmond location serves a daily brunch in addition to an expanded menu. If ever I get there for the brunch, I’ll be sure to update you!
Addictive Factor: 9/10
Overall Rating: 7.8/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.