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Soul food’s the thing at Hard Knox Cafe

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Lois and Roger, two of my most trusted culinary informants, have been trying to get me to Hard Knox Cafe for seven years. They happen to live on Potrero Hill, just uphill from Dogpatch, a stretch of Third Street where this soul food joint is located.

But it took a recent eating orgy in New Orleans to get me there.

Longing for one mo’ po’boy, I found myself sitting at the Hard Knox bar in front of three huge oxtails ($10), fork tender, redolent of green pepper and napped in thickened pan gravy. I couldn’t have been happier.

My long suffering eating partner, for once, was in heaven with a plate of crisp, juicy fried chicken ($9). I had to steal a wing from his plate just to get a taste.

He also coveted his two chosen sides, bland, creamy macaroni and cheese, and mashed yams spiced with a lot of powdered ginger. I chose chunky mashed potatoes with gravy and a big portion of smoky, long cooked collard greens transformed by my own application of salt and Crystal Hot Sauce. (This Louisiana hot sauce is the queen of bottled sauces, a pure mixture of cayenne chilies, vinegar and salt.)

Hot, airy, pleasantly gritty corn muffins, two-per-person with many pats of foil-wrapped butter, preceded these two huge plates. I drank a therapeutic $5 glass of Fat Cat pinot noir; my companion washed it all down with a cream soda served in a mason jar with a handle.

A few days later, Lois, companion, 22-year-old son and I milled with other congregants on the sunny sidewalk in front of Hard Knox, waiting for a table. Hard Knox is busy all day.

The cafe is relatively small with seats at a funky wooden bar, slatted like a floor, and at a few well worn red vinyl booths and a handful of tables. Walls of weathered corrugated sheet metal are hung with stuffed marlins and framed Giants jerseys. A large flat TV monitor above the bar is always tuned to two sports stations on a split screen.

After a short wait, we squeezed into a booth and proceeded to polish off a first-rate shrimp po’boy($6.45) on a soft roll filled with crisp, lightly battered shrimp and “dressed” with just the right amount of tomato, lettuce and tartar sauce.

A slab of moist Cajun meatloaf ($9) reminded me of stuffing, full of soft bread, green peppers, celery and onions all melted together. A heaping plate of big, meaty spare ribs ($10) in lots of sweet, smoky, medium hot barbecue sauce hit the spot. Soft, pickley, bright yellow potato salad is well worth choosing as a side, as are red beans and rice, perked up with little salt and Crystal hot sauce.

Hard Knox is one of those beloved neighborhood spots with a compelling back story. It’s owned by a young Vietnamese couple, Tony Hua and Teresa Mach. Hua grew up in Texas eating soul food in the kitchen of his black godmother, at whose apron he learned to cook.

Three years of light rail construction on Third Street nearly put Hard Knox under, but the project is done; the T-Third will start running in April, and Hard Knox is back to being packed. I personally know three new customers.

HARD KNOX CAFE

Location: 2526 Third St. (at 22nd Street), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 648-3770

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays

Price range: $5.50 to $10

Recommended dishes: Fried chicken, shrimp po’boy, barbecue spare ribs, oxtails

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard

Reservations: For six or more only

Patricia Unterman’s new San Francisco Food Lover’s Pocket Guide is in bookstores now.

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