There was a kerfuffle in Texas last month when a pan-Asian restaurant called Hot Joy abruptly closed after the Dallas Observer wrote a scathing takedown of its lazy cultural appropriation (and mediocre food). While not entirely dissimilar to the retro, South-Pacific-by-way-of-the-Caribbean ethos of a tiki bar, Hot Joy’s aesthetic was blasted for being highly offensive, a strung-together collection of stereotypes that alternately fetishized and mocked Asian-ness. The Observer shredded it for “manufactured edginess, long a favorite refuge of the shallow and ill-prepared.”
Hot Joy shuttered forever less than one week after the review appeared, having had only a three-month run.
It’s probably not surprising that the team behind the ill-considered endeavor was a bunch of white dudes. Here in San Francisco, we now have Foxsister, a Korean restaurant that’s rooted in anju, the general category of food primarily consumed while you’re drinking. Chef-owner Brandon Kirksey hails from flour + water, The Slanted Door, and Jardinière, and his project is less about lovingly presenting creased family recipes than serving a kimchi nacho dip that might just be the best Tex-Mex queso in the hemisphere alongside a frozé slushie.
It’s not hard to see a restaurant that wears its inauthenticity on its sleeve rubbing some people the wrong way. Of course, it’s vitally important to be very mindful of people’s sensitivities to the perceived bastardization of their cultural heritage. However, Foxsister has fun without making fun. It doesn’t traffic in exoticism or othering, and it doesn’t recycle the kitsch that earlier generations of Asian-American chefs relied upon to market their businesses to (white) Americans. Maybe just as importantly, nothing on the menu is dumbed down or bowdlerized solely for the benefit of middlebrow tastes, nor is Foxsister a random pastiche of pan-Asian influences. There is thought here. A good deal of it.
However, the best defense against potential accusations that you’re lifting someone else’s history to make a profit is by cooking uniformly excellent food, and I’m not convinced that Foxsister is altogether there yet. Some items are outright excellent, others verge on flavorless, and the consistency across several visits wasn’t strong. The drinks, though, are very good, and the casual atmosphere is a lot of fun — if almost aggressively cool, and with a very strong aroma of chili oil once the dining room revs up.
It also fits 24th Street circa-2017 very well — another statement that could be either neutral or loaded. But I couldn’t have been happier to walk in on a busy Thursday and see that the TVs behind the bar were playing two classic 1987 films about mythical creatures that I’d watched a hundred times each as a kid: Harry and the Hendersons and *Batteries Not Included. On another visit, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark and Monday Night Football. When it’s slow-ish, you can feel like you’re legitimately hanging out with the amicable staff, and when Foxsister is at capacity, things operate much as they should.
It’s the $12 soju slushies that are going to grab a lot of attention, and there are four of them: the quizzically raspberry-dominant frozé flavor, a too-saccharine piña colada, a peach daiquiri, and watermelon ginger-lime (the clear winner). But I commend the other soju selections, especially the grapefruit-flavored Icing ($7 for a can) and even the $15 Kooksoondang Makkeogli, an unfiltered, fermented rice wine that’s bottled in green plastic bottle like a Sprite and which has a milky mouthfeel and a maddeningly subtle, now-you-sense-me-now-you-don’t effervescence. I was all set to accept that it was just too out-there for me — until I sipped it with some kimchi hellfire stew ($14), to which it hitched a comfy ride.
That stew, though, was middling, without a trace of the exalted, cooked-together-for-hours you want pork belly to impart to a broth, and the kimchi was lost somehow. Served with lettuce wraps, the spicy pork bulgogi ($21) was a much more exciting preparation, this time of pork shoulder, although a marinated yuba bulgogi ($19) with marinated tofu skins hit the skids. I’m totally enamored with the texture, but it wasn’t nearly hot enough — how does a skillet leave a kitchen without coming close to sizzling? — and the flavor profile felt disappointingly ordinary. Also ordinary was the steamed egg with roe ($10), an under-garnished custard that admittedly benefited from scraping the last bits of bulgogi and tofu and mixing everything together. And the slow-cooked ribs ($14 for a stack, $26 for a rack) simply wanted for caramelization and a little char.
But there are hits. The kimchi nacho cheese dip that could easily displace Ro-Tel from suburban Texas homes comes with lotus-root chips and chicharrones. It’s so brazenly lowbrow that it reaches a sort of inverse perfection, too shamelessly delicious even to be gimmicky. One tablemate observed that a happy hour at the speckled-vinyl bar that consisted entirely of that and a couple HITE lagers — while reciting the dialogue to gloriously shitty movies on mute — would be an instant smash.
The fox food salad ($14) is the one sop to fresh greens, and it’s no afterthought. Chilled soba noodles, cucumber, and egg came together without making a fuss, which is to say the bowl wasn’t overdressed or over-manipulated. I strongly recommend it to break up the parade of fats, but also in its own right. And the royal mushroom rice cakes with soy glaze, pea vines, and sesame ($16) achieved my very favorite texture in the entire domain of Korean food. They simply have the perfect chew, full stop. The $8 banchan — a la carte and unspecified on the menu, oh well — includes kimchi and dried anchovies, along with some pickled veggies, all of which were great throughout the meal, just the way you expect, like when a pinball bounces around the machine without having to work the flippers.
And the grandaddy was the fried chicken. This is probably unsurprising, and Foxsister’s bird ($14 for a basket) comes in three varieties, O.G. with seaweed salt, sweet-and-spicy with honey and gochujang sauce, and garlic-soy. Call ahead, bring friends, sit in a booth, get the assortment, go for “a lot of chicken ($36),” and balance it out with plenty of lager. With its shocking pink website and kidnapper’s-ransom-note menu typeface, it’s arguable that Foxsister appropriates 1990s hipster culture more than it purloins from the street food of Seoul. We can definitely live with that.
Foxsister, 3161 24th St., 415-928-7814 or foxsister.com