I kept noticing Hard Water while walking along the Embarcadero, mostly due to the signs outside advertising their enormous whiskey selection (clearly I am their target market). I knew this was going to have to go on my list, and I was eager to come in to try their fried chicken and see if they could convert me from Scotch whisky to American whiskey or bourbon. I didn’t really have a reason to go until I had a friend visiting from Canada who wanted to go somewhere for “cheap and good” food in San Francisco. Such a request seems like an impossible task in San Francisco, but Hard Water seemed to be on the cheaper side when it comes to dining, so I suggested it as a place to go. She thought it looked like a great place, so we made plans to meet there one evening.
When you walk in, the first thing you notice is the giant wall of bourbon above the bar. It’s quite the sight, because I was unaware there was such an enormity to the American whiskey business. Much like wine, there seems to be a lot of niche bourbon providers, so it did make me hope that I could find at least one of these that would appease my taste buds. Conveniently, there is a section on the menu entitled “If you like…”, so we started selecting whiskeys from this list as they had one for people who like those really smokey and peaty Scotch whiskies (basically my go-to orders in any sort of Scotch whisky bar). They will serve it to you neat or on the rocks, and if you go neat, they will also bring along a bottle of water so you can add a drop or two if that’s the way you prefer to drink it. (I usually don’t, but it’s supposed to help bring out some of the flavors in the oils or something.)
We also decided on some food. My husband and I decided to split the spicy Nashville chicken and a soft shell crab Po’ Boy. Sadly, they were out of soft shell crab that day, so we ended up having to go with a fried oyster Po’ Boy instead. The four of us also decided to share some small plates to start, and we had hush puppies, pimento cheese dip, a crabby patty and some pork belly cracklins.
They brought the hush puppies and crabby patty first, and we eagerly dug in to give them a try. Personally, I wasn’t really a fan of either of them, as the hush puppies were incredibly dry (although the hint of jalapeno coming through was a nice touch) and the crab cake was just a bit bland and boring. It was kind of a sad start for us, although my husband and I did decide to keep working our way through the “smoky” whiskeys as none of them on the list so far really hit that level of smoke we like in our drinks.
Up next were the cracklins and the pimento cheese spread. The cracklins were not like any I have had before. I was expecting either the American style fried pork rinds you get that are puffy and airy or the British style of crispy skin with a bit of fat that melts into your mouth. These were basically fried pieces of pork belly (which I guess in retrospect the menu told me I was getting). There wasn’t anything that really “crackled” about it, as it was more chewy than crunchy, and they really just left all of us disappointed. The pimento cheese wasn’t much better, as it didn’t really have any heat from peppers nor any cheesiness, as it seemed to be really runny and unlike any pimento cheese I had before. I have to say that all of the small plates we tried left us disappointed, so I was really worried about the main courses. But hey, a little more whiskey couldn’t hurt, so we kept working our way through the list.
The mains finally arrived, and they looked pretty fantastic. And unlike the small plates, they were really tasty. The fried chicken was cooked perfectly, and the sauce on it really added a nice kick of heat. The corn muffin was also really soft and moist, and I really enjoyed the sweet pickles served with it. The preparation of the spicy Nashville chicken does make it quite oily though, so if that’s not your thing, the regular preparation might be the way to go (my friend ordered it, and while the chicken was good, the biscuit it was served with was no where near as good as the corn muffin). The Po’ Boy was also really tasty with perfectly cooked oysters and a really tasty bun and sauce. And we FINALLY found some whiskeys that approached that level of smokiness we like, but was no where near the level of some of our favorites Scotch whiskies.
We decided to skip dessert given the mixed feelings we had about the food. Food aside, it is a really cute venue with pretty much all bar seating, either at the actual bar or along the outside of the restaurant. It was never really that full the entire time we were there, so it seems like it may not be a place that too many people come to after work (or maybe just not early in the week). The service was a bit spotty as it could sometimes be hard to get the attention of our server, especially at the end when we were ready to leave. We did have a great time there though, but mostly due to the company I think. They were also in no hurry to have us leave, which is a really good thing when you are looking for a place to relax and catch up with a good friend. And sadly, of the six whiskeys we tried, only two were decent, and I feel like they didn’t really sell me on American whiskey over Scotch whisky. I would come back, but probably only at lunch, and only for the sandwich or chicken as all of the starters we had were very disappointing. It is a cool spot and doesn’t overcharge for the food they are serving, so it’s definitely got a few good qualities hidden inside.
San Francisco, CA 94111