In suburbs and cities across America, the neon glow of orange chicken is ubiquitous. From corner takeout spots in New York to mall food courts in L.A. and thousands of supermarket hot bars in between, you can get your fix of fried chicken chunks in an orange glaze. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin chef Joe Hou has a different take. At his restaurant, Tenderheart, a delightful row fried quail parts perched up against each other. A sticky sweet glaze envelopes a crisp bird and is offset by a palate cleanser of fermented pineapple arrayed beside it. The dish is refined and thoughtful and you have no choice but to get messy eating it.
The last decade has seen a host of talented chefs exploring their own take on Chinese cuisine, whether they’re riffing on American-Chinese classics like Hou with his sweet and sour quail, or taking traditional flavors and tweaking them like Jon Yao’s interpretation of the Taiwanese classic three cup chicken and made three cup abalone, or Mei Lin mashing up influences with Szechuan hot chicken sandwiches at Daybird. At Tenderheart Hou is incorporating flavors from China and across Asia and then combining those with moments from his New Jersey childhood and professional upbringing to create a playful, delicious, and slightly eclectic restaurant.
“The greatest thing about the Asian-American experience—or just the American experience—is that it is an eclectic mishmash of cultures,” Hou says. “I wanted to have highs and lows, why can’t you crush caviar and aged raw fish with fried quail you’ve got to eat with your hands?”
Prior to taking the helm at Tenderheart, which he opened inside the Line Hotel last fall, Hou spent his time on the pastry side of the kitchen at food-forward wine bar Le Fantastique and before that he was at Angler San Francisco. Hou first caught our eye at Le Fantastique with his next-level Parkerhouse rolls, which—to our delight—he’s deployed a new version at Tenderheart, this time served with a butter with pimenton and dried shrimp.
Making the transition from pastry to running a whole kitchen was one Hou had prepared himself for throughout his career. “All the pastry chefs I looked up to from Albert Adria to Alex Stupak were capable working either side of the kitchen and frankly, pastry chefs are often treated like second class citizens in most kitchens,” Hou says. “It always been important to make it a point that I knew how to do my job and knew how to do theirs as well. I don’t view it as a ‘switch,’ but rather an intentional evolution to who I am as a Chef now.” So when the opportunity with the Line SF came about, he felt it was time—and it didn’t hurt the company was willing to give him plenty of latitude to make the restaurant he wanted.
“My directive was suspiciously general,” Hou recalls. “My two stipulations were that I needed a Burger and a Soup on the in-room dining menu—other that, it was fair game. I was graciously allowed to build and execute the menu that I wanted.”
So he started mining his past for inspiration, with the Salt & Pepper Cauliflower that’s served with cashew cream and pickled jalepeño becoming a staple after he played around with the salt-and-pepper chicken wings and riffing on a dish he once made for the staff meal. At our visit there was an outstanding roasted duck breast with duck fat rice with confit bird atop a pear butter that gave the rich dish a sweet counterpoint. Showing the seasonal evolution of the menu, that duck now comes with a liver mousse, pickled vegetables, hoisin and baos. And the menu shows off some California Cuisine influence too in dishes like burrata with salsa macha and wonton chips.
One of his favorite dishes he’s had on the menu was a Kaluga caviar on a housemade English muffin with chive cream cheese and salted egg yolks. It’s another menu item he can trace back to his youth in the Northeast. As a broke line cook living in Lower Manhattan, he’d sometimes just have one sandwich in a day, and when he wanted to make it a good one he’d head to the New York institution that is Russ and Daughters. He’d splurge on a bagel sandwich called the Super Heebster that came with whitefish and baked salmon salad with dill cream and fish roe. But if this is a dish inspired by going to Russ and Daughters, why is it on an English muffin? It’s just another way of him looking at his influences from an unexpected angle.
“I loved the texture and the taste, and the idea of caviar on a toasted butter English muffin was amazing,” Hou says. “I know it’s a hot take but I think the bagels are Russ and Daughters are horrible—Ess-a-Bagels all the way.”
Click here to see more photos of Tenderheart.