My, how we diners make a fetish of authenticity. If the Laotian papaya salad isn't ferociously funky from salted black river crab and padaek fermented fish sauce, it's been dumbed down for Americans. If there aren't innards bobbing in your Sichuan hot pot, well, why not just eat orange chicken? If there are Westerners at that Indian restaurant, you might as well be dining at an Epcot pavilion. And heaven forfend that a chef should dabble in an ethnic cuisine that isn't his birthright, an act of cultural appropriation we now know as Columbusing.
Then there's Hot Joy, a rude, playful thumb in the eye of such culinary preciosity and political correctness. Hot Joy's very name, after all, teases some possibly Chinese-sounding syllables in a Western and slightly lewd direction. Its vibe skirts the line of offensiveness, and for some, may cross it. It is flamboyantly kitschy Oriental, freighted with all the potential insult of that outdated term. The menu nods toward China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea (along with Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas), and there's not a single "authentic" thing on it.
But enter into the spirit of things here: A lot of it's great fun to eat.
It is an accident of real estate, though a karmic one, that the restaurant occupies the site of a defunct Texas Land and Cattle, because Hot Joy is all about Asia viewed through a Western kaleidoscope. (Real estate also limits this restaurant's life span: The Uptown building that houses this offspring of a wildly successful San Antonio spot is set to be torn down in two years.)
You'll get a pretty good sense of what's going on here the moment you step from your car. The wall next to the parking lot is decked with a huge cartoonish mural of a six-shooter-toting cowboy squaring off with a ferocious samurai. The main dining room is riotous and colorful, with red-lacquered walls and big paper dragons and lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The cozy booths and bar are lighted by vaguely disturbing big doll-head masks that have been turned into hanging lamps. The bones of the late steakhouse poke through here and there, in the big faux-stone fireplace and the log walls hiding under that red lacquer.
When this spirit of playful mashup succeeds, it results in dishes like the Viet po' boy. That's gorgeously crunchy fried shrimp in French bread from Leidenheimer Baking, the loaf without which all po' boys are just wannabes. So far, pure New Orleans. But Hot Joy dresses this sandwich with slivered carrot and cucumber and Vietnamese nuoc cham sauce, plus Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise spiked with cilantro, mint and Thai basil.
The Southern-fried chicken steam buns are a similarly tasty cultural collision: The meat is brined overnight in Best Maid pickle juice before frying, and comes nestled in pillowy folded bao buns topped with a crisp slaw with more of that Kewpie mayo. The pork belly steam buns take things on a more Korean path: The slices of rich meat are dressed in gochujang, the spicy-sweet fermented red pepper paste, and are topped with funky kimchi.
The dish that made the original San Antonio Hot Joy famous, crab fat caramel wings, is here, too. The name notwithstanding, no pudgy crustaceans are squeezed to make it; the wings, twice-fried in a batter of flour, cornstarch and vodka, get their crabbiness from a sauce of Thai crab paste combined with fish sauce and sugar. Added crunch -- and a touch of wit -- comes from a sprinkling of Rice Krispies, plus chopped peanuts. The wings are savory, spicy, sweet and sticky, and made a little more complex by the fish sauce.
Cheeseburger spring rolls, on the other hand, are a marriage of East and West that should lead to divorce. The hamburger meat and pepper-jack cheese end up overcooked and greasy in their fried wrappers, their stodginess unrelieved by the inclusion of kimchi or the accompanying ranch dip.
And some uninspired takes on Chinese or Thai standards may leave you longing for the originals from your local takeout spot. Western-style crisp-tender beans are just wrong in a dish like stir-fried green beans with minced chicken, where they need a good wok char and a certain limp slickness. And the Thai lettuce wraps are just under-seasoned minced chicken and vegetables plunked on a bed of lettuce. But Hot Joy can also show you how careful technique and good ingredients may enliven a traditional dish that could otherwise be tired and dull. As simple an affair as an udon noodle stir-fry is eye-openingly good thanks to the sparkling freshness of its accompanying shrimp and vegetables.
If some of Hot Joy's cross-cultural inventions misfire, others are a pure hoot. Take the BBQ brisket fried rice. Turns out Texas Land and Cattle left a smoker behind, so the cooks at Hot Joy decided to smoke a brisket for 16 hours, then combine it with Thai barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, corn, cabbage, onions and rice, topped by a sprinkling of Mexican cotija cheese. It shouldn't work -- but it does. Same thing with another fried rice dish, the Thai basil with smoked chicken.
The service at Hot Joy can veer from solicitous and professional to somewhat shambolic, with occasional glitches like missing silverware or absent napkins. The retro-kitsch thing extends to the tableware, with plastic plates and little menu drawings of karate fighters and illustrated instructions for using chopsticks. The menu also exhorts you to "Ask your server about our riesling list!" If you do, you will learn that it doesn't exist -- or at least it didn't the one time I asked. Otherwise, there's a brief wine and beer list, a more interesting sake menu, and several house cocktails that our server warned are every bit as alarmingly fruity and sweet as they sound.
When you order, you may be advised that the dishes will come out when they're ready, in no particular order. Since many real Asian restaurants don't conform to Western distinctions between appetizers and mains, that, at least, strikes an authentic note.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Hot Joy (2 stars)
Price: $$ (Lunch starters $3.99-$10.99; main dishes $8.99-$11.99. Dinner starters $5.99-$12.99; main dishes $9.99-$17.99; desserts $4.99.)
Service: Servers are friendly and cheerful, and can vary from professional and efficient to somewhat confused.
Ambience: The big main dining room is decked out in colorful Asian kitsch, with Chinese murals and paper dragons and lanterns. The walls are red lacquer, and the cozy booths are lighted by doll-head masks turned into hanging lamps. There's a large bar and an enclosed patio area.
Noise level: Fairly loud, especially when the bar is busy and the music is turned up.
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 3 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 3 p.m. to midnight
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 96 (Sept. 21)
Alcohol: Full bar, with several house cocktails, a brief wine-and-beer list and a number of sakes
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor