Hot Joy is all about quirk. The San Antonio restaurant, known for its kitschy, playful ambiance and Asian fusion menu, has found the perfect place to let its freak flag fly: the former Texas Land and Cattle on Lemmon Avenue in Uptown.
The Texas-themed bones of the restaurant are still there. Hot Joy painted the log cabin-esque interior red and hung colorful paper dragons and quirky glowing papier mache chandeliers, the entire place riffing on American Chinese restaurants. Hot Joy, which opens formally Monday, has additional incentive not to mess with its space too much: The restaurant, recently purchased by Front Burner Restaurants (Whiskey Cake, Velvet Taco, Sixty Vines), will only live in this spot in Uptown for two years, making it, essentially, a two-year pop-up. By the time those two years are up, there are plans to open two permanent restaurants in the city — one in North Dallas and the other in a location to be determined.
Punk music rages from the speakers overhead, reinforcing the fact that Hot Joy doesn't take itself too seriously. The restaurant has some serious talent in the bar, however: Dallas cocktail maven Andrew Stofko left Victor Tangos to take over Hot Joy's bar program. On our first visit, the cocktails proved to be our favorite part — the tiki-tinged menu has fun gems like a well balanced, not-too-sweet frozen zombie ($9.99) made with cinnamon, grapefruit and a trio of rums. Only two cocktails made the trek from San Antonio to Dallas, but they all playfully hop between Asian influences and tiki, like the Sao Feng's Revenge ($10.99), made with white rum, falernum, yuzu and fernet blanca.
The food menu is filled with playful Pan-Asian fare with influences from around the globe, including Mexico and Texas — edamame in miso butter ($5.99), smoked brisket dan dan noodles ($14.99), black sesame mole chicken ($13.99), Spam fried rice ($8.99-$12.99).
Dallas has no shortage of Asian and Pan-Asian fare; with two Korea Towns and a China Town in Richardson, we're swimming in excellent Asian food. Hot Joy's food doesn't make us feel like canceling our next trip to Carrollton Korea Town. It's fun and quirky, but from the ramen to the riff on pad see ew, it doesn't quite hit the spot in the same way.
The stir-fried rice noodles in the phat see ew ($13.99) were rubbery and seemed undercooked, and the double miso ramen ($12.99) was too salty to really hit that umami sweet spot. The pork belly on top, available for an extra $3.99, was beautifully tender and juicy, however. It wasn't a bad bowl of ramen, but in a city with options like the impeccable Ten Ramen, Hot Joy's didn't really stack up.
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There is some fun to be had on this menu, however, like the crab fat caramel wings ($12.99), a delightfully sticky play on crunchy Korean fried rice. Topped with rice cereal for an added crunch, it's a good indicator of Hot Joy's playful style.
Hot Joy certainly doesn't serve the best Asian or even Asian-inspired food in town, but it's a fun visit nonetheless — and fun is kind of Hot Joy's thing. The restaurant is clearly poised for expansion now that it's a part of Front Burner's portfolio, and all that kitsch is likely to make it a popular dining spot. The food may not be mind-blowing, but Stofko's cocktails and fun shared plates, along with the playful interior, make it worth a visit.
Hot Joy, 3130 Lemmon Ave.