Hot Joy doesn’t do subtle–that much is evident as soon as you step inside the eatery.
The vestibule holds a floor-to-ceiling shelf filled with Asian tchotchkes on the left with pillowy couches that fill in as a waiting area on the right. Above hang a series of cage lanterns, in all shapes and sizes, welcoming you to your next food adventure.
But as anyone who’s been chomping at the bit to, well, chomp on all of Hot Joy’s food, knows, the restaurant didn’t come together overnight.
“That space wasn’t the sort ... we envisioned—it’s larger and most of the bar was already constructed so it was impractical to move it—it looked like a TGIFridays or Bennigan’s … so that was a challenge,” Chad Carey, co-owner, said.
Partner Erick Schlather was charged with turning the space into a more manageable venue, while Carey and Charlie Biedenharn provided the broad strokes. “We wanted to broadcast some Asian things, but not too Asian, this isn’t an ironic Chinese restaurant,” Carey said.
The left side of the restaurant was broken down into seven booths, separated by 15 custom screens designed by graphic artist Jamie Stolarski, of Spurs veladora fame, who also took on the challenge of designing Hot Joy’s menus, signage and other paper materials. The screens draw influences from China, Japan, Indonesia, Morocco, and there’s a “HJ” screen that nods to the restaurant’s cheeky nature.
“They wanted to emphasize the DIY, a mix of high-end and low-end, while using old Asian tropes in a fun, new way,” Stolarski said of his guidelines.
Gregorio Mannino, a film production designer (his work was featured in last year’s Sanitarium) who also co-designed The Monterey and Barbaro, came on board with one directive–“It’s Caucasian Asian, it’s obviously a bunch of white dudes trying to open an Asian restaurant.”
With that in mind, Mannino looked to New York City, where he’s also designed eateries, specifically Chinatown.
“That entrance is similar to a Chinese herb shop, filled with mysterious things. It sets that tone—be ready for an experience, for the unexpected,” Mannino said.
The designer also took on the individual booths, each with its own theme and upholstered by Reggie de la Garza. And he’s still not done.
“There’s still art coming in,” Mannino said of the items he sources through shops in Houston and online.
Then, of course, there’s the mural created by veteran tattoo artist Kelly Edwards. The owners wanted to include riffs on Asian themes through street art. Edwards drew inspiration from the Seven Gods of Fortune often seen in Japanese art and folklore, while also tying back to the seven booths. He described the 6-by-21-foot mural as “kind of weird, with lots going on,” and sure enough, there is. There’s a big boat of riches and seven jolly gods spilling forth their good luck and happiness onto the eatery. His work can also be seen on the concrete bartop and on one of the bar’s columns.
Rudy Herrera, artist and overnight baker at Bakery Lorraine also pitched in with smaller illustrations inside the restrooms—Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro is especially adorable.
Yes, the space is overwhelming at times, and I swear Mannino adds new items to the vestibule after every visit, but it’s all part of the theater.
“It should be stimulating to the senses, it should be an experience,” Mannino said.