Dining at Hill Country may not be what you expect. If you expect it to be great, it will be, but if you expect it to be conventional sit down restaurant, you’ll be surprised. Instead, you’ll find a cafeteria style restaurant modeled on Kreuz Market—the famed meat-market/barbecue-joint in Lockhart, Texas, where folks line up to pick out their meat by the pound, and then line up again for sides. It works the same way here in the city.
Your meats are cut and weighed on butcher scales to your specifications. You like your prime rib cut thick, they’ll cut it thick. You like the long side of the rack of ribs, you got it. You just want a little of this and a little of that, no worries. This is a wish is your command kind of place. Once your meat is weighed out, it’s bundled up with white bread, pickled and onions in butcher paper, ready to be transported to your table where you can have your way with it.
That’s pretty much how it went the other night when Craig and I gathered about ten friends for a Texas-style barbecue at Hill Country. We could smell the meat smoking out on the street. It’s sort of lusty and distinct—the barbecue equivalent of fresh cut grass in the summer. It draws you inside like a Genie into the belly of the bottle.
Once beyond the doors, you’ll quickly realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. First, you’ll be greeted by a super-happy, über-friendly hostess. I don’t know where they find such happy people. Maybe they are taking seconds from the staff at Trader Joe’s? (Those people must be hand-fed crack before every shift. They’re always smiling.) Anyway, you’ll get a down-home welcome from a host who’ll take your name and offer you a spot at the bar, where I recommend you have a Lonestar or a Kreuz Market margarita—a spectacular tequila experience that marries vodka with agave, fresh lime and cointreau ($8).
While you pass the time, waiting for the central pit/feeding area to clear out a bit, you’ll probably hear some great live Austin music (it’s free) playing in the downstairs roadhouse. You’ll smile. You’ll feel remarkably happy and friendly, too. You’ll probably talk to someone you don’t know at the bar, and it won’t seem that strange. They’ll answer you in a warm and open manner, and you’ll engage in that relic of a pastime, something called a conversation. You’ll finish your beer and have another. More conversation will flow.
While you’re conversing, you’ll look around. You’ll notice the rough hewn wood flooring, the vintage Cola signs, the stacks of chopped wood heading for the smokers, and the walls hung with big black and white photos of Lockhart’s original barbecue pitmasters. You’ll say something really clever and unique as I did the other night, like, “Wow, this place is awesome.”
Kudos for the look of the place goes to designer Garrett Singer who’s used all sorts of reclaimed materials to turn Hill Country into a dusty old rough and tumble joint that makes you feel like a horse named Silver might be tied up outside for your ride home. The place is accented with black iron, limestone, and leather, and built from Southern pine and oak wood, filled with heavy old butcher blocks, farm tables topped with ball jars of silverware, and a retro 1950s ice box as beverage case. Though some in my group thought it bordered on theme park, to me it doesn’t feel staged, it feels authentic and true.
The bulk of the thanks for the authenticity should go to owner Marc Glosserman and his pitmaster Robbie Richter, a barbecue-circuit champ, certified Kansas City Barbecue Society Judge, a fierce Texas Hold ‘Em competitor, and a sweetheart with a huge amount of passion for the art of the ‘cue. Interestingly, Robbie hails not from Texas, but from the Rego Park section of Queens, where he grew up on backyard barbecues. (I am from Rego Park too, and it turns out we actually grew up a few blocks from one another.) His co-chef, Elizabeth Karmel, a North Carolina native and author of Taming of the Flame: Secrets to Hot and Quick Grilling and Low and Slow BBQ, is in charge of sides, a tough position to be in considering the barbecue is some of the best I’ve ever had. It’s sort of like being seated next to Jessica Alba, Angelina, Beyonce, or some other flawless form of human. It’s kind of useless to compete.
But some sides do hold their own. (Hot sides come in three sizes—good eatin ($4.50), heapin helping ($8.50) and feed yer family ($16); cold sides are $3.95, $7.50, and $14.) Deviled Eggs are perfect—spicy creamy yolks against cool fresh whites. A string bean casserole is loaded up with thin, fresh beans, all hot and creamy, and punctuated with crunchy fried onions. I also loved the cool cucumber salad—a simple toss of thinly slivered cucumbers in a bright vinegary dressing. The Longhorn Cheddar Mac & Cheese is made with penne pasta that’s cloaked in a sharp cheddar sauce that’s been melted down with what I would guess to be a good amount of butter and cream. I could feel the blood through my arteries slow to a halt. Confetti cole slaw combines ribbons of crunchy purple cabbage with golden raisins, a nice addition, but the potato salad is forgettable. It’s under-seasoned and just wiped out by too much mayo. And though I liked the sweet potato bourbon mash, it too could’ve used a bit more seasoning. I also found it to be too thin, pureed so much that it was almost the consistency of baby food. Granted these would be happy drunk babies, but still.
The main event is really the meat, which is fantastic. A bit of background first. The barbecue tradition in Texas actually began with a large immigrant population from Eastern Europe—Germans, Czechs and Poles who brought over their way of smoking meat and making sausages and wurst, which is why you’ll find lots of links featured in Texas ‘cue. Since Texas is also cattle country, beef plays a larger role than pork. Traditional Texas barbecue is also marked by a simple dry rub of salt, pepper and cayenne. It’s not a saucy style of barbecue. There’s a saying in Texas that if you have sauce on your meat you usually have something to hide. They aren’t hiding a thing here. The meat is smoked long and slow over post oak, a very heavy dense dry wood that’s shipped in to Hill Country directly from Lockhart. Many say that post oak imparts a wholesomely sweet flavor to the meat, which I would agree with. When it burns, it offers up a lush, sweet aroma that instantly gets your stomach growling and your mouth watering.
To smoke your meat, Hill Country hired Ole Hickory to custom-build their smokers, which resemble gargantuan steel closets that might house an enormous amount of shoes if they weren’t already crowded with racks of ribs, palates of chicken, and slabs of beef and pork. The meats are cooked between three and fifteen hours (less for chicken, more for brisket) and then transferred to finishing pits where they lie in wait, staying moist and delicious until they are chosen and eaten.
Speaking of eating, you’ll want to take part in the beef ribs ($9/lb), which are long, sexy, and meaty, and arrive with a caramelized crust that caps tender, chewy and intensely smoky meat. The moist brisket ($17.50/lb.), or deckle as it is also known, was indeed moist, ribbed with glistening fat and seared with the right amount of seasoned char on the edges. The smoked sausages are imported from Kreuz Market ($5.25 each) and come in two flavors—a feverishly spicy jalapeno cheese and a “regular” sausage that is about as far from regular as we are from the moon. The interesting thing about these sausages is that they are kind of loose, and they sort of come undone when you slice into them, falling away from their casing and begging to be crumbled on a sandwich or over pasta or just eaten with a fork like we did. They’re a little difficult to eat, but worth the mess.
But pork chops were one of the most surprising meats of the evening, especially when you consider that Texas is really cattle country. But these chops are magnificent. They are sliced double thick and served on the bone, and their flesh is pale and creamy in color and when you slice into the meat, you can count on getting squirted, they’re that juicy. Pork ribs were also excellent, slightly chewier and spicier than the beef. I was also quite impressed with the beer-can market hen, a plump little bird, with a taut crisp salt and pepper skin and wildly juicy meat. It’s the perfect chicken.
Now, I’ll admit that I am no barbecue expert—I know my way around a brisket and a rib, sure, but I am not anywhere near the authority that my friend Josh Ozersky (aka Mr. Cutlets) is. He happened to be at Hill Country the night we were. I ran into him when he was coming off the line, clutching his butcher-paper swaddled package of meat to his chest like a protective father. “Josh, you’re holding onto that meat like it’s a baby,” I said, observing the care he was taking with his bundle of beef. “Well, yeah. Because this is as close as I’m gonna come to having to an infant!” he said. Then he smiled and walked over to his table to dig in. Later, he joined our party, picking over the leftovers on our table for ten. He sprinkled a bit of fleur de sel on a few lone slices of moist brisket and ate it with his hands, as though he was eating sashimi. He got quiet and his eyes may have rolled back in his head. Then he came to again. “Try this!” he said, with a jolt, handing me a slice of meat sprinkled with fleur de sel. I had not an inch of room in my belly for more, but I couldn’t turn him down. He was like a little kid, desperate to share his stash. I popped it in my mouth. It was wonderful. “This is the Katz’s of barbecue, Andrea,” he said, smiling and reaching for another slice. “There’s no one doing it better than this anywhere in New York.”
This set off a chain of comments about Hill Country from the table. My friend Alison declared herself a born-again vegetarian after the meal (this place is not for the faint of appetite or those who consider salad a meal), but my favorite comment was the following: “You know, if you just added hash browns and prostitutes, I’d move in.” This came from a friend who will remain anonymous. It was said as he was leaning back in his chair, with a wide meat-stained smile on his face. Well, I don’t need the hash browns or anything more, quite frankly. I’d move in just the way it is.