[Note: Although this review predates the departure of Robbie Richter as Hill Country's Pitmaster in late 2007, my opinion hasn't changed after nearly a dozen additional visits. With Pete Daversa now manning the pits, Hill Country is still in good hands.]
Hill Country Barbecue was probably the most highly anticipated barbecue joint to ever hit New York City. Part of that you chalk up to timing: New Yorkers have become more barbecue-savvy in the last few years, thanks to the road already paved by the likes of Blue Smoke, Daisy May’s, Dinosaur and RUB. And part of that is due to the reputation already carved out by Hill Country pitmaster Robbie Richter, a master of the competition circuit whose trophy case includes a few grand championships and first place chicken at the 2005 American Royal. Richter is also one of the organizers of BBQ NYC, an annual 'cuefest on Ward’s Island.
Owner Marc Glosserman, a Marylander with family in Texas, has created a barbecue restaurant that manages to look the part without morphing into a squeaky clean Disney interpretation of what a barbecue joint should look like. And without offering, as 99% of the joints out there—be they good or bad—do, a sampling of the nation’s entire barbecue stereotypes (Texas brisket, Memphis or Kansas City ribs, Carolina pork, etc.). Instead, Hill Country focuses strictly on Texas barbecue, specifically the Hill Country region that includes legendary joints like Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Southside Market in Elgin and Louie Mueller’s in Taylor.
You could say Hill Country’s focus is even more specific, patterning itself after Kreuz Market, where Glosserman enjoyed many a meal. Just like at Kreuz, the meats are wrapped in butcher paper, weighed and sold by the pound. And the holding pits are nearly identical to the ones in Lockhart. Kreuz pitmaster Rick Schmidt brought a log all the way from Lockhart to start the first fire in Hill Country’s Ole Hickory pits. The sausages are Kreuz’s, smoked in Lockhart and re-smoked in New York, hung with strings on a pole for easy handling. Post oak, shipped all the way from central Texas, is used to smoke the meats. Even the peripheral items at Hill Country have a Texan feel: Big Red soda, Blue Bell ice cream, Tecate and Lone Star beer, and an all-Texas wine list.
Just as Texan hurlers Ryan, Clemens and Beckett have relied on a steady diet of fastballs, the Texan menu at Hill Country relies on a steady diet of beef. They have moist brisket (from the “point” or “deckle”, $18.50/lb), lean brisket (from the “flat,” $16.75/lb), beef ribs ($9.00/lb), beef shoulder ($18.00/lb) and boneless prime rib ($29.00/lb). For pork, there are spare ribs ($11.00) and bone-in pork chops ($18.00/lb). Poultry includes beer can game hen ($10.00/lb) and Market chicken ($6.00/lb). Sausages, shipped directly from Kreuz Market in Lockhart TX, are sold by the link ($5.25 for regular, $5.50 for jalapeño cheese).
There are no sandwiches as such here, but you can get crackers or bread with the meats and make your own sandwiches at the table, just like in Texas.
There are no appetizers either, unless you count the chili that’s available at the Sides and Trimmings stand. Here you’ll also find seven different hot sides, seven different cold sides and market items like onions, pickles, avocados and jalapeños.
Hill Country is essentially a food court, with two bars, one stand for meats and another stand for sides and desserts. When you enter, you’re given a “meal ticket” that lists all the non-meat items. Each time you order a beer or a cupcake, it’s tallied on the card. Each time you order meat, its price is determined by weight, just like at the supermarket, with the price sticker affixed to the back of the meal ticket. This system allows you to make as many trips as you want and only pay once at the end, making things convenient (as far as self service goes) for you and efficient for them.
The First Visit
My first visit to Hill Country was on day 10 of their existence. On that Sunday afternoon, there was a long line to get in. I knew that I’d have to wait in separate lines for my meats and sides, so I had a game plan: 1) get in the Sides and Trimmings line and order some cold sides for later and hot chili for now; 2) relax and enjoy the chili while the crowd waited for meat; 3) get in the Meat line and order meats a few at a time; 4) savor the meat and cold sides; 5) repeat #3 and #4 as often as possible.
The chili here is a good one, bean-free with a bumpy yet refined texture, bold red color and a mildly assertive flavor that’s a mix of spices and plenty of beer. It could be a great one if it had some bigger chunks of the brisket that makes Hill Country legendary.
For meats, I started with the two briskets side by side. The moist brisket was indeed moist, with a nice smoky flavor, a little fatty, and (surprisingly) a little tough. Even though I’m a deckle guy, I much preferred the lean brisket here, which was not only moist, but downright juicy. The smoke ring couldn’t have been any prettier if they painted one in. I loved the flavor of each slice, which perfectly combined a natural beef flavor with the sweetness of the post oak and the intense salt-pepper-cayenne rub that formed a deliciously crunchy crust. On a second visit, the moist brisket was unavailable, but the lean brisket nearly duplicated the excellence of the first rendition. I can safely say that Hill Country’s sliced brisket flat is the finest I’ve ever tasted and the gold standard against which all other briskets must be measured.
Next up was some market chicken. I ordered a dark meat quarter, known here as a tomahawk. I’d hesitate to call it the tastiest chicken I ever ate, but it was far and away the juiciest. The favor was good, with just a mellow smoke amid the natural chicken taste. The skin was a little rubbery, but the meat was perfect. On my second visit, I tried the game hen, which had some of the same characteristics—slightly rubbery skin, extremely juicy meat, nice poultry flavor—with noticeably stronger smoke and a heavier, coarser black pepper component in the rub.
For pork, Hill Country offers ribs and chops. Conspicuously absent is pulled pork, which just isn’t common to Texas. Their willingness to leave off one of the most profitable items on any barbecue joint’s menu is even more impressive than their commitment to authenticity. Speaking of commitment, that’s what the pork chop is, because at around one pound in weight, it’ll take up a large part of your meal’s budget and calorie intake if you’re not sharing. The huge chops are smoked in a rack and cut only as ordered. As with the chicken, their juiciness was irrefutable, but I didn’t get as much smoke or flavor here. I think this was due more to the cut of meat and its lack of surface area than any technical failing. The rib was very good, with a red tint imparted not by a mopping sauce but by the kiss of Texas post oak. The meat was juicy and the rub intense, with black pepper again the dominant flavor, especially on the second visit.
Beef ribs weren’t available on my first visit (I’m guessing Hill Country sold more than they expected during the Big Apple Block Party a week earlier), but were in good supply the second time around. These were a smaller cut than the behemoths available elsewhere in the city, but the meat was perfect, without the intrusive fat or snarly gristle that you often find. They were almost delicate, with a snappy texture and a light, natural flavor aided by the smoke and the salt-pepper-cayenne rub. I’m still taken by their lightness; you could actually eat a few of these and still respect yourself in the morning. I think that rub pairs much better with the beef rib than the pork rib.
Sausages are an afterthought at most barbecue joints but required eating here. On both visits I sampled the plain and the jalapeño cheese links side by side. Both were fantastic, with the juices gushing readily and the flavors showcasing spice and smoke. I liked the hotter one better, although I didn’t notice the cheese. It’s about as good a sausage as you can get; I can’t imagine coming here and not ordering one.
Beef shoulder, called clod in Texas, is an interesting curiosity. My sample was juicy, tender and beautifully pink, but I just didn’t care for the heavy beef flavor (like liver) and texture that was as surprisingly heavy as the beef rib was light. I’d still recommend that you try a small portion of it though—that’s the beauty of ordering meat by the pound.
At Kreuz Market, sauce is forbidden, and at Hill Country, it’s not really necessary, but they have one barbecue sauce on the table called “If Ya Gotta Have It.” It tasted like a typical supermarket sauce, but I was happy with the meats in their naked splendor.
Other than the chili, I stuck with cold sides on both visits. Cucumber salad was refreshing, complementing the smokiness of the meats. Ditto the Texas caviar (black-eyed pea salad). Skillet cornbread, served with ancho honey butter, was just greasy enough to give it some oomph. I don’t know what they’re trying to do with the cole slaw, but it just didn’t work. It’s too busy and too “frou frou” to go with barbecue. Raisins in cole slaw? Save that for the veggie rollups at the sandwich boutique. Aside from the cole slaw, I thought the sides were good, just not in the same league (or even close) as the meats.
New York is becoming a cupcake town, and Hill Country’s signature peanut butter and jelly rendition has peanut butter cream frosting and Reese’s pieces on top, with jelly inside. I liked the idea, but I wasn’t wowed by the execution. Similarly, ancho cherry brownies sounded good but tasted dry. Stick with the creamy banana pudding, made with Nilla wafers and 99 Bananas liqueur.
Service was friendly on both visits, with staff hovering constantly to ask about clearing plates, serving drinks, etc. This is mostly a good thing.
The prices at Hill Country have received almost as much commentary as the meats. There’s no question that this is not a cheap meal. Still, my beef ribs wound up less than $5 each, the pork ribs less than $2 each, and for the quality of the barbecue, that’s a steal. But $6 for a cupcake and $5 for a dry brownie? That’s steep, even if they were good. A tee shirt will cost you $30.
You’re not guaranteed to have all meats available at all times here, but that is a guarantee that the barbecue is fresh, and that’s fine by me.
The bottom line: Hill Country seems to have hit the ground running, reaching a level of excellence in their first few days that most barbecue joints never see in a lifetime. The sides and desserts need some work, but the meats were good across the board, with the Texas holy trinity of brisket, beef ribs and sausage phenomenal.
Tips For Your Visit to Hill Country
Restaurant Girl's review of Hill Country
Steve Cuozzo's NY Post review of Hill Country
Peter Meehan's NY Times review of Hill Country
Adam Platt's New York Magazine review of Hill Country
Andrea Strong's (the Strong Buzz) dinner at Hill Country
Beef Aficionado's review of Hill Country
Jason Perlow's Off the Broiler preview of Hill Country
Jason Perlow's opening night visit to Hill Country