Just three weeks ago, two stars were bestowed upon Hill Country Barbecue from New York Times food critic Pete Wells, an accomplishment for any New York restaurant not in the fine dining genre. In the review he praised the fatty brisket (which Hill Country calls “moist”) and the juicy sausage, but this opinion was surely met with skepticism by Texans that read it knowing these were the barbecue opinions of a New Yorker.
My skepticism grew after seeing the photo of the beautiful slices of brisket draped atop one another on a butcher paper background, and I noticed the visible lines and nooks of opaque and underdone fat. Maybe New Yorkers without enough barbecue context didn’t know any better. I like to think that I have eaten enough Texas barbecue to know the difference, so I traveled to the Big Apple to see how well this meat from a gas-fired smoker in the middle of a city could really stack up to the smoked varieties here in Texas.
Based on ambience, it became clear that the folks at Hill Country Barbecue know the path to a Tex-pat’s heart. It only took three songs before “Deep in the Heart of Texas” came over the speakers, and menu items like Blue Bell Ice Cream, good iced tea and authentic Lockhart sausage could easily make a former Texan feel like they’ve found a Lone Star oasis in the middle of Manhattan. The wooden menu hanging above the meat counter with prices written in chalk look like memorabilia of Kreuz Market—the legendary Lockhart joint whose patriarch, Rick Schmidt, personally christened their pit with a log of Texas post oak when Hill Country opened in 2007—even if the prices don’t look anything like what you’d find in Texas ($22.75/lb for moist brisket). Hill Country doesn't really have to have great smoked meats to keep their audience; former Texans likely frequent the restaurant to soak in all the Texas kitsch. Don’t discount the Blue Bell factor.
The restaurant deserves some significant credit for the limited structure of the menu. Unlike most barbecue menus in New York, this one didn’t include pre-constructed plates of each cut of meat with superfluous sides. All meats are ordered by the pound, link or bone. Sides are secondary with the meat counter given prominence in the center of the restaurant, and non-protein items can be ignored altogether if you so choose. I was purely in the market for meat.
Just like at Kreuz Market, the meats were collected onto a sheet of rusty colored butcher paper that was quickly moistened with dripping fat. Pre-sliced piles of brisket made me shudder, but I assumed that during a busy lunch hour this practice was a necessary evil that hopefully had little effect on the meat’s moisture level—but I hope it’s not the norm during the doldrums of the afternoon.
The flavors of smoke, salt and pepper were all there, but the all important ‘time’ quotient was missing from the equation. Most every cut of meat was tough and under-cooked. Clichés were easily reinforced in the city that is known for a lack of patience. A deeply flavorful crust and red smoke ring were pretty on the surface, but layers of solid opaque collagen nearly outweighed the meat in a cross-section of the slices from the point end of the brisket. The line of fat cap on the lean slices was in no better shape, although the meat beneath was tender and moist. A thick back rib of beef was so undercooked that it was just plain hard to bite into. A reward of fatty sinew was the reason that toothpicks were invented. The smokiness of the pork ribs shined in comparison, but they too had meat clinging fiercely to the bones. For an outsider like myself hoping to find some good barbecue in New York, this was just frustrating to see all of the elements needed for success squandered by a simple lack of patience.
If Kreuz Market has any stipulations in their sausage supply contract regarding the required quality of the finished product, then Hill Country would easily make the grade. The casing offered a sharp snap before hot fat gushed freely from the link. The smokiness was appropriate and that signature beefy flavor of Kreuz sausage was there to bring it home. Close your eyes and soak in the sound of steel guitar while you wash that juicy link down with a cold Big Red and you can almost imagine that you’re back in rural Texas, that is as long as the taxis along 26th Street can lay off their horns.