Dustin Martin tried an impressive variety of career paths before opening a barbecue joint. The Granbury native raced dirt bikes and was a competitive wakeboarder before an accident on the water threatened to take his leg in 2007. Doctors saved the leg, and Martin moved on to mechanical engineering, running heavy equipment in the North Dakota oil fields before settling in as an estimator for a North Texas construction company. In the oil fields, he caught the barbecue bug cooking almost daily for his crew of fifteen workers. Back to Texas, he eventually turned his passion into a catering business. In 2021, he found a building to house his future restaurant in tiny Tolar, a town of less than seven hundred people between Fort Worth and Stephenville. Hill City Chop House opened this past October.
“I thought I was buying a turnkey restaurant,” Martin said, but it took months to renovate the space and bring it in line with health department requirements. Martin had to build a screened-in smokehouse for the thousand-gallon offset he purchased from Mike’s Custom Steel Werkz in Waxahachie. When he finally opened a year after taking over the building, Hill City Chop House became one of only two full-service restaurants in Tolar.
I asked Martin if the name of the restaurant was a play on Hill Country–style barbecue. He explained that Hill City Highway comes up from the south into the center of Tolar, and he would ride that road with his dad as a kid growing up in nearby Granbury. “I learned how to drive on that road,” he said. Now, he’s learning how to feed a restaurant full of people four days a week just a few blocks away.
My visit was during a challenging week for Martin. He had just been written up in the local paper, so business was unusually brisk. That was coupled with his supplier, Ben E. Keith, not being able to deliver for the week. The food distributor was hit with a cyber attack last Tuesday that left the company unable to take or fulfill online orders in the fifteen states it services. It’s back online this week, but it was a major disruption for many restaurants. Martin and his pitmaster-in-training, Jack Allison were able to stock up at a nearby H-E-B and procure a few briskets and turkey breasts from the local C & J Butcher Shop. Martin and Allison weren’t able to cook all the same cuts they’re used to, but the restaurant had its full menu.
The brisket smashburger has become popular with the locals, and I couldn’t resist ordering it. It’s a proper smashburger, with a slick sear and lacy edges on the thin patty. The bun is buttered and well-toasted, and the crown is branded with the Hill City Chop House logo. It’s a great burger. All the barbecue sandwiches come on the same bun, including the smoky and tender pulled pork. Dill pickle chips, pickled jalapeños, and raw white onions come on the side, but I got a bowl of the heavily dressed slaw for a sandwich topper. I didn’t care for the cumin-heavy barbecue sauce with the pork, but the slaw was saucy enough.
A generous portion of fatty brisket, turkey, and pork ribs came on the three-meat platter that was under $19. I enjoyed them all, but the brisket was especially good. Thick slices of fatty beef had a stout bark with plenty of black pepper. They were very juicy. The other two meats were a tad drier than I’d like, but I’ll chalk that up to the fact that Martin wasn’t working with his usual supplier.
All the sides are made in-house, including the shells and cheese with a bit of green chile mixed in. The potato salad was heavy on the mustard with chunks of celery and dill pickle, and the elotes were topped with crema, cotija, fresh jalapeños, and hot sauce. Of all the sides, I preferred the borracho beans, which Martin suggested after I’d left them off my order. They were well seasoned in a rich broth with bits of cilantro, onion, and tomato.
The restaurant offers two desserts. One is a simple banana pudding that’s a scoop of banana mousse with a freshly baked shortbread cookie on the side. I was more taken with the smoked berry dump cake, which is reminiscent of bread pudding. Martin dries bread in the smoker for breadcrumbs that become the foundation. Strawberries and blueberries are mixed for the base, then topped with a smooth mixture of bread, cream, and eggs before being baked in the smoker. You’d think the smoke flavor would be too powerful, but it was just a pleasant hint in each bite.
Martin has taken a chance by opening in a town where he’ll have to rely on folks coming in from the surrounding area to keep the restaurant afloat. He’s already learning the local schedule. The Sunday church crowd gets out at 10:30 a.m., and he was missing it with his 11 a.m. opening time. He pushed it up a half hour. Martin recently added lunch on Fridays, and will continue to expand the hours as more customers find the place. Martin said he’s gone through plenty of adversity to get to this point in his life and career. He lost everything in a house fire in 2020, and it was at that point he realized he should pursue what makes him happy, and that was barbecue. “There’s no better time for me to do what I love,” he told me, and that love comes through in the food he’s serving at Hill City Chop House.
Hill City Chop House
8718 W. U.S. 377, Tolar
Hours: Thursday, 4-9:30 p.m.; Friday, noon-9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
Pitmaster: Dustin Martin
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2022