By PETE WELLS
3 July 2012
IN the line of duty, I’ve eaten food served on a curl of bark, food served on a slate shingle, food served on the end of a wire, food served in an antique silver caviar caddy and food served in a box of rocks.
But for sheer power to send ripples of anticipation through the pit of my belly, none of those vehicles beat the greasy butcher paper at Hill Country Barbecue Market.
Whenever I eat at this restaurant on West 26th Street, I head for the meat counter and ask for a pound of moist brisket. If a pound strikes you as too much, then you haven’t had Hill Country’s moist brisket. A counter worker with a long knife tears off a sheet of brown paper and proceeds to bury it under slabs of meat. Beef ribs, too, yes, and some jalapeño-cheese sausages.
A couple of those, please.
Let’s make it three.
When I stop at last, the counter worker grabs the ends of the butcher paper and scrunches them to form a basket filled with smoked meat and serpentine wisps of steam. I carry that basket to my table and set it down in front of my friends, casual as can be. They look amazed, and if they don’t, I rethink the friendship.
At the table, the paper is flattened into a communal plate, and I cover one patch of it with seasoned salt. Pink from cayenne and spotted with black pepper grains, the salt goes with brisket better than barbecue sauce. Paper, meat, salt: by now my stomach is in a riot and I am sure I should have ordered two pounds of brisket.
Moist brisket on greasy paper is not the only reason to eat at Hill Country, but it’s a convincing one. The term “moist brisket” is the restaurant’s euphemism for the deckle and tip of the brisket, upholstered in fat that will slowly render and baste the meat during the 13 or 14 hours it spends in the smoker. Carved just before serving, the meat is juicy throughout, but the parts that really get me going are the blackened edges that give way to a mahogany-tinted quarter-inch or so of smoky borderland between crust and interior.
The moist brisket, along with the beef and pork ribs that carry a similarly peppery, crunchy top layer, show Hill Country’s rotisserie barbecue pits at their finest. The restaurant is a state-of-the-art Manhattan homage to the preindustrial craft of Texas barbecue, particularly as it is practiced in the town of Lockhart.
The flavors Hill Country achieves in its pits are not precisely the ones I remember from meals at Lockhart’s legendary rivals, Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market. At both places, the smoke was deeply entrenched in the meat.
Despite burning about 1,500 pounds a week of post oak shipped in from Texas, Hill Country doesn’t produce that kind of deeply smoky barbecue. It produces very slowly roasted meat with an echo of campfire around the edges. The low smoke quotient makes a spongy, beige pork chop a disappointment, and leaves the market chicken just another slightly dry rotisserie bird.
But it does no harm to the prime rib and the beef shoulder. They may not be great Texas-style barbecue, but they are still terrific slabs of roast beef, cooked medium-rare through and through and ringed with that salt-and-pepper crust. And the jalapeño-cheese links, shipped to Manhattan by Kreuz Market, are always full flavored and insistently spicy, though their juiciness varies from day to day.
When Hill Country opened, five years ago last month, it joined a wave of new restaurants that tried to coax more smoke into barbecue than had seemed possible on the tightly regulated shores of the East River. In a glowing $25 and Under column in 2007, the last time Hill Country was reviewed in The New York Times, Peter Meehan focused on the meat, especially the brisket. “No other barbecue place that has opened in New York in recent years has gotten it so right, right out of the gate,” he wrote.
Since then, Hill Country’s other virtues have become easier to notice, or harder to ignore. Year after year I am drawn back to the dessert case for another plastic cup of banana pudding, built upon a custard so thick with eggs and cream it brings Paris to mind, and not the one in Texas. And as New York has become cluttered with strenuously playful cupcakes, few make me smile as easily as the one at Hill Country that is filled with grape jelly and frosted with a fluffy turban of peanut butter.
According to hard-liners, the only permissible side dishes with barbecue are white bread and saltines. Anything else is as out of place as a yuzu macaron.
Hill Country takes a more liberal point of view, thankfully. When I can afford to surrender the stomach space, I will have some peppery corn pudding, which has roughly the same relationship to an ear of corn that an ice cream sundae has to a cow. And I am always grateful for the relief provided by crunchy, sparingly dressed coleslaw and a vinegary salad of black-eyed peas.
None of these dishes look like restaurant food; they seem like things packed for a church picnic by the best cook in town. The cook in this case, or at least the one whose recipes the kitchen follows, is the restaurant’s executive chef, Elizabeth Karmel. Named in her honor, EAK’s Bowl of Red is a ground-beef chili that could be a meal in itself, although it’s soupy enough that I wish Hill Country really did serve it in a bowl rather than in the same paper cartons used for all the sides.
In Texas, much of the atmosphere of a barbecue joint is provided by the employees and the customers. Since shipping live Texans across state lines can be complicated, Hill Country’s owner, Marc Glosserman, bought inanimate objects like battered butcher blocks, salvaged floorboards and an old Blue Bell ice cream freezer.
All this may be mistaken for the set dressing a big chain might use, but no chain would play Ray Wylie Hubbard and Reckless Kelly, or hire bartenders who mouth the lyrics as they tuck their bottle openers into the back pockets of their jeans.
Hill Country may not be the real thing. But it plays the part better than anybody else in town.