Hill Country: Barbecue As It Should Be

One lazy Saturday afternoon this summer, my boyfriend and I wandered into what we were told was the best new barbecue joint in Manhattan: Hill Country. I tend to be skeptical of recommendations adorned with superlatives, but the food at this newbie, which is marketed as “music to your mouth,” really does sing. (And that’s not just because of the live music that’s played nightly.)

The style of barbecue at Hill Country is inspired by the famous Texas barbecue establishment, Kreuz Market, where the currency is dry-rubbed, slow roasted meats wrapped in butcher paper and served by the pound, over-the-counter style.

The way the dining experience works is you’re given a meal ticket that serves as both menu and bill before you’re even seated. When you’re ready to eat, you walk your ticket over to the food stations that occupy one corner of the room. The first station we approached was the meat department, where the prices are market driven and the fare is serious: Beef brisket, beef shoulder, beef ribs. Beer Can Game Hen. Pork Chop Bone in Kreuz Sausage. We both ended up ordering the barbecue beef sandwich, one of the day’s lunch specials, which was a mountain of thoroughly marinated beef shredded and sandwiched between two thick slabs of white bread. It was, as my boyfriend observed, perfect.

We skipped the hot and cold trimmings (sides) at the next station over, but they looked good enough to make me want to return just to taste them and interesting enough to constitute a meal if you’re not into meat. And there are more than enough to choose from: Longhorn Cheddar Mac and Cheese. Beer Braised Cowboy Pinto Beans. White Shoepeg Corn Pudding. Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash. Smokey Chipotle Deviled Eggs…

The restaurant itself looks like an oversized barn with high ceilings and mounds of wood neatly stacked against the walls. We sat at a long picnic table equipped with everything you need for an all-out barbecue showdown: a roll of paper towels and bottles of barbecue and hot sauce.

After our meal we planted ourselves at one of the restaurant’s two bars (where I happily observed that happy hour lasts from 3 to 6 p.m. and then again from 10 p.m. to 1a.m.) and befriended the bartender, Irene, who let me sample one of Hill Country’s Specialty Drinks called a Texas Nectar, which is a smack-you-down mix of Maker’s Mark, Southern Comfort, almond extract, and orange juice. My boyfriend took advantage of the happy hour two-for-$4 PBRs.

Because we went for a late lunch there were only a handful of other customers around, but Irene confirmed my suspicion that the place gets slammed on weekend nights, especially when there’s live music. I imagined a cacophony of live blue grass and chattering patrons swigging beers while waiting for their brisket would only boost the authenticity of the whole experience, but for the moment I was content to be one of three people at the bar, monopolizing Irene’s time and drink-making skills.

Hill Country: 30 West 26th Street (between 6th Avenue and Broadway); (212) 255-4544

Photo: Athlete DIRECTOR Dave via the IT Flickr pool