Monday, January 21, 2008

Amarillo By Morning, Hill Country by Night

Hopped up on endorphins and excited to be alive, Meghan and I left the gym 2 Saturday’s ago for a dining experience of a different sort. As a sudden gust of crisp, January air slapped me upside the head, I recoiled with a chill, turned to Meghan and declared, “Put your boots on ‘cause we’re going to Hill Country.”

Though in reality, our decision wasn’t quite as dramatic, (nor do I have anywhere near that kind of say in my relationship), there has been talk of hitting this supposed King of NYC ‘cue; and Saturday was as good a time as any. So with our belts buckled and boots strapped, we moseyed on up to a small, self-contained patch of Chelsea known as Hill Country.

Named for the north-central region of Texas famous for its prolific style of barbecue, Hill Country’s red neon sign breathes life into an otherwise depressing strip of 26th street just east of 6th avenue. Inside you are immediately inundated with that never-too-familiar aroma of meat that has been cooking for hours on end, just waiting to disintegrate in your mouth. Unfortunately, at 7:45, we were greeted with a 45-minute wait, which based on the already packed bar area, was more than a bit optimistic. After 90 minutes of wondering why people pay $6 to drink bottled Miller Lite, we finally heard our name…it was time to eat!

Hill Country is cafeteria style, offering its down-home fare at two “stations”, one for meat and one for sides, both of which you can visit as many times as you like. Prior to being seated, you are given a meal ticket which is marked to reflect what you’ve ordered each time you get food. Once you’re stuffed and covered in BBQ sauce, your bill is tallied at the cashier, where you pay on the way out. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves….

Hill Country’s selection of meats is nothing short of impressive, offering up brisket (moist or lean), pork ribs, beef short ribs, chicken, and even boneless prime rib. At roughly $20 per lb (the chicken is only $3/lb), you can easily rack up a sizable bill rather quickly, a sensible reminder from that econo-eating girlfriend of mine. (I wish she was like that when it came to footwear). That said, we opted for the “Combo for Two” for $49, which allowed us to taste a little bit of everything and anything. Carved to order, and loosely wrapped in brown paper, this medley of meat included 4 pork ribs, 2 beef ribs, a half chicken, and a quarter ¼ lb. of brisket. Along with this mixed bag of barbecue, comes a choice of two sides that more than adequately completes the meal. NOW it was really time to eat.

Back at the table, we quickly ravaged our brown sack of succulence, revealing a pit-smoked plethora of barbecue perfection. My first strike landed me a not-too-thin slice of lean brisket, which in my opinion, is best eaten when slathered in BBQ sauce (Hill Country provides a jar of their own at the table). I realize there are plenty of those who make the all too obvious observation that this cut of meat is dry; but why

don’t they realize that this is the nature of the meat? Why is everyone hell bent on making brisket something it is not? If it’s tough like brisket, a bit stringy like brisket, and a tad grainy like brisket, then it is brisket, so douse it in some BBQ sauce, get over the dryness, and eat it. It’s just that simple.

My meat M.O. aside, we forged ahead to the pork ribs that were tender strips of meat falling right off the bone. The beef ribs were equally as toothsome, though more reluctant to shed their juicy outer layer as beef usually is. The chicken’s juicy dark meat was exceptionally moist and clearly Meghan’s favorite, perhaps partly due to it being the easiest to enjoy without actually wearing any barbecue sauce. (I myself prefer to wear it). Great barbecue need not exist without great sides, and Hill Country knows this all too well. Our Bourbon Sweet Potato Mash was a creamy, relatively light way to wash down those BBQ soaked strips of Brisket (which can be dry no?) Just as fulfilling, the Macaroni and Cheese was a deliciously down-to-earth mix of warm long penne rigate roughly tossed with brawny morsels of “Longhorn” Sharp cheddar. Rich, textured, and pure, Hill Country’s interpretation of this classic American comfort food makes you wonder if you’ll ever eat that powdery stuff that comes out of the blue and yellow box again. I’m not sure I will.

On top of all this goodness, the star of the evening was the jalapeno cheddar sausage, which I ordered as an extra to the combo meal. Crispy on the outside, moist and forgiving on the inside, this house-made recipe gives Italian fennel-seed sausage a run for its money.

Nowadays, going out for barbecue in this part of the country is more of a novelty than a legitimate eating excursion. Square dancing servers, George Strait’s greatest hits on repeat, bales of hay surrounding your table, these cheap tricks and hokie (pun intended) gimmicks have done for barbecue what Chuck E. Cheese has done for pizza. (Sorry Chucky!)

That said, this bastion of BBQ is an exception to the rule, making it clear that while the walls and sounds may indicate you’re at Hill Country, it is only the food that will take you there.

Hill Country
Food: A-
Ambiance : B+ (subtle décor, a bit hectic inside though)
Service A: (once seated, there isn’t much service other than drinks, but they left us alone to eat, which was perfect)


meg murph said...

it keeps getting better and better!

The Übereater said...

Thanks Mrs. Murphy! Your encouragement is always welcome......and about those shoes...

Eric "ELeven" Leven said...

Yo! It was kind of strange having brunch with you and then seeing you 7 or so hours later at the same spot for dinner.
The wait was kind of outrageous as was the crowd in the front of the bar but as long as your name is down and drinks are flowing (6 dollar Miller Lights?! WTF?!?) it's all good. I had the Texas Nectar Tonic (or whatever) drink and it got me pleasently buzzed before I ate my weight in meat. I had the lean brisket..mmmm..didn't drown it in BBQ sauce although I poured on a sufficient amount. My sides were slaw (excellent) and sweet mash (eh- but what do I expect?) Overall I had a great time and think it was a great eating "experience." I like the ordering platform too.
Seeing the amount of meat they go through with just one group at a table I felt compared to ask the butcher how many whole cows Hill Country must go through on any given Saturday night.
The butcher responded, "Oh man! I'd say about 8 at least." I gasped, then shrugged, then ate 3/4 pound of cow ass. Go figure.

Alan said...

"A depressing stretch of 26th st?" Yikes, even before I lived on this very block I would not have described it in quite that fashion.