Last night, we went to Hill Country Barbecue & Market on 26th St. in Manhattan. This is actually my second time there - first time was at a company party - but this was the first time I got to try their "real" food. And it was something, alright.
Real southern barbecue is one of the last frontiers for authentic cuisine in New York City. We've got everything else, from Mongolian to Ethiopian to Vietnamese to more common ethnic stuff like Italian and Chinese, but not the kind of Italian and Chinese you get in chain restaurants. I'm talking the real thing. But we've always been missing good BBQ until pretty recently. Now all of a sudden, there are at least three or four attempts at authentic slow smoked cooking that have popped up, and this is one of them. (Dinosaur and RUB are two others that get mentioned a lot.) Hill Country is Texas style barbecue.
I'm not really an expert on barbecue - I am a New Yorker after all - but I know the difference between grilling (what we usually do up here) and barbecuing (what Hill Country does) and I know what I like. I wanted to come back to Hill Country because the little fingerfood samples of brisket, hamburgers and stuffed jalapenos they gave us at my company party were just delicious.
When you walk in, they give you a meal ticket. You don't sit at a table and order food like at a normal restaurant - you walk around to the various counters and ask for stuff, like a market. They mark your ticket to show what you got, then you pay at the end. Don't lose your ticket or they'll charge you $50 minimum. It's easy to lose your ticket - my wife left hers on her tray at one point and the waitress took it away with her food. (She got it back.)
Ordering at the meat counter:
My wife just got a couple of ribs, which was only like $6. It's actually really cheap if all you want is a couple of kinds of meat. And it's a lot of meat. I actually got the Pitmaster's Combo sampler, which is $25 - but it's an insane amount of food. I don't think they expect anyone to finish it - I just wanted to taste a few different things. The Pitmaster's Combo for 1 comes with 1/4 lb. of lean brisket (they also make a "moist" brisket), a pork rib, a beef rib, a quarter chicken, and two sides.
Now, one of each kind or rib might not sound like much, but this isn't freakin' Chili's. These are ribs. One rib by itself could feed an average person. There's about 1/4 lb. of meat on each one. In fact, my beef rib probably had more like 1/2 lb.
Sorry, there's really no way that I've found to make a big pile of meat look appetizing. This isn't a fancy place; no gourmet presentation here, just a pile of meat on some brown paper. But look at that beef rib - compare it to the 1/4 lb. of brisket in the top right. Consider that that's a 1/4 of a chicken there on the bottom right. Those are huge ribs!
Here was my full dinner, sides included:
I got the mac & cheese because I'd heard good things about it, and the pinto beans braised in beer because, well, "beer braised" are magic words on a menu.
The meat itself was pretty much perfect when we got it, although it got cold fast. I mean, you can't eat it fast enough for that not to happen. And when slow cooked barbecued meat gets cold, it gets dry. So it wasn't nearly as good at the end of the meal as it was in the beginning.
The brisket was the highlight for me. It just has such a smoky, beefy flavor, not overseasoned but really intense. The lean brisket is just right for me when it's hot... I think the moist stuff would probably be too fatty. You can see they give you a couple slices of bread - apparently some people make a brisket sandwich.
The chicken was another bright spot. I'm sure it was blasphemy not to eat the skin, but even without the skin it was incredibly moist (even once it got cold) and flavorful.
The ribs were a little hit or miss - the pork rib was better as a leftover (it was a little too fatty last night, but dried out a bit overnight), while the beef rib was veiny and bony and just a little weird. I'm not used to beef ribs, so maybe that's just me.
They do give you their own barbecue sauce at the table, though honestly it didn't even occur to me to try it. I sort of regret that now, but I wanted to taste the meat as it was cooked.
Oh, and about those sides - both were amazing! The beans are made with a large amount of bacon and they really taste like smoke, bacon and beer. Yummy. The mac & cheese seems to be all cheddar, with just the right amount of crust. Everything reheats really well, incidentally.
Their desserts are impressive too:
Most people get the PB&J cupcakes, but I got the red velvet because I love red velvet. (I don't know if that makes me technically a girl or an old lady or something, but red velvet is just chocolate with a particular kind of cocoa and cream cheese icing.) I will honestly say that this was the best red velvet anything (cupcake or cake) that I've ever had. So moist, both the cake and the icing, but still heavy and satisfying. Not too light, not stale, lots of cocoa and cream cheese flavor.
Next time, I'll try the PB&J.
Our total bill came to $67. They get you with the extras. $6 for a beer, $5 for sides (my wife got hers a-la carte), $6 for the cupcake, etc. If you just want some good barbecue, you can get a couple of ribs and a side and be out of there for $11. But I'm sure they count on the fact that most people will spend about what we did.
This is some good barbecue. Definitely recommended.