6/27/2007

Hill Country

Fette Sau is a hard act to follow.

This became apparent as soon as we walked into Hill Country. Where was the smell of barbecue? In Williamsburg, the scent of roasting meat bewitches you a block away, here there was barely a whiff of it, even when the counter staff opened the cantilevered storage units that contain piles of brisket, beef ribs, and fatty pork.

Manhattan might mean "island of many hills," but this ain't the boonies anymore. If Texas-inspired Hill Country exuded that barbecue scent, the neighbors would be hoppin' mad. (It's tough not to lapse into Texas talk as soon as you get here, what with the honky tonk music on the stereo.) On the other hand, Hill Country is conveniently located just blocks away from several subway lines, and this, as my fellow diner the Cheese Guy pointed out, is its biggest advantage. The cavernous hall, lined on one side with piles of firewood, chock full of wooden tables, and punctuated by BBQ and beer stations, easily fills with Manhattan diners, many of them guys in ties. This doesn't even include the equally cavernous downstairs space, which has several long tables for large parties and live music several nights a week. But dang if it ain't hard to hear in Hill Country: the acoustics are terrible.

We queued up for 'cue, which is sold by the pound. In a Katz's-like system, you get a ticket at the outset and get your own food. This is true to Texas style, so if you prefer table service, chances are you'd be better off in a fancy-pants New York place.

The biggest difference between Hill Country and Fette Sau is the smoker, or lack of a huge, hardworking one like Fette Sau's Southern Queen. Hill Country's brisket is juicier than Fette Sau's, probably because it's been cooked for a shorter time. But as any barbecue aficionado can tell you, this means it loses something in the flavor department. The rub on the outside is good, but it doesn't penetrate far into the beef. The same goes for nicely peppery rub on the pork ribs. And if you ever wonder whether the current Berkshire pork obsession is just spin, contrast and compare the two meats and you'll taste the difference. Because of the shorter cooking time, Hill Country's non-Berkshire pork ribs were still pink inside and chewy, not falling off the bone.

The beer can game hen proved to be a worthwhile experiment. Deep fried with an open beer can inside, it tasted nicely herbal and moist, with crispy skin. It had flavors I didn't realize hen or canned beer could have. How they managed to wedge a whole can o' beer in this lil' critter I'll never know.

Unlike Fette Sau, Hill Country is not hostile to vegetarians. There are a heap of sides, many of them meat free. Sharp, slightly oily Longhorn cheddar decked the pasta in the excellent mac-n-cheese, and the corn pudding is perfectly salty-sweet. Black eyed pea salad was ho-hum, and chipotle deviled eggs sounded much more exciting than they were, but they're a nice apertif to the barbecue if you get hungry waiting in line.

Normally I wouldn't review a place this early on, but I had an opportunity to go and a camera, so please consider this an early report. Over the course of the evening, however, it became apparent that a lot of thought has already gone into Hill Country. By "thought," I mean "focus group input." Like the latest designer fragrance, nothing in the formula offends, but nothing sticks out at you, either. The faux-fluorescent lighting and kitschy props nailed to the walls reminded me of TGI Fridays or Chili's, though thankfully none of the servers are wearing "flare." Hill Country has only been open for a matter of weeks, but their in-house barbecue sauce is already for sale at the gift counter by the door, though it's a pretty average sauce. Setting up a gift counter before you have a devoted following seems like creating your own celebrity fan club before you're even famous.

Nevertheless, since this is the kind of free-range place where no one kicks you out, we meandered downstairs to listen to live blues. The luckiest moment of the night came when one of the sous chefs literally tossed Chef Mary and me a bourbon pecan pie at the bar. It was hands down the most delicious pecan pie we've ever eaten (sorry, Mom), loaded with fresh nuts and laced with bourbon and molasses.

The bourbon pecan pie, the sugared bar nuts, the bands, the friendly counter staff, the space for huge parties, and the location are all good reasons to return to Hill Country - and the Kruez sausage is supposed to be a tasty Texas specialty as well, though we didn't get a chance to try it. But if I have a hankering for pork ribs again, I'll be danged if I'm not on the first train out to Williamsburg.

Hill Country
30 West 26th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
New York, New York
212-255-4544

2 comments:

joy said...

Looks like a watered down version of Cracker Barrel what with the kitsch and the gift shop. But I loves me some Cracker Barrel so perhaps this will suffice.

PJ said...

Being a native Austinite, I can tell you that this is easily the most authentic Texas cue you're going to find in Manhattan (I haven't tried Fette Sau yet, though I intend to. From the reviews it sounds great, if not Texan.)

It's not really a focus group issue, they brought a whole mess of Texan things up here that haven't existed to date. Three of my favorites being correctly made pintos, Blue Bell and sweet tea. Granted, the place is loud, but if you've ever been in a joint in Texas, you'll know that's right too.

Finally, as for the sauce, if you know your texas cue, it's a barely tolerated secondary ingredient. The meat should stand up on its own, and here it does.