It’s rare that a restaurant opens in this town to instantaneous, unanimous acclaim. But that’s what happened to Hill Country, which opened this summer in Chelsea. It captures New York’s barbecue moment just about perfectly. Every reviewer has been smitten. Everyone. Including me.
I’m not a great barbecue conoisseur. I can’t tell you the differences between Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas barbecue. But I know what I love, and Hill Country is it. The meats are unsauced. What comes through is pure smokey flavor that lets the food speak for itself—or perhaps I should say “sing” for itself.
Though I can’t vouch for it, the barbecue style at Hill Country is supposed to be the spitting image of what you get in Lockhart, Texas. Service is bare-bones, but no one should care. When you come in, the host hands you a “meal ticket.” You carry a cafeteria tray to ordering stations—a counter for meats, another for side dishes, another for beverages. An attendant marks down what you’ve ordered. After the meal, you present your meal ticket to the cashier, who rings up the bill.
Meats come piled on a sheet of wax paper; side dishes come in cardboard cups. But if the service is nothing fancy, the servers clearly love what they’re doing. Their advice is both enthusiastic and reliable. At the bar, for instance, the bartender wisely steered us towards the moist brisket—the restaurant’s signature dish. At the meat counter the server dished out just the right amount of food for two people, when we were really unsure just how much we needed.
It’s hard to see from the photo, but this is really a lot of food. The moist brisket is hidden underneath two enormous beef ribs and a couple of jalapeno sausage. To the side is macaroni and cheese (upper right) and corn pudding (lower right). It was more than two hungry people could finish.
The brisket comes in two varieties: moist and lean, the former being a euphemism for fat. We love fatty meats, so we tried the moist brisket ($17.50/lb.), which was extraordinary. Beef ribs ($9/lb.) were wonderful too; more barbecue places should serve them. We were less impressed with the jalapeno sausage ($5.50 ea.), which seemed too dry when compared to the other things we tried.
There are several other meats available, incluidng spare ribs, pork chops, game hen, chicken, beef shoulder, and prime rib. We were full, so they’ll have to wait for another time. And rest assured, there will be another time. The two side dishes we tried—mac & cheese and corn pudding ($4.50 ea.)—were terrific. I especially recommend the corn pudding, as it’s an unusual dish that few other barbecue places offer.
The food is the star at Hill Country, but the bar shouldn’t pass unnoticed. There’s a terrific selection of tequilas, and I even noticed a vodka from Iceland. The specialty drinks are wonderful, and reasonably priced (around $10 ea.).
One of them features a remarkably smooth vodka from Austin, TX. When I asked about it, the bartender gave me a bit of it on the side—yet another example of how the servers at Hill Country are truly enthusiastic about what they serve.
The space is large, with tables on two levels, and there is live music several nights a week. It’s not too far off the path of my commute home, and I could well imagine that it will be one of my regular haunts when I have a barbecue craving. In this town, you can’t do much better than Hill Country.
Hill Country (30 W. 26th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, Chelsea)