Mon 14 Mar 2011
It’s a simple fact that one of the key ingredients in good barbecue is time. The best pitmasters can slow-smoke a brisket for hours on end and then pull it off at just the right moment to maximize taste and tenderness. So it stands to reason that the folks behind Washington’s newest ‘cue joint would take their time to make sure everything was done just right.
For those of us who’ve been eagerly awaiting Hill Country Barbecue Market’s opening, knowing this hasn’t made it any easier. Thankfully, the wait is over. If you smelled smoke in Penn Quarter this weekend, that’s because Hill Country threw open its doors on Saturday night. This Washington offshoot of one of New York’s most popular barbecue restaurants is finally ready to go.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Hill Country represents a whole new way of looking at barbecue for Washingtonians. This is not a lowest-common-denominator, give everyone a little taste of what they like best kind of place – it’s Texan through and through. Executive Chef Elizabeth Karmel may hail from North Carolina, but she’s unapologetic in her Texan approach to ‘cue, eschewing sauces and mops in favor of a dry rub that includes salt, pepper and “enough cayenne to turn it pink” and serves to emphasize the flavors of the meat itself. They don’t even offer barbecue sauce on the table (though they do offer an “If You’ve Gotta Have It” sauce). Just ordering your meal may take some getting used to, as Hill Country utilizes a “meal ticket” to track your purchases as you move from counter to counter and build your plate.
Toby Keith wasn’t singing about Hill Country in “I Love This Bar,” but his words summed up my first reaction perfectly: Just walkin’ through the front door puts a big smile on my face. Step in from 7th Street and you’re immediately greeted by a cashier’s kiosk straight ahead and a bar meant to evoke the front of the house (the retail establishment) of a Texas barbecue market. Even the yellow walls at the far end are traditional, and the three kinds of Shiner on tap ($20 per pitcher) are bound to please Texans. They’ll even make regulars at the original Hill Country jealous – Shiner’s not available on draft in New York City.
You’re welcome to pull up a stool and hang out here at the bar, but the real Hill Country experience awaits you beyond the counter. First things first: stop at the cashier’s desk and pick up your Meal Ticket. This is your passport to Flavor Country, allowing you to sample meats, sides and desserts to your heart’s content. Each time you order something at one of the market counters in the back of the restaurant, your server will mark your ticket. You’ll present this ticket to the cashier when you’re ready to leave and they’ll ring you up for everything all at once. No need to request separate checks, just make sure you keep yours on you at all times.
For most guests, the first stop is going to be the “Barbecue & Sausage” counter on the right at the rear of the dining room. Ribs, pork and chicken are all represented, but the real stars of this show are the beef brisket (smoked 12 to 14 hours) and the two kinds of sausage (white and the spicier red) flown in from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX. The meats are smoked over Texas post oak, just like they are in New York to further preserve the authentic flavors. Priced by the pound, you’ll be able to order small samples of a few options before settling on a favorite. Each time you order, you’ll receive another note on your Meal Ticket.
But man cannot live on smoked meat alone, so we make our way to the “Sides & Trimmings” counter. Here you’ll find classics like black-eyed “caviar,” Texas “red” style chili and a sweet potato-bourbon mash as well as updated offerings like a “Cool as a Cucumber” salad and Beer-braised cowboy pinto beans. Whatever you order here will be marked on your meal ticket separately.
Servers circulate throughout the dining room to take drink orders, but you can also pick up beverages and desserts at a third counter. This is one area where our Hill Country will outshine its New York predecessor, at least in the beginning. Blue Bell ice cream (a highly sought-after Texan brand) and Hill Country’s signature PB&J cupcakes are joined by an entire range of new desserts like bourbon pecan pie, sweet potato bread pudding and caramel apple crisp. The hits will eventually make their way up to New York, but for now DC leads the way on sweet treats.
As if eight dessert options weren’t enough, keep an eye out for the Hill Country “Cake Walk.” The pastry team will be turning out a new cake each month, giving it a limited run as a special. This month’s cake is a seven-layer red velvet confection: “We heard Washington has a soft spot for red velvet, so we wanted to start out strong.”
If you’ve got a larger group, or you’re eager to hear some live music, then you’ll want to head downstairs. The lower level offers seating for 120 and a “Boots Bar” that features an impressive set of longhorns and pairs of broken-in boots along the back. There’s a small stage area with the reclaimed-denim-and-bandanas Texas flag you saw at the beginning of this post, and they’ll be bringing in live music from the likes of Wil Gravatt and Crown Vic most nights. Every other Wednesday, you can show off your own honky-tonk chops at their “Rock n’ Twang” live band karaoke night. And you’ll be able to catch March Madness – and just about any big game involving a Texas team – on a large projection screen.
Hill Country can comfortably accommodate 300 patrons on both levels, and some or all of the space can be reserved for private events. They’re open until 1 AM Monday through Wednesday and until 2 AM Thursday through Sunday. They’ll offer two happy hours each day, an early shift and a late shift, and a late-night menu will be available as well. Fans of the original Hill Country will be pleased by all of the touches that carry over – original photography adorns the walls, a large star watches over the dining room, and there’s even a pedal sink like the ones throughout the New York location. But they’ll also be pleased by the additions and expansions – like the permanent addition of beef short ribs to the DC menu.