Hill Country: Worth the hype?
Barbeque has been all the rage in the NYC recently due to the success of places like Blue Smoke, Rub, Dinosaur, Daisy May's among many others. Even celebrities are jumping into the pit (so to speak) as Justin Timberlake recently opened a BBQ Joint on the UES penned Southern Hospitality. Another recent arrival came to the Chelsea area via Austin, TX titled Hill Country.
Hill Country is an homage to the old Texas BBQ markets, where patrons belly up to the counter and get their food cut and priced to order. The space itself is very warm and inviting (and spaceous!). Upon walking through the doors you feel like throwing on your Cowboy Boots, 10 gallon hat and favorite flannel shirt (don't forget about spraying on some Stetson cologne).
Warning....side rant coming! Listen people. I know this is Chelsea and the prepsters and hipsters who live here (not all but some) may have some problems identifying what "dressing down" means. Let me put it to you this way. It's BBQ...down and dirty...stuff will spill and splatter...Dress appropriately. Please leave the Prada and the Chanel at home ok? It's a fuckin BBQ joint. Thank you.
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the main reason why you would go to Hill Country besides the cool, laid back atmosphere: the food.
I went for the first time about a month ago with a large group of peeps. I was beyond anxious to try it out being a BBQ afficionado and upon hearing heaps and heaps of glorious review. Being that I normally overorder anyway, I found myself racking up the dollars pretty quickly as Bridget & I seemingly decided to try just about everything on the menu.
At the meat station we got a rack of ribs, a 1/2 Grilled Market chicken, a Beer Can Game Hen (which I was most excited to try), and a few slices of lean brisket. The food gets weighed by the pound and slapped onto some good ole brown butcher's paper and wrapped up in a ball. I admire the no-frills, pay by the pound bit and the fact that I don't have to worry about breaking a dish is even better for me! We next hit the sides stations and got a "Feed yer Family" side of Mac & Cheese and some Green Beean Casserole. Of course the meal wasn't complete until we added the slices of thick white bread to go along with the meats and sides.
We sat downstairs since we had a group of 10 and got a long table to share. Waitresses take drink orders and how could you have Texas BBQ without the Lonestar! With Lonestar in hand and a palette of food on paper in front of me I was happier than a pig in shit (no offense to the pig I was about to eat of course).
The chicken, ribs, brisket and toast
I decided to try everything "as-is" to experience the true flavoring of their meats without drenching it in any of the BBQ sauces on the table. Since I had a lot of food to sample in front of me, I'll base my review by item of food.
I first tried the ribs. Now granted please take this with a grain of salt, but I'm not a dry-rub kinda guy. I like sweet, tangy, spicy or any other type of "wet rib", the kind that falls off the bone and has you licking your lips and fingers all day and night to try to get all of the sauce you can. So with that said I wasn't a huge fan of the spicing on the ribs. I guess if you're a dry rub person that's how you like em. But spice aside, the ribs were a little tough to chew and slightly dry. Again...I know it's supposed to be dry...but the meat should still be a little sweet and tender. This rib was just a notch below tender.
Next up was the lean brisket. The brisket was soft and easy to cut through. The meat was tasty and flavorful. Obviously the moist brisket would have had more fat and thus more "softness" to it, but all in all the brisket was decent. It needed some help from the array of BBQ sauces at the table to bring it up to "good" status. But definitely a notch above the ribs for me.
Then I decided to go for what I came here for in the first place. The beer can game hen. Being that I love to make cornish hen's in my oven and have somewhat perfected the art of making them, I was expecting BIG things from the hen. Especially being that it was beer can flavored, how can you not be stoked. Well I was immediately discouraged when the skin wasn't crispy but soft and not really chewable. I love crispy skin. Not saying it had to be fried, but there's something about a crispy skin that adds to the flavor to the meat. This was like peeling back tissue paper. I cut into the meat. It was definitely cooked well but it was bland in flavor. The bites weren't memorable and there certainly wasn't any hints of beer flavoring in the meat (nor on the skin). I think the soft skin pretty much let the flavor evaporate out of the bird (a seared skin locks the flavors and moisture of a meat in) and left it a dry, bland mess. In fact I'd even argue that they didn't use a beer can to cook the hen in the first place (which I'm sure I'm completely on point about being that the hen came out of a giant bin of hens). I was completely disappointed. And quite frankly pissed off being that this was the one thing I looked most forward too.
The "beer can" game hen, side of mac & cheese and green bean casserole
Eager to get my excitement and my appetite back I ripped into the sides. The mac & cheese was flavorful and the macaroni was soft and chewy. Cheese was abundant throughout, but very rich, to the point where you feel the arteries tightening a bit with each bite. But not enough to stop you from shoving forkful after forkful into your mouth. The green bean casserole was exceptionally good, and the fried onions helped give the green beans a nice added crunch and saltiness. I was definitely a fan of the green beans (even if it's the "low food on the totem pole" at a BBQ joint.
Last up to sample was the market chicken. The chicken was moist and tender and very flavorful (MUCH more so than the hen). Each bite of the breast was tender both with and without the skin. However once you get down closer to the bone the meat was almost too tender and a little pink. Not to the point of being undercooked, but to the point of too tender to really eat. So that was kind of a drag being that their was so much flavor in the chicken I would have gleefully lifted up the carcass and ripped away at the tender meat that is normally around the bone.
I mean I know its hard to cook up thousands of pounds of meat a day. I really do. And it's next to impossible to keep your eye on everything you cook. But if you're cooking something in a "slow and low heat" based environment you have to realize that stuff will take longer to cook, especially with vast amounts of food in the steamers at the same time. But with poulty you need to be even more careful about what you're serving up to your guests. So while I'm not saying the food was raw...they should probably fine tune their methods just a bit to ensure that the entire chicken is cooked through and not just the breast. Or just chop the bird and serve just the breast this way you won't have to have someone staring at a pinkish piece of meat deciding whether or not to eat it or not.
Anyway after plowing through my plentiful bounty I sat back and evaluated the damage. There wasn't much left on my paper, just some uneaten hen and the not eatable carcass of the chicken. I chewed down my white toast with another Lonestar to "cleanse the palette" for dessert. That and I really was hoping something would save my experience at Hill Country because it was a tad disappointing at this point.
The PB&J cupcake (back), the pecan pie and the Blue Hill icecream
Lo and behold dessert came through in the clutch! The PB&J cupcake was probably the best cupcake I've had in years (or have ever had period). The jelly was sweet and balanced out the peanut butter frosting perfectly. Add the reese's pieces on top and it was like having your first peanut butter & jelly sandwich all over again! The pecan pie was definitely good (served room temperature) and the pecans were nice and crunchy compared to the tartness of the pie. When you threw a little vanilla Blue Bell ice cream up on that bitch it definitely brought it on home! Blue Bell, served in a little dixie cup, is a creamy and sweet version of homemade ice cream from Texas. Blue Bell is actually celebrating their 100th anniversary this year with a tour across the south sampling their flavors and celebrating their heritage. It's a damn shame they won't be coming up north of the mason-dixon line because I'd love to spend a few hours in that truck!
All in all Bridget and I spent upwards of $100 between the two of us and left Hill Country disgustingly full. For me I left with a twinge of disappointment in my mouth, albeit I was grinning ear to ear thanks to dessert. The reviews on my table were mixed, with some saying they loved it and others somewhat underwhelmed like I was. I did see some people from Texas I knew there so I know the place is pretty legit on trying to recreate the Texas BBQ market experience. From an atmosphere and serving standpoint that is point on (I could see the live music they have on occassion definitely helping to add to that experience).
Overall, the sides and dessert were definitely good (the dessert more so than the sides). The meats, which is what BBQ is all about, were hit or miss. I've definitely had better BBQ in NYC (Daisy May's, Dinosaur among others) and I've definitely had worse, but I would say my first visit was about average. I left full and slightly unsatisfied and overall I'd have to say based on my first visit, all the hype may have been just a bit overrated. I'm sure thousands will disagree with my review and call me every name in the book. But since the place is continuing to drum up the hype, I did have the opportunity to make a second visit just last week for some lunch with co-workers. Did my feelings change any or would I continue to be underwhelmed? Well unfortunately I made myself really hungry talking about BBQ so you'll have to log on tomorrow to find that out!
Y'all come back now - ya hear?
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Hill Country: Worth the hype?