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Posted at 10:17 AM ET, 03/15/2011

Smoke Signals: Scaling Hill Country


The Texas-style barbecue joint officially opened to the public on Saturday. (Ian Wagreich Photography)

So, OK, it wasn’t the Oscars. It wasn’t even an event the Salahis deigned to crash. But in the barbecue world, it’s not every launch party that attracts a former network anchorman crooning onstage and a true-blue barbecue legend flown up from Texas for his blessing.

Smoke Signals made the scene on Friday as theTexas-style Hill Country Barbecue Market made its debut for invited guests. The first outpost of the New York restaurant, based on a central Texas barbecue joint called Kreuz Market, drew a huge crowd at its Penn Quarter location. Hill Country D.C. opened officially for dinner on Saturday.

Founder and CEO Marc Glosserman, a Bethesda native, gave a speech in which he said the restaurant, which imports post oak wood, Blue Bell ice cream and Big Red soda from Texas, was “a tribute to my ancestors.” By that, he meant the family of his great-grandfather, who emigrated to Lockhart, Texas, from Poland in 1900, the same year that Kreuz opened.

Glosserman’s father, Michael, who was born in Lockhart and lives in Bethesda, was wearing an HC/DC cap (the logo made to look like the hard-rock band’s famous lightning lettering). “I’ve never seen so many people in suits at a barbecue joint,” said the jacketless, tieless Texan.

Hill Country? Meet Washington.

Washington? Meet Hill Country.

Herewith, Smoke Signals’s take on the evening:

PROS:


The atomsphere is more heartfelt Central Texas than phony Epcot Center. (Ian Wagreich Photography)
The place itself. I’ve talked to more than one Texan who felt the cavernous space with its tin roof, communal tables and wood-framed black-and-white photos captures the vibe of a real Texas barbecue joint. Smoke Signals could, and will, nitpick that the “brick pits” are actually just electric warmers made to look authentic and that the darkening of the walls are intended to replicate the real discoloring that occurs in Texas barbecue joints from years of smoking (all the smoke at Hill Country goes out a fancy ventilation system). But the authors of this restaurant’s story have achieved in SS a willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, he agrees that the vibe is more heartfelt than phony.

The service. Granted, it was the launch, and the staff was no doubt on its best behavior. But the management’s aim to imbue the wait staff with a “Texas friendly” attitude seems as deep and undeniable as woodsmoke in great Texas brisket. It was attentive without being overbearing and warm without being obsequious. Smoke Signals remembers when he first moved to Texas and kept looking behind him when a total stranger, approaching on the sidewalk, would acknowledge him with a nod or a salutation. If they keep this up, the atmosphere will do Texas (derived from a Caddo Indian word for “friend”) proud.

The burnt ends. These little nuggets of meat candy, sliced from the exterior of the brisket, can be chewy, but gloriously so. You want to chow down on the deep beefy flavor and joyously gnaw on a texture that is at once soft and crunchy.

The downstairs. With exposed ceiling beams, a shelf of cowboy boots behind the bar and a huge Texas flag behind the stage, the roadhouse-y live-music club is intimate and warm.

Ruby Jane . Austin’s latest musical phenomenon, the teenage fiddle player can absolutely burn. Unfortunately, the packed house didn’t see her best stuff. Unaccountably, she was kept on a short leash by Austin-born/Fort Worth-raised and former CBS news anchor and (who knew?) country singer Bob Schieffer and his Honky Tonk Confidential band. She was relegated to short breakdowns rather than let loose to rip ‘er up, as she did onstage several months back at Madam’s Organ with Austin-based media-guys (NPR’s John Burnett on harmonica, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright on keyboards) blues band, Who Do.

Street Cred. The recently retired owner of Kreuz Market, Hill Country’s patron saint Rick “Smitty” Schmidt, a longtime family friend of, and mentor to, Glosserman, was flown up to lend the proceedings some barbecue gravitas.

CONS:


Bob Schieffer and Honky Tonk Confidential hogged the spotlight at the barbecue joint's debut. (Ian Wagreich Photography)
Texas toast. You know where they serve Texas toast? Michigan. And Vermont. Pretty much anywhere but Texas. Within the state, you rarely see the stuff. In Hill Country joints, the slices commonly served with barbecue come from cheap, white sandwich loaves, the sort you can buy at your local Safeway.

Part of the purpose is to wrap a slice of brisket or a link of sausage in the bread and eat as is or dunk in a little bowl of “dippin’ sauce.” The overly thick stuff at Hill Country doesn’t fold well, doesn’t wrap well and doesn’t squish well.

Parking. More specifically, the lack of. Smoke Signals drove around the block several times until finally settling for the $10 valet. When he left, he waited with several others for an extraordinarily long time until his car was brought around. One customer even went back inside. “I’m going to the bar,” he said. “I can see the car through the windows.”

Beef ribs. Compared to the toothsome Flinstone-sized bones you find at the best Texas joints, these are pretty scrawny. The place wasn’t even open officially, so it’s unfair to review the food. But this is less about the quality of preparation than about the sourcing. Smoke Signals is hopeful that Hill Country, which prides itself on channeling the real Texas deal, will find beef ribs that are closer to the meaty type you’d enjoy in the Lone Star State.

Make a Deposit at the Food Bank: You know how much you love barbecue? Well, now’s your chance to help someone else have some: Q-Aid needs volunteers.

Makes no difference if you are a pro, a novice or never fired up coals in your life. The event to help stock the shelves of the Capital Area Food Bank with pulled pork seeks volunteers to help prep meat, cook it and package it. You can also “Buy A Butt” for someone else to cook.

The event is March 18 and 19 at the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew, 15300 New Hampshire Ave., in Silver Spring.

For more info, contact the Mid Atlantic Barbecue Association.

Contact Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin with tips, suggestions, and opinions at jimshahin@aol.com; follow Smoke Signals on Twitter.

By  |  10:17 AM ET, 03/15/2011

Categories:  Smoke Signals | Tags:  Jim Shahin

 
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