Smoke Signals: Hill Country founder aims to bring the taste of Texas barbecue to DC

March 15, 2011

Marc Glosserman wanders around Hill Country Barbecue Market in his blue jeans and scuffed cowboy boots as if the restaurant, which opened Saturday in Penn Quarter, were his home. In a way, it is.

More than three years after opening the original Hill Country, in Manhattan, to rave reviews, Glosserman has brought the concept — a love letter to the food of his extended family in Texas — home to Washington.

When the restaurant’s founder and chief executive was growing up in Bethesda, he frequently visited his grandparents and other relatives in the small town of Lockhart, Tex., famous for its barbecue. “My aunt [in Lockhart] would sometimes ship up a brisket or sauce to us,” recalls Glosserman, 36, who bears a vague resemblance to the mid-1970s Jackson Browne. “As we were eating it, we kept wishing, ‘It would be so great if there was something like this in Washington.’ ”

Glosserman had what he calls a “real East Coast upbringing.” He attended Georgetown Day School (and now sits on the board of directors). He played soccer and lacrosse in high school. He went to sports camp in Maine in the summer and went skiing in Colorado. He partied in Georgetown.

Lockhart, where his grandparents lived (his grandfather was mayor in the 1950s) and his father grew up, was a world apart. Glosserman caught fireflies there in the still, hot nights, played football in the front yard, went tubing at Schlitterbahn, a nearby water park. Uncles, aunts and cousins would gather and chow down on fried chicken, black-eyed peas and chicken-fried steak. And always, he’d go to Kreuz Market to eat barbecue.

When he was in his 20s, Glosserman would visit Texas, but he’d catch bands, not fireflies, at Austin’s fabled nightclubs. Meanwhile, he attended the University of Pennsylvania and, after graduation, co-founded a highly successful Bethesda-based telecom company. He moved to London and oversaw an expansion of the business. After realizing that “this wasn’t something I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he quit the tech world and journeyed for six months around Europe and Asia. In his travels, he was taken by the deep sense of place so often expressed in the local cuisine.

In 2003, Glosserman returned to Lockhart to attend a cousin’s wedding. He was eating at Kreuz when that notion of a sense of place, this time as tasted in the brisket, merged with an American-style business idea. He would open a Texas barbecue restaurant, only not in Texas but in Manhattan, where he lives. In 2004, he enrolled in the business school at Columbia University to research the plan.

“I had no background in the restaurant business, other than being a big fan of barbecue and Kreuz Market,” he says. “If we could do anything even close to what they do, there was nothing even remotely like it in the Northeast, and it would be a terrific thing to introduce to the marketplace.”

Glosserman put together a team of restaurant-savvy veterans: Elizabeth Karmel, a cookbook author who taught a barbecue class at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, became executive chef, and John Shaw, who handled operations for New York restaurant powerhouses Danny Meyer and David Bouley, became the chief operating officer.

In June 2006, Glosserman graduated from Columbia, got married and signed a lease for Hill Country Barbecue Market in the Chelsea neighborhood. A year later, on June 1, 2007, it opened. Glosserman will never forget the date — because his wife gave birth that night, too.

His son’s name? Austin.

The reviews for the original Hill Country were ecstatic; then-New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote, “No other barbecue place that has opened in New York in recent years has gotten it so right, right out of the gate.” Glosserman had planned from the beginning that if it succeeded, he would open another Hill Country in Washington, close to his parents’ home.

As in New York, the 332-seat D.C. restaurant attempts to replicate the atmosphere of a Texas barbecue experience. In Texas, barbecue is about beef, not pork. It’s a headstrong barbecue that takes the ornery beef brisket and coddles it in wood smoke till it purrs. Sauce just covers up bad barbecue, Texas pitmen say.

Established in 1900, Kreuz (pronounced “Krites”) is considered one of the state’s best. It posts three rules: No sauce, no forks and no kidding.

Hill Country imports post-oak wood from Texas, the type used by Kreuz and other central Texas barbecue joints, and smokes its briskets for around 12 hours. It also brings in the iconic Big Red soda and Blue Bell ice cream. Its two sausages are purchased directly from Kreuz.

Its meat rub is straight from the Kreuz seasoning pantry, using only kosher salt, coarse black pepper and a pinch of cayenne. It doesn’t, heaven forbid, sauce the meat.

Customers order at the counter, where a pitman slices their meat on a big butcher block and serves it on brown butcher paper, just like at Kreuz.

Senior managers travel to Texas to tour barbecue restaurants and study at Kreuz. All employees watch a documentary, “Barbecue: A Texas Love Story,” narrated by former governor Ann Richards.

The authenticity goes only so far, though. For starters, higher real estate and labor costs mean the prices at Hill Country are about double those of Kreuz, with brisket at the Washington outpost going for $22 a pound.

Its cookers? Alas, gigantic Ole Hickory gas-fired, wood-burning pits, not the gasless, horizontal all-wood pits commonly found in the best Texas joints, including Kreuz. And there is sauce on the premises. It’s a kind of uber-flavoring, made with peaches to evoke the legendary Hill Country fruit, chipotle for smokiness, a tomato base to acknowledge Kansas City and vinegar as a nod to North Carolina. It sure ain’t Texas. But then the restaurant does call it the “If You Gotta Have It” sauce.

And despite the traditional beef focus, on Wednesdays it serves whole hog. “I would never want to argue authenticity with a Texan,” Glosserman says. “I’d lose.”

There are some lines Glosserman says he will never cross. “No seafood. No fried foods. No pulled pork.”

The latter is the iconic North Carolina barbecue meat. “We do one thing,” he asserts. “Texas barbecue. It’s hard enough getting one style right.”

On the ground floor, customers eat at communal tables. Downstairs is a club where live roots-oriented bands, some from Texas, will perform five nights a week.

Most traditional Texas barbecue joints don’t book music. Indeed, the name Hill Country, while triggering fond memories among Texas exes who recall the stream-veined rolling hills with fondness, is also sleight of hand: Lockhart, south of Austin, is one county away from the Hill Country, which is mostly west of Austin.

“We call it Hill Country because the Hill Country is, to many Texans, a place that evokes the beautiful picturesque parts of the state: lush valleys, bluebonnets,” Glosserman says. “The romantic part of Texas. We wanted a name that didn’t just capture the barbecue, but the place.

“We wanted to keep the mix of Austin, its ‘keep it weird’ artistic vibe, and the folksy down-home, small-town barbecue joint. Upstairs is Lockhart and downstairs is Austin. We’re trying to capture the music, the food, the aesthetic under one house, under that Texas flag.”

Glosserman knows that, despite the Lone Star flag ornamentation — the huge Texas flag behind the stage downstairs, the signature star on railings upstairs — Hill Country Barbecue Market isn’t Texas. But he hopes that patrons can see Texas from here.

“Part of the experience of barbecue is the trip to get there,” he says. “Driving through the state, then coming across a place, smelling the smoke and seeing the pits and anticipating the food. We can’t be that. But we wanted to get as close as we could.”

Recipes

Cool as a Cucumber Salad

Double-Nut Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash

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