Beef, smoke and time. These are the foundations of Texas barbecue, as sacrosanct as Big Tex at the state fair. But should you grind that beef and form it into a patty, the foundations start to crack and expose their structural weaknesses. A whole brisket, trimmed to a pit master’s specifications, may be made for a long, low-and-slow stay in a wood smoker. But a ground-beef patty? Not so much. A burger cooked wholly in an offset will eat more like a chew toy for a hyperactive Jack Russell.
The environment inside a stick burner is, essentially, inhospitable to ground beef, which probably explains why smoked burgers have only recently become fashionable in Texas — and only because pit masters basically use their offsets to par-cook the patties. The burgers you find at the Lone Star State barbecue joints typically demand a two-step process: a brief smoke bath inside the pit, followed by a trip to a hot griddle, where the patty is smashed and cooked in its own fat. It’s barbecue meets smash burger.
The pit team at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in Austin, more or less, follows a similar process, and these were the patties that most impressed Chris Svetlik during his smoked burger tours of Texas. “Just really, really perfectly done across the board,” says Svetlik, who was raised in Spring, a suburb north of Houston.
Svetlik is a partner in Hill East Burger, a cozy and semi-kitschy outpost along Pennsylvania Avenue SE that specializes in the kind of smoked hamburgers that have become a fixation in his home state. Svetlik had already established his Tex-Mex bona fides with Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle but decided to inch ever closer to Texas barbecue territory with his latest project. He found the right partner in Joe Neuman, co-founder of Sloppy Mama’s, one of the area’s most reliable sources for smoked meats.
If Texas pit masters run into problems trying to smoke ground beef in pits, they ought to try doing it inside a tiny storefront with no space for a proper offset, like Waylon and Merle, the pair of 1,000-gallon barrel smokers that sit in the parking lot at Sloppy Mama’s in Arlington. When first developing techniques for the burgers, Neuman used Waylon and Merle, but he understood that he would need to find an alternative to the giant smokers for Hill East Burger. Enter the ungainly, decidedly unromantic Alto-Shaam, a single-compartment unit, which looks an R2-D2 droid equipped with a fire box that burns wood chips.
The Alto-Shaam solved the space problem but left another issue unresolved: The par-smoked patties were still too soft for Neuman’s liking. This is when Ben Alt, the third partner in Hill East and a man better known for his skills with bitters and a cocktail shaker, suggested they try cold-smoking the beef. So in addition to tossing hickory chips into the Alto-Shaam’s fire box, the crew slides a tray of ice inside the cabinet, to keep the temperature hovering around 3o to 35 degrees.
If you’re the uncharitable kind, you could call it a shortcut, or maybe even a cheat, to the still open-ended traditions of Texas smoked burgers. I call it brilliant improvisation. The cold-smoking technique keeps the unseasoned ground beef, formed into three-ounce balls, in their raw state, even after a 30-minute stay in the smoker oven. This allows the cooks at Hill East to press and griddle the beef balls just like any other line jockey at your favorite smash burger joint.
The technique also understands a basic truth about smoking meat: To impart the flavor of wood smoke, you don’t need to cook the cut entirely inside an offset. But the traditions — to say nothing of the romanticism — of Texas barbecue run deep, which is probably why pit masters first tried to smoke burgers entirely in their pits, resulting in those rendered rubber balls of beef. They had to adapt their approach if they wanted a burger that was, well, edible. Neuman, Svetlik and Alt have just taken the adaptation to another level.
One bite of Hill East’s “OK” burger will validate the owners’ trust in their cold-smoking process. Check that. Just hovering your nose over the burger will validate the technique. Invisible curls of hickory smoke tantalize your nostrils even before you take that first bite. The smoke even stands up to the toppings, including yellow American cheese (dubbed “the People’s Cheese,” a form of truth in advertising), griddled onions, pickles and a mayo-mustard-barbecue combo called HEB Sauce.
The patty here is a mix of dry-aged, grass-fed beef from Roseda Farm and trimmings from the prime brisket served at Sloppy Mama’s. The combination makes for a custom blend that’s already a mouthful of meaty goodness, but Neuman also aims for a ratio of 30 to 35 percent fat to lean, which might send chills down the spine of your average nutritionist but means your burger drips with flavor. The menu recommends a double stack and, in this instance, I think doubling down makes sense, more for your gastronomic pleasure than for your heart. The twin stack intensifies the smoke, the very selling point of Hill East. I just wish the cooks would stop futzing with the smash burgers on the griddle. All that fat should make for a patty covered with brown, crusty bits. More often than not, the patties are almost barren of fat barnacles.
The menu, its ambitions bound by the size of the kitchen, hits the marks you expect. The burgers are limited to only a handful of options, though you might occasionally find a daily special appended to the menu. The OK burger is the preparation least burdened by toppings, which means it’s the best showcase for the smoked beef. But my favorite is the Puebla, a twin stack topped with Neuman’s pepper relish in which poblanos and red onions are tossed in tallow, smoked, and combined with cider vinegar and honey. If this sounds like too much of a good thing, you might be scouting the wrong restaurant. (By the way, Hill East also serves an excellent and unconventional veggie burger, its crispy edge provided in part by the grits mixed into the patty.)
Despite its name and mission, Hill East Burger does right by chicken. The kitchen relies on thigh meat run through a tenderizer to mimic the texture of chicken-fried steak; the tenderized thighs are marinated in buttermilk, pickle juice and hot sauce; dredged in flour; dipped in buttermilk again; and dredged a second time before frying. The resulting bird is a marvel of textures, the exterior crunch giving way to chicken so tender it eats like pâté, or maybe even mousse. The nuggets are not run through a tenderizer, but they’re paired with your choice of sauces, any of which would be the star at another restaurant. The “beefonaise” sounds like a lab experiment gone wrong, but the heady mixture of tallow, mayo and confit garlic became my universal dunking sauce, good on nugs or curly fries or just ferried straight on my index finger.
Hill East Burger — its initials a clever homage to Texas’s beloved H.E.B., which apparently didn’t stop the grocery chain’s attorneys from sending a strongly worded letter to the owners — may have three partners. But the interior design is pure Svetlik. DIY wagon wheel chandeliers. Armadillo taxidermy. Tabletop utensil caddies formed from wood and dried cholla cactuses. Even an antique jukebox packed with country classics from a previous era. Punch in L3 and listen as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard trade verses on Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” while you dig into a smoked burger topped with poblano relish. It may be as close as you get to Texas in Washington.
Hill East Burger
1432 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 202-744-3339; hilleastburger.com.
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Potomac Ave., with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1 to $20.50 for all items on the menu.