Texas barbecue, with a side of din
Hill Country serves up meat worth the mess
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Washington has seen its share of New York designs swagger into town over the years, Hill Country Barbecue Market being one of the most recent examples. The big barn of a tribute to Texas-style barbecue comes with more of a connection to this market than most: Founder Marc Glosserman, who opened the original in Chelsea four years ago, is a native of Bethesda.
If you've never tasted Texas-style barbecue, you might like to know that beef trumps pork, sauce is frowned upon, and rubs are the rule (black pepper, cayenne and kosher salt, in the case of Hill Country).
If you're a newbie to Hill Country, which takes its name from the rolling countryside of central Texas, prepare to dine a little differently. At the door, you're given a card that is stamped at the meat, side dish and dessert counters in the rear of the 13,000-square-foot restaurant. "The meal ticket serves as your menu and check," someone is likely to explain. "It's like a cafeteria." Customers fetch their own sides and meats, which are sold by weight and bundled in butcher paper; servers, some of whom must squat down to hear you in the din, retrieve drinks and desserts. The drill involves lines and ropes and a little confusion the first trip.
Having already previewed much of the menu - much of it infused with the smoke of the oak-stoked pit - as you're guided to a knotty wood table in the dining room, your first stop is likely to be the meat counter. There, big slabs of glistening meat - brisket, shoulder, ribs, prime rib and more - dare carnivores not to drool as they await their cuts. Get the Pitmaster Combo ($24) if you can't choose between the pork or the beef spare rib. Both are part of the package, along with chicken (white or dark meat) and some lean brisket (although I prefer the fattier, more melting "moist" brisket).
There are a hundred burger specialists begging for your attention these days, but if the daily-changing chalkboard at Hill Country lists a steak burger, consider at least sharing one with your mates. Made with ground short ribs and rib-eye, the thick and juicy half-pounders are bulked up with pickles, fried onions, a swirl of chipotle mayonnaise and a juicy slab of twice-smoked bacon. Hill Country ships in its sausages from Kreuz Market, the legendary barbecue joint in Lockhart, Tex., that serves as Glosserman's role model. The signature link is red, coarse and snappy.
Brand me a heretic, but my preference here is for pork. Hill Country's spare ribs are the size of motorcycle handles, fabulously meaty and, like every other meat here, deeply infused with smoke. Pork loin, an occasional special, is served in succulent slices with ribbons of fat and a whisper of rosemary in its seasoning. Chicken is sometimes a rival for my affection, but not always. I enjoy the soft, slightly sweet skin and pinkish flesh of the thighs but not the drier, thicker parts of the bird.
Whatever your pleasure, this is messy, roll-up-your-Polo-sleeves eating. As at the original, the Washington branch is furnished with a big sink to the side for washing up. A roll of paper towels atop each table helps, too.
Be sure to get a side dish of vinegary sliced cucumbers to go with your entree. The cool sting of the vegetable cuts the richness of the pigout. As long as you're indulging, throw in some macaroni and cheese, sharp and creamy. The chunky, skin-on potato salad is worth the carbo-load, too. Flagged as PTL ("Praise the Lord"), this version has just the right amount of mustard and red pepper. Also true to its spirit is the creamy "confetti" coleslaw. Campfire beans are as much about bits and pieces of beef and tasty burnt ends as beans, and that's not a complaint. Green bean casserole manages to taste both flat and salty, however; sweet potato mash would be more appropriate served as a pie than a sidekick to meat; and the collard greens larded with bacon are more peppery than tangy.
This frenzy of carnivorous feasting takes place in a Texas-size hall, slightly bigger than the New York model, that is equal parts convincing and Central Casting. Look around, and you'll see steer horns mingling with neon-lit beer signs sharing space with black-and-white photos that capture the simple life. Tea and lemonade come in Mason jars.
One doesn't go to a 300-seat restaurant and expect solitude. At full tilt, however, the acoustics do not lend themselves to lingering after you've gnawed the last chicken thigh or spare rib. On a recent Monday night, a sound meter registered an average of 105 decibels. That's the equivalent of a jackhammer. Bon appetit, everybody!
There's motivation to stay a spell, though. One prod is banana cream pudding, cool comfort in a small jar. A second spur is Texas sheet cake, a slab of moist dark chocolate cake scattered with crushed pecans. PB&J cupcakes call to the kid in you with their centers of jelly and swirls of peanut butter frosting festooned with Reese's Pieces. No matter how much you've eaten, whenthe desserts come out, you're likely to find a second stomach for them.
"My ears are bleeding," fakes a friend as we leave the cacophony for the relative calm of Seventh Street in Penn Quarter. We can only imagine what live music nights, held Tuesday through Saturday in the bar downstairs, must sound like. "The food is delicious," weighs in another member of my party," but next time, "I'll do takeout."
Glosserman is a local boy made good - and loud.
Hill Country: Beyond Barbecue
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, April 15, 2011
Barbecue fans are over the moon about the arrival of Hill Country, a New York-based purveyor of Texas-style brisket that opened in Penn Quarter in March. While the dry-rubbed brisket is great, there are a couple of reasons that even vegetarian barflies might find themselves heading to Seventh Street. Here are three:
Live country music: It's been years since Washington had a spot offering live honky tonk and country bands. Texas ex-pats and would-be Urban Cowboys made due with heading out to Northern Virginia for the now-closed Whitey's or Nick's Nightclub, but Hill Country now offers live music Tuesday through Saturday in the basement-level Boot Bar, almost always without a cover
The schedule relies on locals - Wil Gravatt's radio-friendly mix of classics and originals, the retro sound of Honky Tonk Confidential, J.P. McDermott and Western Bop, even Bob Perilla's Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, kicking off at 8:30 p.m. during
the week and 9:30 on weekends. Throw in some touring acts, such as the legendary Austin Lounge Lizards, who brought their trademark topical humor last Friday, and the gospel-soaked roadhouse R&B of the Holmes Brothers, who visit April 23, and you've got a very respectable lineup.
Expect to pay $10 to $15 to see the more popular out-of-towners, with advance tickets available through Ticketfly.com. You're advised to make dinner reservations if you want to reserve a seat; be sure to tell the host that you want to sit downstairs. Words of caution: Check the schedule on Hill Country's Web site if you're hoping to do a little two-stepping. Some acts can veer into zydeco or hot jazz instead of traditional country.
The room itself is large, filled with long communal-style wooden tables, great sound and mostly unimpeded sightlines, whether you're at a corner booth or perched at the long bar along the back wall. (It's topped with a row of cowboy boots, hence the name Boot Bar.)
Rock 'n' Twang Karaoke: Local country bands and out-of-town acts aren't the only ones who benefit from the Hill Country stage - every Wednesday night is Rock 'n' Twang Live Band Karaoke, where anyone can get up and live out their Johnny Cash fantasies while a four-piece band cranks out the song behind them. (There's even a rack of wigs, hats and accessories if that helps performers channel their inner Dolly Parton.)
About 30 country songs are listed, ranging from classic artists to more recent hits, including Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" and Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." The list has gotten longer with every visit, and the band promises it will keep growing.
In the meantime, the country "classics" are about a quarter of the total choices, so, yes, there will be those 30-somethings who feel the need to get up and belt out Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A." or drag their girlfriends on stage for Abba's "Mamma Mia," but I found it comforting on my visits that many of the singers were in the mood to sign up for "Friends in Low Places," "All My Exes Live in Texas" or "Jolene."
After taking the stage for a rousing "Before He Cheats," Jackie Stout, 26, was bouncing around at the bar and singing along to other performers. "I usually do songs by Lauren Hill [and other R&B singers]," said the Crystal City resident, but she thought it fit the vibe of the place. "It's a pretty cool atmosphere, really laid-back. . . . You're just hanging out and singing."
Stout frequents other karaoke nights in the area, and she rated this one highly. "The band is awesome. They're good musicians, and they can follow you in a way that a DJ can't."
And if the song you want isn't listed - or you don't have a partner for "Islands in the Stream" - ask the band if they know the song you're looking for. They were more than obliging about playing David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" when I asked.
The music was much tighter than the singing.
Late-night happy hour: Most happy hours run from 4 to 7 p.m., but not everyone's workday is structured the same way. That's why it's nice to see that Hill Country has daily happy hours from 5 to 7 p.m. and then again from 10 p.m. to close, including $2 shots, $5 rail drinks and a choice of two-for-one beers and specialty drinks. The two-fer beer and drink choices change every day; on Friday, for example, the deals applied to house margaritas (two for $10), PBR cans (two for $4), Budweiser and Bud Light (two for $5). Not bad, especially for Penn Quarter.
The biggest raves so far go for the Kreuz Margarita, which gets one kick from Corralejo tequila and another from very hot serrano chili peppers. A good bourbon and whiskey list covers all the right bases.
Outside of happy hour, drink prices aren't bad - beers for $4 to $7, cocktails $10-$12, though there's the occasional sticker shock - not just Southerners are left open-mouthed by paying $20 for a pitcher of Shiner Bock.
Food section profile
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-base 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."
--Jim Shahin (Smoke Signals, March 16, 2011)