In many respects, Hill Country is a reverent re-creation of Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, the Lone Star State's most beloved barbecue. Kreuz is housed in a barn-like premises on the edge of town, forsaking its smoky and picturesque original home on the town square. Poured into a former warehouse on West 26th Street festooned with stamped tin and distressed wood, the interior of Hill Country mimics the new Kreuz. Cords of post oak are corralled at one end of the room, while a rustic counter dispenses weighed-by-the-pound 'cue, pooled in a holding bin that's a facsimile of the actual pits at Kreuz. Seating for an army scatters the large room, and a bar dispenses the inevitable Lone Star beer. With photos of Lockhart nailed to the walls, the place qualifies as a theme restaurant, but one that makes me extremely happy.
I'm pleased to report the 'cue tends to be wonderful. At its best, it's smoky, salty, and peppery, with a red smoke ring so bright that it might have been painted on by an art student. With a few interpolations (like beef rib and chicken), the menu also mimics its model, including Kreuz's notorious beef shoulder, colloquially referred to as "clod," perhaps because it resembles the rich black earth of the cotton fields that surround Lockhart. Kreuz clod is like smoked pot roast big, coarse-textured, and well caramelized. Hill Country's clod ($18 per pound) is smaller and more delicate, a citified version of a country classic. It's extremely tasty nonetheless. Even if there never were a Kreuz Market, Hill Country would be a formidable barbecue on its own.
The brisket comes in two variations. "Moist" is fattier than anything I've ever seen in Texas, where good barbecue is invariably fatty; perhaps the pit master was emboldened by the current craze for pork belly. "Lean" is too lean. The solution: A quarter-pound of each will run you about $8, and you can chop them roughly together before folding them into a slice of white bread, Texas style. Skip the sauce. The plain sausage is unassailable, perhaps because it's imported from Kreuz Market, with a beef filling that is authentically loose in its casing. There's a jalapeño cheese version, but many in Texas regard it as hopelessly newfangled.
30 West 26th Street
Sliced as you watch from a giant rack that once ran the length of the entire pig, the thick pork chop (about $9 each) is a bit boring, but then so is the pork chop at Kreuz's. No great barbecue can boast that everything on the menu is fantasticnor should it. The chicken at Hill Country is worth getting only if you don't touch red meat. During long smoking, the skin becomes loose and flabby, while the flesh retains an alarmingly bloody appearance. Unevenness is the birthright of a barbecue's sides, too. I objected to the yellow raisins in the slaw, but a close friend liked them. I found the potato salad a little too al dente, but the same friend thought the potatoes admirably firm. Best of all, for me, was a corn-kernel pudding that seemed like a rich soufflé. Not sure it belongs in a barbecue, but WTF?
Petty objections aside, I'm drooling right now thinking about the clod, brisket, beef sausage, pork ribs, andoddly enoughthe banana pudding. Finally, Manhattan has a barbecue worth trudging from another borough to get to.
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