Hill Country Chicken Goes Low in the Pecking Order
I'm a Texas barbecue fanatic, and Hill Country is my favorite place to grab the luscious slow-smoked ribs and fat-rimmed brisket that epitomize the genre. Which is why I was so stoked to try its new offshoot, Hill Country Chicken. One might assume that the titular poultry would also be barbecued, but when news of the place started leaking out, it proved to be just another fried-chicken joint, capitalizing on the battered bird's current brushfire popularity, which originated in Brooklyn. But even before I went, my Houston friend Justin offered a word of caution: "Fried chicken? That's not really very Texas, is it?"
While the original Hill Country is made up to resemble a Lone Star barbecue, Hill Country Chicken has no such design antecedents, except perhaps Popeye's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The place is cunningly located at the corner of 25th Street and Broadway, in a neighborhood being remade as a foodie destination through the combined efforts of Danny Meyer and Eataly. The interior is painfully fast-foody: eye-searing yellow, tempered with powder blue and beige—an ungainly color scheme intent on convincing you to eat and run. Tables surrounded by dinette chairs offer a down-home touch, and there are also high counters that invite you to perch, like a laying hen in a coop. (More photos of Hill Country Chicken .)
The chef of record is Elizabeth Karmel, but why, you wonder, does a fried-chicken joint need a chef? Despite my misgivings, I found myself pecking at a few good things. On one of the last warm, sunny days of autumn, I sat outside in the impromptu sidewalk café enjoying the Texas hand roll, vegetarian version ($9): two generous slabs of ripe avocado, glowing green within their brittle cornflake crusts, dressed with coleslaw and a sweet-hot dressing, rolled inside a flour tortilla.
With little pieces of skin adhering, the French fries were passable, too, and so was the buttermilk biscuit ($1), though meager in size for the price. But, collapsing under the onslaught of its own greasiness, the deep-fried pimento-cheese sandwich turned out to be a bad idea, rather than junk-food nirvana. A notable invention—though it seems like something copied from one of the "white trash" cookbooks of the '80s—the side of "cheesy fried mashed potatoes" is delicious, in a boarding-school sort of way. But most of the sides are as forgettable as those at the original Hill Country.
But how was the chicken, you wonder? As with Texas barbecue, I have fixed notions about how poultry should be fried, and my ideas come from Georgia and the Carolinas—via Harlem and Brooklyn—rather than Texas. The pieces should be lightly floured and carefully cooked with the skin on, until they reach a burnished golden brown. Further imitating KFC, two types of chicken are offered at Hill Country. Unfortunately, both are severely flawed. What's more, prices are high for a fast-food place, ranging from $1.75 for a wing to $5.50 for a breast.
The first, called Hill Country Classic, has been "brined in buttermilk," according to the hype—though buttermilk and brine are two different things. I'm not a fan of any fried-chicken recipe involving buttermilk, since it contains a protein that blackens as the chicken cooks. Indeed, the Hill Country Classic is often fried too dark and has an annoyingly sweet aftertaste.
The second, called Mama Els' in an admirable display of correct punctuation, begins with the cooks' unconscionable act of ripping the skin off the bird. Everyone knows the skin is the best part, so who in their right mind would remove it? Back in the '90s, skin was accused by nutty nutritionists of being unhealthy, and the skinless chicken breast as a culinary institution was born. In lieu of skin, Mama Els' applies a crunchy coating, which confers little in the way of flavor. I want my skin back!
Shamelessly imitating Brooklyn's Pies-N-Thighs, Hill Country Chicken offers a co-specialty of circular crusted desserts. Actually, the boasted-of pies rarely get made, and the place has substituted little tarts, which are presumably much easier and cheaper to make—though a real pie or two is usually on display. The tarts are disappointing—heavy on crust, light on filling. Most are of the icebox variety, and the few made with fruit often deploy a canned product swimming in cornstarch. The worst is the Texas Billionaire ($3 tart, $5 slice), containing chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut flakes, a concoction sweet enough to make your jaw ache. It's a pie trying to be a candy bar—and succeeding.
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