If there is one style of food that sparks heated battles, it is barbecue. I've seen people get very fired up defending the 'cue from North Carolina, Memphis, St. Louis, or Texas. Whether you like it dripping in sauce, tickled with vinegar, or dry rubbed til Tuesday, there is a restaurant out there for you. Hill Country (a New York native) is throwing their oversized hat into the ring and bringing a taste of Texas to Penn Quarter.
As Texans like to remind you at every opportunity, "everything is bigger in Texas." Not surprisingly, Hill Country is gigantic. The restaurant spans two cavernous floors and is one of the only places in Penn Quarter that you can hear live music as you dine.
Hill Country says that it is "inspired by the grand old meat-markets-turned-barbeque-joints of Central Texas" and, accordingly, carries the meat market theme through the ordering process. When you arrive, you're handed a meal ticket/menu and led to a table. A server will help you out with drink orders and point you over to the market area where you move from station to station to order your food.
At the barbecue station, they wrap your order of meat up in butcher paper and throw it on the scale. You can then mosey on over to pick up sides or desserts. All along the way you present your meal ticket for stamping. With so much movement from station to station, I can see it being very easy to walk away from your meal ticket. Don't. It'll cost you a minimum of $50.
After finishing your meal, you take your ticket(s) to the cashier for payment. The ordering system is helpful for large groups, since each person gets a separate meal ticket, but it feels unnecessarily complicated for just the two of us.
After navigating the market area, we made our way back to our table to unwrap our bundle o' meat. We ordered the "Two Step": 1/2 lb brisket, two pork spare ribs, two beef ribs, half of a chicken, and 2 16 oz sides (we opted for mac n' cheese and collard greens).
Out of all of the items in the Two Step, I was most looking forward to trying the jumbo beef ribs. However, they had run out of the beef ribs earlier in the evening. They subbed in two extra pork spare ribs, which did not strike me as a particularly fair exchange since the pork ribs are cheaper (and smaller) than the beef ribs. But after diving into the meat pile, I quickly forgot about the beef ribs and realized we certainly did not need any extra food. We ended up with enough left over for a full meal.
I'll let B give you the play by play on the meat (he's the 'cue master in our family). I give Hill Country points for the drinks served in mason jars. Neither side dish was the best I've ever had but, as a combination, it all worked very well together. In true Texas BBQ style, they give you a stack of white bread slices to sop up your meal. As if you needed anything else to take up space in your stomach.
Overall, I have positive feelings about Hill Country. Yes, it's a little cheesy and the ordering system is crazy, but it is such a refreshing change of pace for Penn Quarter. Just when I thought I'd blow my top if another tapas asian-fusion white table restaurant popped up, Hill Country comes stomping down 7th Street with its big, loud Texas twang. Welcome to the neighborhood, y'all.
Second Thoughts from B
I've spent enough time in Texas to know that I don't quite understand it. I'm kind of like the Billy Crystal character in City Slickers. I'm intrigued yet out of place. I can try to jump on that horse, throw on some boots, and yell "yee haw," but I'm still the goofy guy in the baseball cap that draws the stink eye from Curly.
Still, I know that I love barbecue that barbecue loves me, and I don't think you need to play the part to say that. While I am sure real Texans will dismiss Hill Country for its New York roots, a la that Pace Picante Sauce commercial, this California boy thinks it isn't a bad representation of the real thing.
They've got the "big" thing down, from the meat to the sides to the mountain of a man guarding the velvet rope (and checking for meal tickets). The flavors are big too. The meat is smoked with Texas post oak that you can taste in every bite, and it is heavily seasoned with a peppery dry-rub that is making my mouth water as I type. The pork ribs were fatty and flavorful, while the brisket was a bit lean and dry for my taste. The chicken was a surprisingly nice addition to our table and the mac and cheese should have been called cheese and mac. In other words, you may need to bring your own defibrillator...
All in all, Hill Country compared favorably with some of our experiences in Austin and San Antonio. And since it is close enough to the real thing, and close enough to walk to (and stumble home from), I'm sure we'll be returning real soon.