This review of a New York restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage.
There is a woeful lack of American barbecue restaurants in London which I find quite surprising given the relatively large population of Yank expats. Of the few that there are, there’s the overrated and underwhelming mini-chain Bodean’s and the disappointing and slightly overpriced Barbecoa.
They could both learn a lesson from Manhattan’s Hill Country which serves some of the best barbecued meat I’ve ever had. They may want to avoid the slightly cheesy decor though – the wood panelling, exposed industrial pipes in the ceiling, folksy signs and other bits of Western/Texan paraphernalia all feel a bit forced. And you’d better like country music too, because that’s all they played during my visit. The large pit-style barbecue, which resembled a large brick-lined supermarket freezer, is definitely a welcome sight though.
The arrangement at Hill Country is slightly odd – it’s basically a pay-as-you-go buffet. There are various food stations dotted around the edge of the dining room – wander around each one and pick what you want which are then charged to your bill via your individual barcode wristband. A serving of pork or beef ribs costs around $10, while other meat dishes cost around $20 each.
In any case I managed to avoid this odd state of affairs by dining on a Monday and opting for the special of the day – an all-you-eat $25 set menu complete with table service. The waiter (who in my case was a chirpy and informative Justin Bieber doppleganger) brings out endless trays of burnt ends, beef brisket, chicken and pork ribs until you either explode or keel over clutching your bulging belly begging for mercy.
Wicket and Kangaroo Face may wax lyrical about the burnt ends at Barbecoa, but Jamie Oliver’s version is a poor, poor imitation of the burnt ends at Hill Country. The charred burnt ends here are intensely smoky and salty, with that strong chargrilled finish Americans seem to be so fond of, yet remain remarkably tender and moist. Let’s put it this way, if Hill Country’s burnt ends were like a fresh-from-the-ocean sushi banquet prepared by a classically trained chef from Kyoto, then Barbecoa’s burnt ends are like a half-eaten Tesco ‘sushi’ value pack found in a Leicester Square bin.
Now that’s a burnt end!
Even better than the burnt ends was the beef brisket. I’ve never seen a side of beef that’s so tender it literally flakes apart in your mouth, almost melting as it does so. The occasional streaks of melting fat complement the strong salty, smoky, peppery taste incredibly well. From my experience, it’s the barbecued beef brisket by which all others should be judged.
One of the most addictive chunks of beef I’ve ever eaten.
The barbecued chicken wasn’t quite as intense as the burnt ends and beef brisket, but it’s still very pleasing. The large thighs, wings and juicy drumsticks have a very distinctive taste of gently sweet honey and tangy molasses.
Foghorn, is that you?
The pork ribs had a tough act to follow. Although the meat was suitably tender, the sweet, smoky taste was surprisingly subdued almost to the point of being forgettable. Perhaps they would have fared better if eaten on their own instead of being surrounded by such stellar stablemates.
The all-you-can-eat Monday menu also comes with your choice of two side dishes. My first choice were the devilled eggs. The yolks have been scooped out and replaced with a mixture of mayonnaise, American mustard and chilli. Although suitably creamy, the inoffensively spiced mustard and chilli won’t excite dedicated spice aficionados.
What’s so devilish about these eggs then?
My second side dish was the corn pudding. This is essentially a coarse sweetcorn mash that’s quite sweet and creamy. Not bad, but it’s no polenta. I would’ve preferred some warm cornbread, if they had any, instead.
I’d rather have some corn bread or polenta to be honest.
As with almost all American restaurants in my experience, there was an endless supply of tap water that was refilled automatically so I didn’t really need to order any soft drinks.
Hill Country’s $25 all-you-can-eat Monday set menu is extraordinary value, especially considering the high standard of meat. Although the side dishes were underwhelming in comparison, this shouldn’t distract from the well-deserved plaudits Hill Country gets for its barbecue. Even if you can’t make it on a Monday, the quality barbecued meat, even at the relatively high a la carte prices, makes Hill Country well worth seeking out.
Update 07/09/2011: second follow-up review
Name: Hill Country
Address: 30 West 26th Street, New York City, NY 10010
Phone: 212 255 4544
Opening Hours: Sunday-Wednesday 12.00-22.00, Thursday-Saturday 12.00-23.00, bar open until 02.00
Reservations: probably a good idea.
Total cost for one person including free tap water, but excluding tip: $25 on all-you-can-eat Mondays (approx. £15 at time of writing); a la carte is variable depending on how hungry your eyes are