The guys behind Hill Country, a paean to the beefcentric barbecue outside Austin, are about as Texan as Bloomberg in a Stetson. The pit master is Queens-native Robbie Richter, a backyard griller turned barbecue competition junkie. Owner Marc Glosserman'sTexas roots are borrowed from his grandfather, the former mayor of Lockhart, home of a century-old barbecue stalwart called Kreuz Market.
Having made a barbecue pilgrimage to Lockhart and Kreuz Market a few years back, I can report that Richter’s cooking would have saved me the flight: It’s an authentic, world-class take on the restaurant’s namesake region. The 250-seat duplex pulls off faux Texas well, from the look (post oak logs piled high, ready for the smoker, below antique mirrors and a ceiling painted brown to emulate decades of smoke) to the ordering style (at the counter, by the pound, served on butcher paper and accompanied by white bread and crackers, with sides, drinks and desserts requiring a different line). A surprisingly spacious downstairs showroom, Hill Country Live, serves C&W;, live-band karaoke and sundry other entertainments to go with your meat.
Then there’s the food. They’ve imported the actual sausage from Kreuz market. The mostly beef Kreuz original, fatty and loosely packed like a blood sausage, crumbles too easily; a jalapeño and cheese version has a similar 85-to-15 beef to pork ratio, but proves leaner and firmer, and the peppers provide extra zing.
Richter offers two options for brisket, the Texas barbecue staple: A pretty standard lean version, and a “moist” (read: fatty) one with a luscious finish. He also serves beef shoulder, which emerges from the smoker in 20-pound slabs; Richter’s basic rub—salt, pepper and cayenne—works better with this richer, beefy-tasting cut.
Beef ribs are offered, but the pork ribs steal the show. Rather than cut them down St. Louis–style, Richter keeps the tips on, making the perfectly cooked ribs (neither fall-off-the-bone nor stubbornly clingy) hefty, with just enough fat to imbue proper flavor. The pork chops are less formidable: They were the proverbial bland chicken of the meal, especially when compared with either a “beer can” game hen, or a marvelously moist chicken for which Richter’s competition crew, Big Island Bar-B-Que, has rightfully won awards.
The excellent sides, courtesy of executive chef Elizabeth Karmel, who handles everything nonmeat, carry twists: penne and cheese is baked with Gruyère, cheddar and fontina; deviled eggs have a hint of chipotle; and bourbon sweet potatoes, rich with molasses and brown sugar, may as well be pie filling.
The real desserts range from the elegantly sweet (brownies leavened by ancho chile and sour cherries, and the best pecan pie I’ve had in a while) to full-fledged cavity makers like jelly-filled cupcakes with peanut butter frosting, and a ridiculously addictive banana cream pudding layered with mashed vanilla wafers.
The bar serves two-dozen tequilas and bourbons (including the excellent Pappy Van Winkle), and a Texas-heavy wine or cocktail list (they meet in the Mayor of Lockhart specialty drink, a combination of tequila, sparkling wine and a jalapeño). The libations work especially well in Hill Country Live, where Austin bands get a New York stage—and a New York restaurant earns a dose of deserved Texas cred.