There was a time, not so long ago, when the city’s community of ravenous and dispirited barbecue hounds didn’t care whether their warmed-over ribs were prepared in the style of Kansas City, say, or Tennessee, or the Hill Country of central Texas, wherever the hell that was. Good New York barbecue was an oxymoron (“like good Texas deli,” according to one barbecue hound I know), and no matter where your sludgy pulled-pork sandwich or bone-dry brisket was supposed to be from, it was usually disappointing. But times change, and these days, the city is in the midst of an unlikely barbecue boom. You can sample pit-cooked barbecue from around the country at Danny Meyer’s annual summer festival at Madison Square Park. Barbecue delicacies like slow-cooked pork butt have made their way onto menus at hot restaurants like David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. And, most important, devoted young pit masters have set up shop at restaurants like R.U.B., in Chelsea, or Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, up on 131st Street, and are treating New Yorkers to a taste of the real thing.
Of course, in a town filled with theatrical theme restaurants, “the real thing” is a relative phrase. So when it comes to new barbecue joints (as with new sushi parlors and French brasseries), it helps to have a mania for replication. Witness Hill Country, the Texas-themed honky-tonk joint, which opened early this summer, on a lonely stretch of 26th Street, in Chelsea. According to its proprietors, the boxy, two-story space is designed to evoke the old “barbecue markets” of central Texas. There’s a giant silver star suspended by the bar (where you can purchase rubberized barbecue mops to slather on sauce and trucker-style “Hill Country” caps) and the brick walls are covered with photos of battered pickups and empty country roads. The rough-hewn tables are set with rolls of paper towels and cutlery thrown in a pickle jar, and the Texas sausages and chickens and steaming hunks of brisket are measured out on scales in front of brick holding pits, then dispensed, cafeteria style, by gentlemen bearing big silver tongs. This utilitarian, slightly bewildering setup (diners are given “food cards,” which the tong-wielding gentlemen stamp) is modeled, to an obsessive degree, after Kreuz Market, a legendary barbecue joint in Lockhart, Texas.
The barbecue world is famously pork-centric, but in Texas, the specialty is beef. And the specialty at Kreuz Market (a place my colleague the barbecue loon reverentially refers to as “the Bayreuth of Beef”) is brisket, a notoriously temperamental dish that takes hours to cook and is prone to toughness. At Hill Country the specialty is brisket, too, smoked over cords of post oak trucked up from Lockhart. The grizzled pit master at Kreuz Market, Rick Schmidt, traveled to Hill Country himself and seasoned the big, state-of-the-art smokers with a half-burnt log from his own smokers in Texas. And as at Kreuz Market, the brisket is smoked unadorned, without sauces, and served on brown butcher paper, which grows increasingly wet and greasy as your meal progresses.
Ironically, the pit master at Hill Country, Robbie Richter, isn’t from Texas at all. He’s from that famous barbecue hotbed, Rego Park, Queens. But like John McEnroe, Richter is an unlikely local prodigy. He has been cooking on the national barbecue-competition circuit for several years, and his many trophies are prominently displayed along the restaurant’s walls. The brisket he turns out comes in two varieties; one “moist,” the other “lean,” and on the evenings I sampled them, they were both really, really good. “Moist” is a euphemism for fatty, of course, and if you have a taste for melting beef with a smoky, vaguely candied flavor, this dish is for you. The lean brisket is less fatty, but if you devour it within three minutes (no food has a shorter shelf life than barbecue on greasy butcher paper), it won’t be dry. Ditto the beef shoulder, which emerges from the smoker with a rich umami taste, and the chicken, which is brushed with a sweet barbecue sauce and falls gently off the bone.
All these items are sold in bulk, like at a butcher shop, and priced by the pound, and unless you’re careful (I wasn’t), the sheer volume of fatty meat products will send you grappling for your Lipitor. After my brisket, I had a bite of smoked prime rib, which seemed superfluous among the vast drifts of barbecue on the table. The pork ribs seemed better than the truncheon-size beef ones, and it’s a pleasure to watch both being chopped right in front of you from great smoky slabs. The excellent smoked sausage links come direct from Kreuz Market, too, stuffed, if you wish, with spicy jalapeños and cheese. I can’t pretend to have sampled all sixteen side dishes, each of them more gruesomely unhealthy than the next. But the “confetti” coleslaw was sodden and oversweet, and the deviled eggs tasted like they’d been driven up from Texas in a refrigerator truck. Before you lapse into a complete food coma, however, you might want to try a spoonful of the dense Texas chili, or the fluffy shoepeg corn pudding, or the campfire beans, larded with yet more brisket.
Did my colleagues and I feel, as we gazed woozily at the detritus of this Texas-size feast, that we’d been transported to some barbecue mecca in the scrubby hills of George Bush country? Hell, no. The restaurant’s braying, honky-tonk soundtrack sounds like it’s been lifted from one of the lesser amusement-park rides in Dollywood. As is the custom in Manhattan, the waitresses spend most of their time trying to ply you with watery cocktails, and the tables at this particular barbecue joint aren’t filled with grizzled old truckers, but with crowds of well-scrubbed, randy-looking bank trainees, dressed in their flip-flops and summer sarongs. For dessert, there are stale pecan pies, surprisingly tasty peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcakes the size of small boulders, and plastic cups of banana-cream pudding with sodden cookies buried inside. Eat these grim creations if you must, but remember: You’re supposed to be in the heart of Texas. And in the heart of Texas, as any New York barbecue hound will tell you, brisket is king.