Pardon the language, but if you look up the word “clusterfuck” in the Urban Dictionary, a picture of Hill Country should appear beside it.
If that sounds overly harsh, it’s only due to frustration, because Hill Country has so much going for it. It’s like a really gifted kid who gets in trouble at school: the potential’s all there, if only the kid wouldn’t muck it up. And Hill Country’s mucking up their potential. Their issues can’t be blamed on the growing pains of a newly opened restaurant, either; I ate at the original NYC Hill Country a few years ago, and came away with the exact same feelings then that I do now.
Before you think this is a complete rip-fest, though, let’s start with the good news: the food. The BBQ is great. A group of us from work ventured over to the Texas-style restaurant last Friday, and I was excited, since I hadn’t had good BBQ since eating at Dinosaur in Syracuse last fall. This plate put a big smile on my face.
A slice of “lean” brisket, and a slice of “moist.” The moist was cut thicker than the lean and exhibited more marbling in the meat. Both were fine examples of brisket: tender and smoky.
My two pork ribs were also worthy of praise. Some people prefer the meat to fall off the bone; I prefer it this way — firmer and requiring a tug of the teeth to tear the meat away. The ribs also had a beautiful pink smoke ring and were “dry” — not slathered in barbecue sauce. With a squeeze bottle of sauce on the table, my method was to squirt it on the butcher paper and dip the ribs.
For sides, I chose collard greens and German potato salad, both of which were flavored by bacon. And that’s really all you’ve gotta say… bacon makes everything taste good.
So clearly, the problem with Hill Country isn’t the food — in fact, I’d eat there all the time if we were judging solely on the quality of the BBQ.
It’s the damn ordering/paying process and overall cost which drags the whole experience down.
At Hill Country, you don’t sit at the table and order like at a regular restaurant. A menu card is handed out, and with that card, you have “access” to the market-style food stations. (I think they actually rope off the food area, so flashing the menu card is like getting by a bouncer and into a club.)
So now you have the food stations to visit: meats, sides, drinks and dessert. Some meats are priced by weight, and if you order brisket for example, you can order as few or as many slices as you’d like. The menu card is handed to the servers, they mark it up and slap price stickers on it, and away you go.
The problem is that when the restaurant’s busy — and I imagine it’s always busy — the lines get super long and it becomes this arduously slow process to assemble your meal. One person from our group stayed back to hold our table, and we disappeared for so long she probably thought we’d gone to see a matinee of Source Code.
Why not just have customers order at the table? Are they just trying to save money on waitstaff? Is this how they do it in Texas? What’s the point? I disliked the system in NYC — you can only imagine the crowds there — and I dislike it in D.C.
Then there are the prices. My plate of two slices of brisket, two ribs and two sides cost a whopping $23. The sides themselves were $4 a pop. That’s pretty steep, and very hard to justify for lunch. Definitely the most expensive BBQ I’ve eaten.
Finally, there was the small issue of paying the bill. Again, nothing’s done at the table, you’ve got to queue up in the cashier line. With the line backed up more than twenty deep, the hostess instructed us to pay at the bar. Apparently, no one told the surly bartender, who ignored us for ten minutes and wouldn’t even make eye contact.
So we were standing there holding our bills with nowhere to go. It was almost like they didn’t want us to pay. Meanwhile, more customers were streaming in, we were in everyone’s way, and when you glanced around the restaurant, there were lines everywhere. The bartender then got into some disagreement with another employee about the meaning of “PB&J” on the menu, and they went back and forth for a few minutes, while I took mental notes for this blog post.
I don’t know how we eventually got the bartender to attend to us, but we did end up paying our bills, and bolted out of the chaos.
Now it all came back to me why I hadn’t been to back to the NYC location… for me, the minuses outweighed the pluses. Is the very delicious food worth the aggravation and price? I’m not sure. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
410 7th St.