It's highly appropriate that Hill Country Barbecue Market (30 West 26th St, New York, NY 10010) is the first stop on my journey to review NYC's best BBQ joints because it's the first place I ever visited when I moved here more than seven years ago. I was invited to eat at an "authentic barbecue restaurant" by a friendly woman I met on a plane ride between New York and Kansas City. As I loved BBQ and hardly knew anyone in the city, I quickly obliged.
Even back in my early NYC days, Hill Country had the scent of commercial-ness -- the sort of place designed by someone trying to emulate a Texas barbecue restaurant he or she saw in pictures but had never actually visited. The owners wanted to make this feel like Texas, but we're clearly in Manhattan.
But even though the sterile, calculated surroundings are still very much part of this establishment, the food is quite good and Hill Country remains one of the most easily accessible BBQ restaurants in New York City. Not only is Hill Country centrally located at 26th St between 6th Ave and Broadway, it's also easy to walk in and try a variety of meats without too much judgement.
In my many visits to Hill Country over the years, I've been consistently impressed with the meat and sides. On the meat front, the beef brisket and pork ribs are standouts. You've got the choice of moist or lean brisket, but you'll want to go for the moist, as it is incredibly tender and juicy. The pork ribs are chewy and well-seasoned, the sort of hearty meat you might crave if you want to feel like a dinosaur ripping apart its prey. (Dinosaur BBQ review forthcoming.)
On my most recent visit, I ordered the special of the night -- chili-rubbed pork belly. I was extremely excited because I love pork belly and spicy rub. But I was disappointed. The pork was tender, but I could barely taste the seasoning.
As for the sides, the highlights are the baked beans, mac & cheese, sweet potato bourbon mash, and green bean casserole. The baked beans have a sweet and tangy flavor and has bits of both pork and beef mixed in. And the mac & cheese is quite cheesy and filling. (Added bonus: They serve delicious and rich Blue Bell ice cream, if you can somehow fit in dessert.)
If you judge a BBQ restaurant by its sauce, you might not be too impressed here. Hill Country has a sweet, molasses-y sauce that is uninspiring. Perhaps it's on purpose. It encourages me to eat my Hill Country meat with no sauce, in true Central Texas style.
In terms of service, Hill Country has a friendly staff, but mostly you do the work. You are given a ticket when you go into the restaurant and servers mark your ticket when you order at the two food counters. You're told explicitly to not lose your ticket (much like Katz's Deli), as the restaurant uses it to ring you up at the end of your meal. Some people complain about the ticketing method, but taking a little personal responsibility never hurt anyone.
I've also heard complaints from some that the food is "too expensive," but that's something I'd like people to stop saying, at least about Hill Country. Good meat is expensive and as you might know, rent in NYC is pricey as hell and forcing out our institutions. So Hill Country charges a premium over the Dallas BBQ and Brother Jimmy's locations that masquerade as barbecue restaurants, and that's perfectly OK.
What's most interesting is that Hill Country is almost always busy and yet the food stays consistently good. This is the sort of restaurant that moves through enormous quantities of beef, pork, chicken, beans, collard greens, mac & cheese, and more every day. It's almost miraculous that the food hasn't gone downhill since it opened in 2007.
If you're looking for quality BBQ in Manhattan and you're fine with a decidedly un-hip ambiance, Hill Country delivers. For me, Manhattan's top 'cue place is Mighty Quinn's (review forthcoming), even if that restaurant often has a much longer line and a more antagonizing wait than Hill Country.