Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hill Country BBQ in review

Well there are two things you can say for sure about Hill Country BBQ: it is fun, and they are serious about barbecue.

The food is good, and will get your hands dirty
The food is good, but we recommend sticking to what they are good at.  Those with us that had the roast beef and the brisket enjoyed their meals and had few complaints.  The barbecued chicken wasn't bad, but the person who got it said "I've had much, much better.  At a lot of places."  The beer can game hen was dry and lacked any seasoning or flavor.

Hill Country is, in our opinion, a catering business and a bar.  It is good at those things, but it should be nothing else.  Holding itself out as a restaurant makes for a startling experience.

Penn Quarter Insider arrived at Hill Country on opening day with a reservation for 6 people.  We were herded to the side where multiple employees kept telling us to move while we waited for them to actually seat us 10 to 15 minutes after the time of our reservation.

There wasn't much room to move, however, as there is a vinyl rope past the hostess stand to get into the restaurant that is guarded by a bouncer.  Beside that vinyl rope are the rules of the restaurant.  The most important, apparently, is to not lose your meal ticket.

The rules at the entrance of the restaurant before you get past the rope

Meal ticket?  Yes.  You see there is no waiter/waitress food service at Hill Country.  The "market" is literal.  You get up and go to different stations cafeteria style and order the food you want at different counters.  Most of the food is sold by the pound.  Employees slop meat on a scale in front of you and wrap it up in paper, throwing in slices of plain bread or saltine crackers if you prefer them.  You then take your wrapped up meat back to the table to eat it.

Workers weight your meat and wrap it in paper

If you want silverware, you have to get up and get them.  There are no plates.

The silverware station

That is not to say there isn't wait staff.  There is.  The wait staff brings you drinks and refills your water glass, but that is all.  Our waiter hung around our table often, but couldn't do much for us.  We were told we didn't need to give our meal ticket to get a bottle of wine (we did, however, have to open a credit card tab despite the fact that we were eating dinner), but then were snapped at--"I need your meal ticket!"

It became a joke at the table as to how many times someone at Hill Country reminded us to not lose our meal ticket.   Even at the end of the meal, when we had all finished, the waiter came back one last time just to remind us to not lose our meal ticket.  Literally we were reminded not to lose the meal tickets maybe 15 times (some in our party swear it was closer to 30).  The meal ticket, by the time you are done, is covered in barbecue sauce and whatever else you ordered, as the employees in the market get whatever is on their gloves all over them when they mark what you got (it is not a card like Vapiano, but a folded piece of paper).

The meal ticket presents a lot of problems.   You cannot enter or exit the restaurant without showing your meal ticket.  Even if it is blank.   So your whole party better be there when you get there.  You are constantly losing your meal ticket in all the paper that covers your table after you unwrap your meat.

The worst part is the wait staff doesn't even collect your meal ticket at the end and bring you a check.  You have to get up and stand in a line to pay.  The line when we left was incredibly long, even though the restaurant was not full.   Someone at the bar finally took our six meal tickets; however, it took them a good ten minutes to figure out what was written on them and formulate it into some sort of bill and charge our credit card.

The line to pay the bill

After paying the bill, we tried to leave.  However, the person at the bar had taken our meal tickets (as we had paid) and we could not get past the vinyl rope or the bouncer.  Even once we explained and passed, a woman came up at the door and sneered "did you settle up?!?"  I'm not sure what experiences they have had in New York, but they seem to treat everyone as if they are trying to cheat the meal ticket system.

At dessert time, we once again got up from our table to go look at and buy dessert.  At that point the people behind the counter were showing us the dessert, but our waiter also came up and tried to explain them all to us.  The apple crisp was cold, though it might have been good hot.  It also didn't taste like apple, but had an orange flavoring in it.  The chocolate chip cookie was underwhelming.  The real winner is their famous PB&J cupcake.  As expected, the cupcake is rich and heavy.  But they have small ones they will give you as a sample--the sample is more than enough.

Also be aware that having a reservation does not guarantee you a seat in the main restaurant.  We were originally seated downstairs right next to the stage, just as the music was starting.  While it is fun there, we were more interested in dinner conversation and couldn't hear a word anyone spoke.  We were moved upstairs, where it was much more comfortable.

In the end, you are going to have a good time at Hill Country.  You are going to get your hands dirty and you're going to have a good meal.  However, the militant staff--who at times was downright rude--the meal card system, the waiting--to get your table, to get your food, to get your check--all becomes a little much to make it worth going.

It's worth trying.  But once was enough.  We would definitely use the catering, and definitely plan on drinks and fiddle music there in the future.  But dinner is not what this place is designed to do.

The stage downstairs


  1. Give the staff some time. It's not like they've just shipped down an entire experienced Hill Country waitstaff from NYC. I'm certain most of the staff people were likely unemployed or underemployed DC area residents before taking these jobs. That much new staff all at once plus an atypical service arrangement is bound to lead to chaos. FWIW the service arrangement is kitsch/authenticity and not every customer is going to enjoy it. You have to remember the concept is trying to replicate a Texas BBQ market and that's how service is arranged in those markets.

  2. yes i agree. it was a fun evening and the place was hopping with excitement. I believe everyone was trying to please and make everyone have a good time. Still it isn't a relaxing evening of being waited on--you do a lot of work to get your meal, your dessert, your utensils, and then to pay your bill--sometimes that's what you are in the mood for and sometimes you want the luxury of being waited on.

  3. I completely agree with this review. Great BBQ, crazy system. I'm a Texan and have eaten BBQ all over the state, and have never experienced such a bad system for getting seated, ordering food and paying. I'd love to hear from ANYONE who enjoyed the service system. It took us 1 hour and 40 minutes for 7 of us to have lunch. And most of that was spent waiting to be seated, waiting in line for food, and waiting to pay.

  4. That is not AT ALL how service is arranged at BBQ joints in Texas.

    Hill Country based its system on Katz's Deli on houston st in NYC.