Over Labor Day weekend I made a pilgrimage to Lockhart, Texas for barbecue. It would be an overstatement to say that it was life changing but I certainly had the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten and it changed the way that I think about barbecue.
I used to think that barbecue was as much about the sauce as the meat, but that’s because I hadn’t ever tasted meat that was so fresh, cooked with such care, that not only didn’t it need any sauce but I didn’t want to detract from the subtle flavors.
After Lockhart I thought I was more or less ruined from barbecue. The places in DC didn’t get much business from me even before this, but there’s a place in Florida I’d go to with some regularity and that was now off the list.
Yet the very first comment on my barbecue post gave me hope!
Actually, you can experience Lockhart-style barbeque close to your home, Gary. Hill Country Restaurant, with branches in DC and NYC , is owned and operated by the grandson of a former Lockhart mayor.
And there were several more comments about Hill Country, the local DC barbecue restaurant, such as:
JetAway is right about Hill Country in DC, but you’ll be deeper in debt than the US after eating there, ridiculously expensive for bar-b-que.
…In my opinion…now that you’ve been to Kreuz and the rest, Hill Country will be very disappointing.
…The music isn’t bad, come on a night when there’s someone playing downstairs and eat then–but don’t make a special trip.
Naturally I had to try it. My expectations weren’t set really high, my guess was this was going to be ‘good for DC’ but how could they possibly recreate Lockhart barbecue with the sort of zoning and health department rules that exist in downtown DC? How would the DC fire marshall possibly allow the sorts of practices that are required for really good barbecue?
You walk in and to your right is the bar with seating by the window. They will offer you a spot at the bar or a table, and the place is certainly decorated to look like an old Texas barbecue joint. They’ve even painted the walls a smokey black. It’s just paint. It isn’t really the accumulated smoke damage from decades of smoke from the pit. This isn’t Smitty’s where you walk through what looks like a hallway on the way to hell to get your meal.
They give each person a card on which each item you eat will be marked, so that they recreate the cafeteria-style pickup of food without a cash register at either the meat station, the sides station, or the desserts. And there’s a server who brings drinks and takes care of your bill.
In this way it’s sort of like Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where you walk in, get a ticket, and pay on the way out. Groups get their food marked down on a single ticket, but you need to turn back all of the tickets on your way out. Except that Hill Country takes credit cards and doesn’t have a burly guy at the door enforcing that everyone’s paid.
Once taken to your seats you get up and get in line for your meat.
To the left is the line for the sides, and at the end of the sides is a place for desserts. If you are eating in the server will bring drinks, otherwise you can get drinks at the end of this line.
They give you a tray and you can pick up flatware, there are rolls of paper towels on the tables.
Here’s the order of meat. It struck me immediately that they wrap everything in the same butcher paper used in Texas.
The pork ribs were disappointing, tough and the flavor was mostly smoke.
Here’s the brown sugar and pepper coated pork belly alongside brisket
The brisket had almost the right texture. I wasn’t disappointed, it was moist and juicy. It just didn’t have that much flavor.
The desserts look really quite good
I think that the sausage was the most authentic thing that they had here, but then it turns out that they ship the sausage in from Kreuz Market in Lockhart. You can tell the difference, it isn’t as fresh and doesn’t have the same ‘snap’ as the sausage does when you eat it first-hand.
The brisket was textured right, but they really do have some work to do. The ribs, though, I wouldn’t order again.
Here’s the problem. There’s no question that the place is the best barbecue in DC. They work hard to get the atmosphere close to right. It wouldn’t survive in Texas. But it’s head and shoulders above anything else in the area. The question is, is that good enough? I’d almost rather eat something that isn’t trying to get it right, then I’m not judging it against what it aspires to me. So the place is a bit tough to evaluate.
What’s clear though is that it’s expensive, plan to spend about $40 per person for lunch, and that’s without alcohol. That’s just a whole lot of money for barbecue.
Now, it’s downright cheap for me to go there compared to flying to Austin and paying for hotel nights. But it still feels wrong to pay double what I’d pay for barbecue in Texas.
I’ll go back, but probably not frequently.