Can DC Pull Off Real Texas Barbecue?

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!

JetAway said,

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “There’s no question that the place is the best barbecue in DC.” Well, it’s probably the best Texas-style barbecue in DC. Rockland’s is much better, IMHO, but you should go there for the pork, not the beef brisket.

  2. For $40/person, I’ll wait for my next trip to Texas. 🙂 For that price, I’d rather have a nice strip steak somewhere.

    The other “Gulf Coast” food that can’t seem to be duplicated is a Louisiana crawfish boil. Frozen crawfish are worthless. The problem, of course, is if someone transported the concept north, it would be similarly overpriced.

  3. Like most restaurants in the chinatown area of DC, hill country bbq caters largely to the touristy Wizards/Capitals crowd who require 3 things: beer, lots of TVs, and beer. Because of their location and aforementioned offering of beer, they can churn out whatever quality of food items they want and will still make a killing (read this week’s NYT article on Guy Fieri’s new restaurant in NYC). BUT I wouldn’t say this is the best DC has to offer for BBQ, you just have to know where to look. Hogs on the Hill may not be in the best location, but it’s true BBQ, and oh-so delicious. Old Glory in Georgetown and Rocklands up near the Naval Observatory also make better BBQ than Hill Country.

  4. If you ever find yourself in the Dallas area you should check out Lockhart Smokehouse. They are owned by the a family member of the family that owns Kreuz Market.

  5. Gary,

    If you’re *paying* for flights to Texas and hotel stays while you are there, you’re doing something wrong. May I introduce you to this website where I read about how to work airline ff and hotel loyalty programs to the max?

    You can get free flights and hotel stays world wide.

  6. FYI, check for Hill Country. Don’t know about DC but the NYC branch participates.

    Also, Katz’s does take credit cards (in the back near at the To Go/mail order counter – just past the French fries & soda line. Just get a receipt & show it to the guard when exiting.

  7. Gary, I think you are spot on. First, they try too hard with the decor. The Lockhart HS kitsch in the bathrooms is just one example. I like Shiner as much as the next guy, but there are many better Texas brews. The sides are a disaster – TOO many, and what place serves potato salad as SEASONAL? Beans, cole slaw and PS EVERY day! Charging for pickles and onions is criminal. You described the brisket to a T. Didn’t seem to have been cooked long enough. They also cook the point and the flat sections of the brisket together, vice apart. The resultant uneven thickness makes it almost impossible to cook evenly. If you get the point cooked properly, you dry out the thinner end of the point – which exactly describes my last visit. My moist point section was undercooked, with visible fat still in the grain. My co-worker’s lean flat section was dried out. Sausage also lacked any smokiness. All pointed to a too-rushed process more interested in making money than serving great BBQ. But if you don’t have to compete against an Aaron Franklin, I guess you can get away with it. Come visit us in Austinand we will do the tour of the places you missed last time.

  8. Also remember, you can order a lot of the Texas BBQ shipped overnight to your place online from places like Salt Lick, Blacks, County Line and Rudy’s. I have done this a couple of times while on long work trips and it still blows by client’s minds (while satisfying my weekly+ craving). All you do is throw it in the oven with the included trays and you are done!

  9. Gary, ate there twice, the last time I was sold a single fat-riddled rib–one rib–for $19. That was it, no more, enough of Hill Country for me!

  10. Second for Rocklands here! I lived a block and a half from the one in Arlington (close to where you work if I’ve deduced correctly) and I ate there an inappropriate number of times.

  11. On Monday nights from 5-10 at Hill Country in DC they have all you can eat brisket, pork ribs, chicken, and sides for $20.

  12. Gary, excellent write up. We had the exact experience, except I went to the one in NYC. THE kreutz sausage was by far the greatest thing on the menu, I think because Hill Country didn’t make it!

    Go to County Line in Austin. Not the best sausage, which is Salt Lick, but incredible brisket and their bread is worth a trip alone.

  13. Nothing beats KC BBQ (not even Texas BBQ), but I have to agree with a couple of the commenters in DC you have to go to Rocklands. I also live a few blocks from the Arlington location and you can’t beat their brisket and pulled pork. A $10 bill that’s twice as good as the Hill Country $40 bill.

  14. I like the moist brisket at Hill Country, but everything else is average and overpriced. When they first opened there were also long lines since they had to explain to everyone how the card and ordering system worked, is it better now?

  15. Enjoyed the post… I was in Austin earlier this week. Had County Line (average) and Salt Lick (awesome). Miss the BBQ already…. 🙂

  16. @Dan 😛 for the record my AUS stay burned a Hyatt Visa annual free night cert (since it was on a particularly expensive game day)

  17. Gary, you should try the Q Company BBQ out in Leesburg. I havn’t tried it, but people are saying it’s fantastic Texas style BBQ.

  18. Y’all that think Salt Lick and County Line are great obviously haven’t been to Franklin. Would have recommended JMueller until the “recent unpleasantness”. Will report how it is with the new pit master. Either Stiles Switch or Rudy’s have better food than CL or SL – though the experience at SL is irreplaceable even if the food is mediocre.

  19. this place is in Penn Quarter right? I actually went here on election night, and had some BBQ at a free event being hosted there 🙂 it was pretty decent, and i particularly liked the beef brisket. I have been to rockland’s as well, and that was pretty good.

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