Heaven, Hell, Cow


New York City became barbecue-mad a couple of years back, but the places that feed this insanity all pretty much fall into a familiar New York pattern—in the City, you can get a taste of nearly any cuisine, but rarely is it as good as it is back where it comes from. As the gentleman and scholar Robb Walsh once said to me, "The next time someone insists on taking me to a 'great new barbecue place' in New York, I'm going to drive them around and make them eat bagels in Houston." Calling something the best barbecue in New York might seem like faint praise, like talking about the best sushi in Grundy Center, Iowa.


So if you live in, near, or around New York City, you've probably already heard more than you want to about Hill Country Barbecue. But Hill Country is seriously good. And while it's ostensibly modeled after Kreuz's in Lockhart, Texas—down to hanging portraits of Kreuz's badass staff and the stupidly awesome smoked prime rib: medium rare, salty, peppery, and tasting like everything you've ever wanted in a cow—the fatty point-cut brisket (demurely called "moist" on the menu) is so good it actually makes me recall my first experience of the City Market in Luling, Texas.

I was on a three-day barbecue tour with a friend. We were serious, hitting four or five places in half a day but, after a while, too serious. At the end of the second day, I wasn't feeling right. By the third, I was actually starting to get upset at how much goddamned meat I was eating. Frankly, I didn't even like it any more. My friend and I started to fight.

But by this time, my family had driven over from Houston to meet us for the final leg of our marathon. I remember walking in there, an unassuming storefront with florescent lights, a few shelves with things like barbecue sauce in Styrofoam cups and jars of pickles. I steeled myself and opened the door to the pit, where men slicked with sooty sweat worked in a room that looked like Satan's lobby. The walls were black. I don't recall seeing a ceiling. The pit boss and his crew had the intensity of coal miners, or maybe soldiers at war—of men who deal with death as a constant companion. Which is a little weird since, really, all they do is cook and cut up meat.

The grimness of it was actually a little off-putting as I ordered and watched men spear slabs of brisket and sausage with spikes and slice them up. I really thought I was on the edge, that another bite of smoked meat would send me down to confirm whether Hell's foyer actually looked like that barbecue pit. But we came out with our beef, bread, onions and cheese, I took a bite of the brisket, and I was saved.

It was so good that I could enjoy barbecue again. It was so good, so crusty, smoky, sweetly fatty, that I realized that I wasn't going to die of a barbecue overdose because I didn't deserve such a fine ending.

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