By Debbie Siegelbaum - 09/08/11 11:04 PM EDT
Washington, D.C., is a Southern city with a distinctly Northern personality. The politics, power and prestige make it fast-paced, very much at odds with the slow cooking style of truly great southern barbecue.
But two new joints in town are aiming to put barbecue on the map. Though both opened in March, Hill Country and Standard are taking very different approaches to this Southern staple.
“Our mission is really to go out and to our best abilities replicate a real traditional Texas barbecue-joint experience,” he said.
Hill Country mimics a Texas butcher shop-turned-roadhouse. A bar in the front of the restaurant resembles an old-time shop, but the dining area is decidedly different.
Long wood tables, mismatched kitchen chairs, exposed brick and pipes, rockabilly music and lots of neon signs made one fellow diner exclaim, “It’s honky-tonk minus the dancing!”
The 13,000-square-foot restaurant spans two floors and seats 300. The bottom floor features overflow tables and live music, while the main level houses long communal tables and the restaurant’s “market.”
Instead of traditional service, diners order beverages from their waitress and then walk over to the meat counter to select their entrée. A wide array of meats is available, from brisket to beef shoulder, ribs, prime rib and poultry.
Visitors can pick and choose, sampling a bit of each, and pay by the pound for all. The counter staff are a bit gruff and impatient, however, in explaining what’s available.
Some items come only in set sizes (whole, half-pound, etc.) and it’s a bit overwhelming and confusing for diners to be grilled on the spot. After selecting, you take your meats — wrapped in paper — over to another counter that offers what appears an endless array of side dishes.
There’s cornbread, baked beans, chili, green bean casserole, collard greens — all the favorites one would expect in the South.
“The thinking behind the sides is we wanted to do real Southern-comfort side dishes, and we wanted to kick them up a little bit,” Glosserman said.
Loaded trays are taken back to the table, where there’s a roll of paper towels for the inevitable mess that will be made.
True to Texas barbecue tradition, all the meats at Hill Country are wood-smoked, using dry rub and no sauce. Imported white oak lends a sweet flavor to the meats, and all are rubbed with a mix of kosher salt, course black pepper and cayenne.
It’s a traditional style that is meant to let the meat shine, but at Hill Country, a little goes a long way.
The beef rib and brisket were beyond tender, but the pork spare ribs and beer-can game hen were a bit on the dry side. All suffered from far too much smoke, though.
The taste of the different meats was completely overshadowed by the overwhelming smoke flavor, and made it tough to taste the natural goodness of such great ingredients.
The sides were definitely different, with cornbread served with orange butter, cheddar mac-and-cheese made with penne, and super sugary bourbon sweet potatoes. Each was adequate — particularly the corn pudding — but none was a stellar standout.
The communal and hands-on dining experience does makes for a fun and festive atmosphere here, and the wait staff is friendly and accommodating. But disorganization is a problem at Hill Country. When we got up to get our desserts from the separate dessert bar, they cleared our table — including drinks and personal items — and left us scrambling for our stuff.
The desserts are well worth the effort, though. Slices of red velvet cake as big as your head, massive cookies, puddings and cupcakes make it tough to decide. The caramel apple crisp was tangy and sweet, with a granola topping that paired perfectly with vanilla ice cream.
But the absolute highlight of the whole meal was by far the PB&J cupcake, a dessert so brilliantly simple it makes you wish every restaurant in the world made it. A simple cake with jelly filling and peanut butter icing, it was a heavenly delight.
The bill brought us right back down to Earth, however, with typical Washington prices as opposed to Southern steals. With drinks and dessert, it’s about $30 a person, a bit on the steep side for barbecue, particularly with no plates and self-service.
Less than two miles across town, at 14th and S streets NW, Standard is taking a very different approach to barbecue.
Co-owner Thaddeus Curtz, once an employee for a nongovernmental organization doing enterprise development work in West Africa, had an epiphany in 2006 that he wanted to own a restaurant.
After a brief stint at a pizzeria, the U Street resident saw a for-lease sign on a garden property he had always admired and snapped it up right away. But the small space, just 720 square feet inside, dictated the direction of the restaurant.
Curtz, an avowed barbecue aficionado who had a history of taking pilgrimages to barbecue spots throughout the country, realized it was something he could do well.
“I was very aware of the fact that D.C. didn’t have any good barbecue places. I don’t think that I necessarily set out to plug that hole, though,” he said. “It was important to me to be serving something I thought people would want to come out and eat for dinner.”
So Curtz and co-owner David Rosner set out to make the most of their small space, installing a bar inside and building tables to seat 65 — with an additional 35 seats expected this fall — out on the patio.
They filled the menu with rotating favorites like bratwurst, brisket and chicken, along with inexpensive sides and great beers at even better prices.
And judging by the crowds even on a hot and muggy night, the gamble is paying off. What Standard lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in flavor. The mammoth Texas short rib was fall-off-the-bone tender with the perfect hint of smoke, while the pulled pork sandwich with slaw was spot on.
The German bratwurst with kraut wasn’t memorable, but the traditional hush puppies were light and fluffy and the Mexico City-style grilled corn with cheese was finger-licking good.
Add fried pickles, a beer and a bunch of new friends at the communal outdoor tables, and it’s like the Fourth of July every day at Standard. It’s a casual, not-too-thought-out approach to barbecue — one of life’s great simple pleasures — the way it’s meant to be enjoyed.