Young and Hungry

More on the Local Barbecue Trail: Griffin’s and Hill Country

This is what passes for photography when your camera's broke.

I was aimlessly roaming around Beltsville, looking for an interesting place to eat, when I spotted a vision by the side of the road: a portable barbecue stand with a black-metal pit expelling smoke into the air, a smell as irresistible as I imagine the sounds from the Isle of Sirens to be. Only two words came to mind when I discovered this accidental treasure: "Fuck ya!"

I immediately turned the vehicle around and pulled up behind Griffin's Barbecue and Catering. (I still curse my broken digital camera, which I haven't yet replaced; apologies for no pics. But call Griffin's at either 301-785-4550 or 301-785-5026 for details.)

Griffin's is a two-person operation, run by Shaquana Hamilton and Jeffrey Griffin, who pulled up stakes in Fort Wayne, Ind., to start life anew in the D.C. area. Back in Fort Wayne, Hamilton and Griffin had a restaurant; here, they just have their mobile vending trailer and their smoker, which date back 11 years when the pair first started in the barbecue business.  They pulled their portable equipment out of the mothballs for their fresh start on the East Coast.

Griffin's specializes in pork and beef ribs, but Griffin, the pitmaster, smokes his meats in a style he describes as Midwestern. Which to him means no hardwoods like hickory or oak. Instead, Griffin applies a secret rub to his ribs and smokes them over charcoal briquets. Once the ribs are pulled from the pit, he slathers them in a homemade vinegar-based sauce. Like K.C. barbecue, the sauce is not an option; it's an essential part of the experience.

I ordered a half slab of spare ribs and two sides for $15. I asked Hamilton which sides to order, and she suggested the collards and baked beans. I took her recommendations and took my order back to the vehicle, where I opened up the Styrofoam container and discovered — well, ribs the color of coho salmon. These babies had been liberally sauced in a pinkish liquid until the meat was tinted the color of salmon fillets; more sauce was pooled at the bottom of the container.

This was going to be a make-or-break moment: If I liked the sauce, I'd like the ribs. There was no way on earth to sample one of these ribs without a sticky film of sauce clinging to it.

I didn't like the sauce. I found it too sweet. In fact, I found it strangely like the florescent sweet-and-sour sauce at Chinese-American take-outs. The pork meat, however, was moist and tender, if lacking in the kind of lusty smokiness I prefer. I suspect these ribs are a true regional specialty that may be lost on my Lone Star State-nurtured palate, which prefers spicy, more savory flavors.

I wonder, though, how many Indiana natives would make a pilgrimage to Highway 1, near Ammendale Road, just to get a taste of Griffin's 'cue?

Much more to my liking is the spare, Central Texas-style of barbecue produced at Hill Country in New York City, which was founded by Bethesda native Marc Glosserman. Glosserman, according to the Post's Tom Sietsema, will be opening a Hill Country in Penn Quarter in July 2010. That's a long time to wait for some damn fine 'cue.

Last year, I made my own pilgrimage to New York to sample the meats at Hill Country, a smokehouse modeled after the famous Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. Which means your meats are ordered by the pound, served on butcher paper with no sauce, and you better not fucking complain about it. Just kidding about that; folks are nice in Central Texas.

I certainly liked HC's take on big-city 'cue, which is not easy to produce, particularly in NYC. I had the pitmasters at Hill Country show me their smokers, which are these massive wood-and-gas-fired units that handle hundreds of pounds of ribs and brisket and chicken, all of which are shot through with smokey flavor (with the exception of the brisket, which I wished would have had even more smokiness).

Hill Country also serves Kreuz sausages, which, unlike many brands, are mostly beef. These are spicy, juicy, and meaty links, and if Hill Country in Penn Quarter decides to offer these beauties, too, the sausages alone will make the place worth a trip.

Good God, can someone please wake me when it's July 2010?

  • Lou

    Patiently waiting.........

  • Jim Shahin

    I was what the marketing folks call an early adopter of Hill Country. I got there shortly after it opened and was wowed by what I regarded as perhaps the best version of Texas barbecue outside of Texas. The little touches - Big Red, Blue Bell ice cream, central Texas post-oak wood - added up to a heartfelt homage to the owner's avowed love for the area, which he visited in summertime from his Bethesda home to see extended family.
    I returned to DC from that first visit a convert. There CAN be real barbecue in NYC. Since then, I have taken family and friends.
    Alas, my most recent visit of two weeks ago was a terrible disappointment. They had run out of the beef ribs, the prime rib, and the giant-ass signature pork chop. It was only 8pm. They closed that day at 10pm.
    Now, bbq joints in central TX not infrequently run out of foodstuffs - it's a long-standing tradition; better to not have enough than (heaven forbid) freeze and re-warm this meat of the gods. Yet despite its claims to authenticity, Hill Country ain't in, well, the Hill Country. In New York, the long-standing tradition is to have the dishes available that are advertised on the menu. If they are going to start just serving what they have till they run out, that is something customers need to know.
    Worse by far was the quality of the food. The pork ribs were tough. Not tug-with-your-teeth-but-succulent. Just plain tough. And the pulled pork - yes, they are doing that now - was so bland that our five-man crew of eaters left about 80 percent of it untouched. The brisket was moist and mildly smoky, but not as robust as it had been in the past. The sausage was Kreuz's, which is to say, if you like it, it was great, if you don't, it wasn't. (I like it.)
    Service was lousy. After simply asking the pitmaster why they had run out of so many food items (unusual run of customers that night?), he glowered at me and didn't say anything. I repeated my question. He became combative, launching into a defensive diatribe. Pissed at his pique, a I poked the bear. "So you're saying this happens all the time," I asked. "No," he responded. "No, it doesn't." Another diatribe launching. I was left trying to figure out if they under-order on purpose (understandable) or if they simply ran out this particular evening. Whatever, I have now made it a point to tell folks that they might not get what they want. And given the quality of the pulled pork (which, by the way, they shouldn't even be doing, as pulled pork is not a Texas thing) and the ribs, they may not even get what they need.
    To add insult to few-foodstuffs injury, the pitmaster didn't put sandwich bread on my tray. A small thing? Not down in the real Hill Country. Down there, it is the last thing that is added to the tray. the French probably have a name for it (they have a name for all things culinary), but it is a sort of courtesy, a kind of "here ya go, a little something from the house." I have eaten at literally hundreds of bbq places in central Texas. Not once has a pitmaster or counter person forgotten to put bread on the tray. One reason for that is because they know that if you don't notice it right then (and you won't, because you expect it and, besides, you're talking to the guy next to you), you'll have to return to the line and butt in on someone else's order. That would be not just disruptive, but rude. In a place where the road signs say, "Drive Friendly" and the state motto is a simple "Friendship," rude is not considered a desirable trait. Granted, this is Hill Country, NYC, not Hill Country, TX. Still, a business built on replicating the Texas of a person's fond reminiscence would not cotton to rudeness, either - even in New York. After discovering that the pitmaster had not put the bread on my tray, I had to stand there, off to the side, waiting while he took the order of the next guy in line, my 'cue getting cold, before I could mention it and finally get some. When I was at long-last able to get his attention, the pitmaster rolled his eyes and dramatically exhaled, as if I was asking him for some big favor rather than correcting his mistake.
    I hope success hasn't ruined Hill Country. An employee at Hill Country told me that there are plans to open other outlets in other cities besides DC. My fear is that what began as a business venture based on a heartfelt childhood memory may be turning into just a business venture. My hope is that Hill Country gets back to where it once belonged and fixes its problems before opening here.
    As for me, next time I go to NYC I'll get deli. At least with deli, there is no pretense.

  • dan riley

    That was extremely well spoken. That post should be emailed to the management of the place. Most business owners would like to know if there is a douchebag representing them.(although they probably know already)

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  • JohnInNova

    Ok, it's now June 2010........ does anyone know what's going on with the plans for Hill Country DC???

  • LSA

    The smokehouses in Luling and Lockhart close at 6 and run out of brisket at 4. Must get there earlier for the good cuts .....

  • Karen

    Get a life, Jim.

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