For years, Hill Country has been best known for serving up high-quality Texas-style barbecue and tasty fried chicken in New York City and Washington D.C. But now the regional chain is taking a bold new step with the recently opened Hill Country Food Park, a “micro food hall” that serves a multitude of culinary styles under one roof including barbecue, tacos, pizza, burgers, and fried chicken.
It’s a significant addition, with a new twist, to Brooklyn’s barbecue scene. Housed in a building that was once home to an earlier iteration of the brand—Hill Country Barbecue Market and Hill Country Chicken, which was closed due to underwhelming performance—the food park is a new chapter in the company story that started in 2007 when Marc Glosserman opened the first Hill Country Barbecue Market in Manhattan.
For this version, Glosserman said he and his team were inspired by Austin’s immense food-truck scene. “I visit Austin about three times a year, and I love it,” Glosserman said. “The first time I ever ate at a food truck was in Austin. There has been a lot of innovative food out of food trucks there and around the U.S.”
Austin’s food-truck scene has nearly anything you can think of, including barbecue, pizza, tacos, Mediterranean, and lobster rolls. That level of diversity is present inside Hill Country’s food park, which has six “stalls” where you can go up to any counter and order a little bit of this and that to make a customized meal.
“We’ve been serving up a pure, unadulterated version of Texas barbecue since 2007,” Glosserman said. “We used the opening of Food Park as a license to be more creative.”
Branching Out From Texas Barbecue
When you first walk into the food park, the array of options makes it easy to be indecisive. Your mood (or your stomach) will help guide you to the right stall. Let’s go over them quickly:
- Austino’s serves “Austin-style” pizza and features freshly smoked meats from Hill Country Barbecue as toppings.
- Bluebonnets serves fresh salads and healthy sandwiches.
- Hill Country Barbecue offers barbecue, sandwiches, and sides, with a slightly smaller menu than other HC locations, plus one exclusive item—baby back ribs.
- Hill Country Chicken offers a pared down menu from the other HC Chicken location with fried chicken, sandwiches, and sides.
- Nickie’s serves Tex-Mex staples including tacos, nachos, burgers, and hot dogs.
- South Congress is focused on breakfast and sweets, serving coffee, breakfast tacos from King David Tacos, doughnuts from Du’s Donuts, and ice cream from Brooklyn’s Van Leeuwen.
Offering this many choices is risky because it’s hard enough to control quality at one type of restaurant, let alone six different ones. But one benefit of these six being housed under one roof is the possibility of combining offerings together. Freshly smoked brisket and pork from the smokers at Hill Country Barbecue are used in the tacos as Nickie’s and on top of pizza at Austino’s. Glosserman said this cross-pollination may happen even more as time passes.
Tapping into the Food-hall Craze
While it might be easy to call Hill Country Food Park a “food hall,” it’s ultimately a bit different than places like DeKalb Market Hall at City Point or the new Japan Village in Sunset Park. Glosserman calls it a “micro food hall” because there are just six vendors and all of them are operated by Hill Country.
But the American food-hall craze that has taken hold New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities certainly did inspire the design and feel of Hill Country’s version. Large windows make the space feel larger than it is. Downstairs has lots of open seating while upstairs features a small area with a few tables and Skee-Ball.
“Food halls are great, and they are not just a New York thing,” Glosserman said. “New York is a precursor of trends and that’s why we’ve seen so many here and many open in other cities after.”
In its current form, Hill Country’s focus is on lunch and early dinner. The space is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., but until 11 a.m. only the South Congress stall is open for business. This makes sense, as lunch is prime time, with majority of business is coming in between 12:30 to 2 p.m. With Downtown Brooklyn becoming increasingly dense with office buildings, the food park has a prospective clientele of hungry office workers looking for good, quick bites.
How’s the Food?
I’m happy to report that Hill Country’s food quality is good, given that the place has been open for only about two weeks. Almost everything I tried was pleasing, if not out-of-this-world, whether it was tacos, sandwiches, or salads.
The park’s managers provided some food for sampling on one visit, but I also stopped by few times unannounced to get a better sense of the real experience. The samples served by Hill Country were a little better than what I tried when they weren’t looking, but thankfully not by much.
My personal three favorites were the El Original pizza from Austino’s, which is topped with brisket, mozzarella cheese, green onion, and pickled jalapeno; the baby back ribs from Hill Country Barbecue; and the Lone Star Burger from Nickie’s, which is a blend of brisket and short ribs that’s topped with a fried egg, salsa verde, and American cheese. As a barbecue aficionado, I appreciated the baby back ribs because they often are served overcooked and tasteless, while these were rich in flavor and had a little kick.
By contrast, Glosserman told me his favorite three items so far are the Skye Pie at Austino’s (named for his daughter Skye), the El Guapo burger at Nickie’s, and the al pastor taco at Nickie’s.
Glosserman said food quality overall is quickly improving and that the first week was “rough.” He said that some of the first negative Yelp reviews he saw were fair to ding them, but that the second week has produced better results because his team is making little improvements every day.
Amongst the six stalls, two really stood out. The most intriguing stand is Nickie’s, which is inspired in part by Texas joints like Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, which elevates Tex-Mex to a new level and serves the best BBQ tacos I’ve ever eaten. If the tacos at Nickie’s get anywhere close to Valentina’s, I will stop by often.
The other stall showing serious promise is Austino’s, because the pizza is far better than one might expect for being “Austin-inspired.” This is really a great blend of New York and Austin pizza, with delicious crust and well-chosen toppings. Expertly smoked brisket, pulled pork, and Kreuz sausage are not often served on pizza, but it really makes these slices stand out from other Brooklyn vendors. Now I just wish there was more meat on the slices.
How the Park Will Evolve
The overall flavor of Hill Country Food Park is likely to change in January when Hank’s Saloon opens on the second level of the Food Park. Hank’s Saloon is a beloved Boerum Hill dive bar and music venue that is closing this month, but it will live on in a new form at Hill Country.
When Hank’s opens, the park’s hours will run much later and liquor will be served on the premises. Glosserman isn’t certain what the menu will look like at Hank’s just yet, but said some items from the food park will be available. Like the old Hank’s, the new venue will offer live music.
“We’ve always had a passion for music,” Glosserman said. “It would be impossible to replicate Hank’s, but we are hoping to bring the spirit of Hank’s here.”
I think Hill Country Food Park will ultimately be successful, especially as a lunch and happy-hour destination. Hank’s will bring in more customers in the late afternoon and evening. Being smack dab in the middle of Downtown Brooklyn has got to help, with its population growing considerably.
As an entrepreneur, Glosserman says he plans on being completely focused on perfecting the food park in 2019, with no new restaurants planned for next year. “Opening a new restaurant is like having a new baby,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, and we have a lot to learn. It’s almost impossible thinking about anything else right now.”