The sprinkler in the center of the ceiling in Hill Country’s test kitchen in Brooklyn has already started dripping water by the time we arrive. Chef, pitmaster and Culinary Director of Hill Country restaurants Ash Fulk has one eye on it as he rubs down a 13-pound black Angus brisket with salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne — the traditional rub for Central Texas barbecue. He works each side of the meat with the ease of a guy who’s spent plenty of time around brisket, and he has: collectively the two Hill Country restaurants in New York go through 60 briskets per day, and there’s another 40 going down in Washington, D.C. That’s about 1,000 pounds of meat, all told.
“That’s quite a bit compared to a lot of the Texas people,” Fulk says. “When I tell them that number they start to cry. They’re like, really? And we sell all of that brisket.”
For me, hanging out with Fulk is a bucket list event. I enjoy eating meat more than most, and 10 years ago I became an amateur pitmaster. On break from college, I built a rudimentary smoker (since demolished) at my parents’ home; at the time I knew nothing about cooking, but barbecue became my gateway drug to eventually working the line in a few restaurants. I wasn’t concerned about tradition — it was usually a big piece of pork smoked with applewood, which I could get locally — as much as I was interested in playing with fire and getting drunk on the lawn. It was fun. And the reward for the hours of cooking was always more than worth the effort. All pitmasters, whether amateur or professional, share an outsized enthusiasm for their trade. Fulk is no different.
“So we’re like the Led Zeppelin of barbecue”, Fulk says.
Brisket comes from the chest of the cow, Fulk explains as he points to the still-raw piece of meat. Because the proteins run in a variety of directions, it’s physically a tough piece of meat, in addition to being a very large cut. Both of these characteristics make it difficult to cook.
“When you’ve got a tough meat, you want to do things that make the meat less tough”, Fulk says. Smoking is one of those things. It takes the meat and sort of denatures the proteins — loosens them up — and that’s why brisket loves to be smoked.”
Have Brisket? Make Beans
Sides are second-class citizens in the the world of Texas barbecue, where it’s all about the meat. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make them. This recipe, from Austin-based Aaron Franklin’s forthcoming book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, incorporates chopped brisket into the beans.
Makes about 8 cups; serves 8 to 10
• 1 pound dried pinto beans, picked over and rinsed
• 1/2 cup diced yellow onion
• 1/2 cup bean seasoning (recipe follows)
• 8 cups water
• 1 cup chopped brisket bark and shredded meat
Combine the beans, onion, bean seasoning and water in a large pot and let soak for 4 to 6 hours, or for up to overnight, which is what we do in the restaurant. Add the brisket bark and meat to the soaked beans and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a slow simmer, cover and cook for 3 to 4 hours, until the beans are tender.
Makes about 2 cups
• 1 cup chile powder
• 1/2 cup kosher salt
• 1/4 cup coarse black pepper
• 2 tablespoons onion powder
• 2 tablespoons garlic powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Combine all of the ingredients and mix well. Store in an airtight container. – Aaron Franklin
Brisket also has a large casing of fat around the meat. At Hill Country Fulk doesn’t trim that fat, which he says helps protect the meat. The fat renders out while cooking to keep the meat juicy and moist. Fulk contends that this is consistent with a traditional approach of Central Texas barbecue — whereas now a lot of places, including the very popular and highly regarded Franklin Barbecue in Austin, trim the fat in favor of developing more chewy and crunchy bits or “bark”.
“We really have our own kind of unique take on it”, Fulk says. “It’s a nod to all the traditions. They are traditions that are kind of going away, or at least being forgotten and being thought that the new guard is the only guard. So we’re like the Led Zeppelin of barbecue.”
Hill Country serves a region-specific food, as the name alludes. Hill Country is a region in Central Texas where barbecue has a rich history. “European meat smoking was brought to Central Texas by German and Czech butchers during an era of intense Germanic migration that began in the 1830s and reached its height around 1890”, writes Robb Walsh, author of The Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, in a history of barbecue on Southern Foodways Alliance. “The German meat markets sold fresh meats and smoked their leftovers in enclosed smokers, as they had done in the Old Country.” According to Walsh, the traditions of cooking over open fire date back 10,000 years ago to the Caddo Native American tribe, and Mexicans in the Rio Grande Valley have been cooking barbacoa, meat wrapped in maguey leaves and buried in hot coals, for several hundred years. And while cooking pork was common elsewhere in the south, beef became the preferred meat in Texas after the Civil War — especially the brisket.
Fulk is sort of an unlikely candidate to run the pit. Born in California and with family from Georgia and North Carolina, he cooked at the W and Cafe Chloe in San Diego before moving to New York and becoming the Chef de Cuisine at Trestle on Tenth, a Swiss brasserie in Chelsea. But he’s been at Hill Country for nearly a decade and he lives and breathes Central Texas barbecue, especially the brisket. He knows all the Central Texas places, the rivalries and where to go for the best stuff (Terry Black’s is his favorite right now). And if you want Texas-style brisket in Yankee country, Hill Country is where you go.
The restaurant earned two stars in 2007 from New York Times critic Peter Meehan and another deuce in 2012 from Pete Wells. And it’s not just northern city folk who like the place. You can find Yelp and OpenTable reviews by native Texas admitting it’s possible to get good ‘cue from a slicker, and Texas Monthly, which features some of the best and most fanatically in-depth barbecue journalism (Katy Vine’s “Of Meat and Men” is an essential read), offered a decent review, though the “BBQ Snob” complained of unrendered fat.
Just as we’re finishing up our lesson in beef musculature, the sprinkler situation escalates rapidly. I grab the tray of beef and move it as far away from the water, which is now streaming rather than dripping.
“Is that a problem?” an employee asks, walking by. “Or that’s — ”
“No, that’s a problem,” Fulk says.
Somebody needs to deal with the escalating flood situation, likely from a burst pipe, but our immediate future is much more sanguine. We head to the smoke room to check out the briskets nearing the end of their 12 to 16 hours at 200 degrees Fahrenheit inside a massive Ole Hickory pit filled with the smoke and fire of Texas post oak, the fuel de rigeuer of Central Texas barbecue.
Inside the smoker, the briskets sit on metal racks and circulate around the interior, rotisserie-style, with no basting or swaddling of any kind, which would rinse off the rub and eliminate the crust. Fulk opens the pit doors to a cloud of sweet smoke. He sticks his finger into one of the briskets, which is now as dark as fossilized carbon, and encourages me to do the same. It feels soft and loose to me, but Fulk thinks it needs a bit more time.
“There are three things you’re looking at”, he says. “It should look like a brisket, crusty and beautiful on the outside. It should feel loose and jiggly. And we cook it to about 180 degrees. All of those are indicators to how much longer you want it to cook.”
As we close up the doors to the pit and wait for the briskets to finish cooking, I start to get that familiar feeling — excitement, bordering on elation — that you only get when a piece of meat that’s been cooking for the better part of a day is almost ready. Even though I didn’t have a hand in creating this one, a good piece of barbecue is a masterpiece and I’m enjoying some vicarious pride.
“Texas has many problems, but their barbecue is like truth on a plate.”
A short while later, when the brisket has finished cooking and resting, Fulk puts it on a large wooden butcher block and starts slicing. He separates the lean portion of the brisket from the fattier section (known as the “deckle”) and deals with them individually. They’re sold as “lean” and “moist”, respectively, at Hill Country, so the customer can get his ideal combination of food.
“Texas has many problems, but their barbecue is like truth on a plate”, he says, stacking up a pile of both lean and moist meat for me on a piece of butcher paper. “It’s a real celebration of meat. Smoke and seasoning — and that’s it.”
The lean is a little chewier and has a crunchy bark, while the moist is unctuous and melts in my mouth. All of it is smoky, earthy and deeply beef. This brisket is certainly some of the best I’ve ever had, and as I shovel it into my mouth I think about how right Fulk is: finding the truth in life, as in brisket, is a product of hard work. Sometimes there’s a disaster or two along the way, and it always takes lots of time. But once you’ve got it there in your grasp, it sure is satisfying.