Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Hill Country Chicken: Much Ado About Nothing
In the weeks which proceeded the opening of Hill Country Chicken, the foodie blogosphere was ablaze with anticipation for the Hill Country team's latest venture. Earlier this year New York, as well as most of the United States, was subjected to the endless buzz surrounding KFC's Double-Down, so it came as no surprise that Eater provided early scoop on the latest entrant into the ever-expanding fried chicken scene. But New Yorkers love them some good chicken, a fact so apparently obvious that even visiting San Francisco chef, Daniel Patterson, provided a nice soundbite for the media when he questioned the city's fascination with the crispy bird in anticipation of the recently held Le Fooding event.
Tales of lines that spilled onto the street and early problems initially kept me away from Hill Country Chicken, but chalk it up to curiosity and an empty stomach to motivate a visit which was punctuated by some disappointingly mediocre, but pricey fried food.
Anxiously anticipating a chaotic scene, reminiscent of the LIE during rush hour, MW, her sister YC and I played it safe and opted for a later dinner. While there is little reason to doubt the frantic stories of swarming crowds of the chicken-obsessed, we arrived to virtually no line. But one should be careful for what they wish for, and no lines meant lukewarm chicken that had been sitting under heat lamps.
Echoing the previous reports, Hill Country offers two different styles of fried chicken: Original and Mama Els' Recipe, a skinless variety with a crackermeal crust. Unlike other restaurants, Hill Country sells their chicken individually with the Pick a Chick combo being the lone exception. Wanting to get the full experience, we chose the combo which consisted of a breast, thigh, drumstick and wing of each style. Unfortunately, we were informed the kitchen had run out of the Mama Els' wings and instead, were substituted two original recipe wings. Much has been said about the price of Hill Country's chicken and at $5.50, the breast seems hardly a value, despite its unnaturally large size. But prices aside, we tend to judge restaurants by their food, and in this respect, the chicken at Hill Country fell short. Though pleasantly moist (attributable to the fact that it was brined) the chicken was nothing new or inspiring. The classic style had a deeper spice flavor, heavy with paprika and reminded me of the southern-style fried chicken served at Momofuku Noodle Bar. In contrast, the Mama Els' style was crunchier and had a superior texture, but failed to measure up flavor wise. My biggest gripe had little to do with the its taste, but rather the temperature it was served at. Contrary to news that employees replaced the chicken after every couple minutes, the chicken we received was warm at best and even worse, tasted like it had been sitting under heat lamps for some time, which is inexcusable considering its price point.
Included in the combo were four Buttermilk Biscuits, which like the chicken, had been sitting under the same heat lamps. Perhaps Hill Country Chicken could borrow Chevy's, "Like a Rock" theme song, because its exactly how these biscuits tasted. Terribly dry, and dense, the biscuits were a major failure, which is rather disenchanting considering these were another of the restaurant's staple items.
But not everything at Hill Country was completely terrible. The Fried Pimento Cheese Sandwich came straight from the fryer as gobs of molten cheese oozed from the halved sandwich like lava flowing from a volcano. Temperature aside, while the pimento cheese was a bit too salty, it was greasy and satisfying, exactly what I hoped for when I ordered it.
Sides met with mixed results. The Creamy Cole Slaw was the hands down favorite of the bunch, refreshing with its acidity and crunchy texture. The Fresh-Cut Fries were solid, but would have been better had they not been overcooked. The Blistered Corn Salad featured some noticeably non-blistered corn, made slimy by pre-packaging and refrigeration. Lastly, the Deep Fried Cheesy Mashed Potatoes were a down right abomination. Not truly fried, not quite mashed potatoes and lacking any cheese flavor altogether, this dish suffered from a severe case of under seasoning.
Although Hill Country Chicken had yet to start serving beer during our visit, we enjoyed the Boylan Soda Fountain and the free refills.
Also noteworthy were Hill Country's pies. Due to our late arrival and the pies popularity, we were limited to three varieties and settled on the Crème Brûlée Pie. Intrigued by its novelty, I was both surprised and impressed when an employee took the pie from the refrigerated section and proceeded to sprinkle a good amount of sugar atop it before finishing it off with a blowtorch. Though a tad on the sweet side, the custard was surprisingly smooth and creamy while the shards of bruleed top provided a great caramelized flavor.
Unable to meet expectations, Hill Country Chicken fell victim to the very same hype machine which heralded its opening, driving many diners (including, yours truly) through its doors. But tepid temperatures, unsuccessful sides and high prices ultimately spoiled the restaurant from asserting itself squarely into the mix of New York's premier fried chicken joints, and while I'm hesitant to write them off, I don't feel a return is warranted anytime soon until these kinks are ironed out. Until then, I'll continue to satisfy my cravings with Korean fried chicken.
Hill Country Chicken
New York, NY 10010
To see all our pics click the flickr link.