Monday, September 19, 2011

Hill Country BBQ Market: A Frugal Eaters’ Companion

A few months back, I wrote about a survey that District 365 was conducting on readers of food blogs. The results are now in! You can see them hereIn my original post, I highlighted a particular survey question that interested me: Do readers want more posts about frugal living? Turns out, 60% of those who answered the survey do.

With this result in mind, I decided to write my next post – about Hill Country BBQ Market – from the point of view of frugality. This may seem strange, since the restaurant features Texan food, and everybody knows that Texas is about more, not less. Problem is, the prices are more too. When you belly up to the food stations, chances are you going to order by the piece (4 slices of brisket; 2 ribs; 12 chicken wings), but the prices are listed by the pound. Unless you are paying super close attention to what fraction of a pound your slices of brisket total to, you never really know the dollar value of your order until it hits you at the end of the meal. In this way, we easily ran up a total of $40 per person for lunch. Too much!

Here’s how I would do it differently next time, aiming at value for money:

Texas BBQ is about brisket. Focus on it. The oversized ribs are not particularly flavorful, and when you see those huge bones, remember that you are paying by weight. Although the chicken is reportedly good, anyone can do good barbecue chicken. So your go-to meat should be the brisket that Texas is truly famous for. There are two varieties: dry and moist. Dry is packed with smoky flavor, truly to die for. This is the brisket experience that finally convinced me that good barbecue does not need sauce. But as Todd Kliman has noted, after 10 minutes or so the meat tends to dry out, so you need to order small portions that will be eaten soon after they emerge from the smoker.

I was dubious about the moist brisket – it’s fattier, but also more juicy. If you can get past the fatty look, the taste is pretty rewarding. But it is also quite rich and fills you up quickly. If you don’t know which style of brisket you prefer, I would order one slice of each to start off with, not more. You can always go back for seconds if you still have room.

Just one

Order side dishes for the table rather than per person. The sides are large and since you will want to try several of the temptations on offer, limiting yourself to just one will feel like deprivation (not to be confused with frugality). So it’s best to agree on a few that the whole table can enjoy. We had the bourbon soaked sweet potato mash, tangy cowboy pinto beans, confetti coleslaw and green bean casserole. All good (though predictably I thought the sweet potatoes were too sweet), and way too much for two people.

Dispense with the fru-fru drinks. They will lure you with their creative names, but there really is not a lot of punch behind them. I was not blown away by my Texas Tornado, for example. I would rather go with a $6 genuine Shiner Bock than pay $11 for a wannabe cocktail.

Like Disneyworld, Hill Country BBQ Market needs to approached with a plan. Regulars at Disney know that novices that jump in enthusiastically with no forethought tend to get overwhelmed until they understand the structure and workings of the place. At Disney, spontaneity must be traded for strategic planning. At Hill Country, exuberance must be traded for cool judgment. Less is definitely more.

The minimalist side of Hill Country BBQ

Update: Nov 9, 2011: Return visit to Hill Country. I retract my words about the bbq chicken. It's a must have at HC. Tender, moist and flavorful, and the 'cue sauce is to die for.

Photos: Chris Svoboda

Hill Country Barbecue Market on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shake Shack: Burgers by Design

What's all this hype about the Shake Shack? Is it really a worthy competitor of In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys? I rolled up my sleeves and do what I always do when it comes to testing burgers: I ordered one plain burger, with lettuce, onion and tomato as the only garnishes. No cheese, no secret sauce, no distracting toppings. If I want to know how a burger tastes, I need to taste the meat.

And here's how it shook down. If you are going on meat flavor alone, Shake Shack falls squarely between In-N-Out and Five Guys. The naked In-N-Out burger surprised me with its flame-grilled flavor, unusual for a fast-food place. I enjoyed every bite, and making that stop on the way to LAX was even worth missing our plane back to DC. Chris was definitely right about that one.

By contrast, Five Guys, unplugged from its dazzle of toppings, is really tasteless. The kind of tasteless that makes me angry that I have been pursuaded to come here. On later visits, I found that the free and plentiful topping choices are fun to experiment with, just so long as you can forget what is underneath.

And Shake Shack? The plain burger is pleasant tasting, but comes nowhere near the flavor of In-N-Out. On the other hand, it does not depend on toppings to be respectable. So like I said, from this perspective, Shake Shack burgers fall between the two.

But what if you look at it from a different angle -- what if design, rather than taste, is the distinguishing feature? Walking into the Shake Shack in Dupont Circle, you are immediately struck by its muted lighting and sleek dark surfaces. It's a far cry from In-N-Out and Five Guys' shared motif of red-and-white hues, bright florescent lights and formica counters. The retro-modern concept of Shake Shack is to reclaim the burger and reposition it in the context of sustainable design. Shake Shack exteriors are individually created (often by SITE Environmental Design) to be harmonious with their surroundings. Each interior is unique as well: the interiors of the Dupont Shack are constructed from reclaimed bowling alley lanes (the tabletops), reclaimed antique barn wood siding (the walls), and lumber certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (the chairs and booths). Wind-power credits offset 100% of Shake Shack's electricity, and its used cooking oil is recycled into bio-diesel fuel. 

Burger on reclaimed bowling lane table top

But isn't all this designery, green stuff expensive? How is it that Shake Shack can offer all of this and still keep their burgers at fast food prices? A single burger with lettuce and tomato is $3.50; the Shack Burger w/American cheese, lettuce and tomato, and Shack sauce will run you $4.50. It turns out that the fast food model is perfectly suited to shoulder this initial capital outlay in design and materials. With no maitre d', waitstaff, or linens, the profit margins can be as high as 13%, compared with a median of 1.8% in full-service restaurants.

All this, I like (and like enough for it to be bloggable). But what does it say about the burgers? You would think that with all the thought going into design, that the same consideration would have been given to the meat. Well, it has -- and therein lies the problem. I believe that Shake Shack burgers have been over-designed. According to a recent New York Times article, Richard Coraine, the burger designer, spent months modifying the organic blend of sirloin, brisket and chuck. Besides getting these proportions just right, he also factored in other elements that would affect the taste: the amount of butter brushed on the bun before griddling, the flavor and amount of Shack Sauce, the type and even the width of the American cheese. Like everything else at Shake Shack, the meat is designed to fit in with its surroundings -- it's not meant to stand alone. This means that if you just want a plain ol' burger, you're out of luck. You can order it, but it won't taste right. Respectable, yes, but really no great shakes. So here is a plea to the powers that be at Shake Shack: if you are going to design the hell out of a burger, please create one designed to be eaten without cheese or sauce. I'd like to reclaim my plain burger!

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lehja: Richmond Bucket List #5*

I am going to get right to the point here: I should not have liked Lehja, but I did. I thought it was the best Indian food I had ever had in an Indian restaurant in the U.S.

Without spending too much time on it, here are a few reasons why I was predisposed to dislike Lehja:

  • I am an Indian food snob. It began in graduate school, when an Indian house-mate's mother moved in with us for three months and took over the kitchen. Once I started travelling to India and discovering the food there, the bar was raised forever.
  • Lehja is in a mall. Enough said.
  • Descriptions of  Lehja's "updated and reinvented Indian food" -- reminded me of Rasika in DC. While Rasika can be good, in general I find their food overwrought and overpriced.

On top of everything, the day we went to Lehja, the brutal August heatwave suddenly chose to subside. As a result, the airconditioning inside felt too cold, while a raspy wind made sitting outside uncomfortable. We opted for the outdoor seating, placed our orders and sat there, enduring.

Now, if there is one thing that Chris and I are good at, it's turning a bad situation into a good one. When plans go awry, we usually find some fun way to save the situation. This time, we decided to get our food to go, and have a picnic in the car. The restaurant staff were quite obliging given this change of plan. Soon, we were on our way, big brown bags in hand.

Then, something happened.  Before we could make it to the car, a table magically sprang up in front of us, set into a sheltered patio. It was unoccupied, and had two chairs, waiting just for us. It seemed obvious that we should sit there to eat our dinner.**

And so, covered now in pixie dust, we did: I had the Market Vegetable Kozhambu: Zesty Vegetable Curry in a Tamil Nadu State Inspired Sauce. I was surprised at how good it was. Then I tried Chris' Chicken Tikka Masala. And this is what really amazed me. Don't be fooled by the ordinary sounding name: the flavors were just like they would taste in India -- fresh spices popping out at you separately and together at the same time, hitting different taste buds in a progression of sensations. I couldn't quite believe it, and after a few minutes, sheepishly asked if I could have a second bite, just to make sure. And another and another. So there you have it -- this is good stuff. The menu  is chock full of things I would want to try. Only, a mall is so the wrong place for this restaurant. Come on, Lehja, you deserve a location that will let our imaginations soar!

Outdoor seating at Lehja. In the winter, the reflecting pond is reportedly replaced by a fire pit. Too bad it was not in service the evening we were there!

*As a result of "On Fumes Alone", Chris created a bucket list of Richmond restaurants for us to visit. This is the fifth of such visits. For a full list of visits, click here.

**In reality, the sheltered nook we found was part of the Comedy Club, but to us, it seemed fantastical: we had just been wishing for a table in a protected space, and there it was before us. Nobody seemed to mind us sitting down to dinner there. So, thanks, Comedy Club, for indulging us.

Lehja on Urbanspoon