September 20, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Hill Country Chicken
Hill Country’s Texas fried chicken with marvelous sides fuels our town’s craze. Photo: Steven Richter.
Given I’m a fool for the three nutritional essentials of fast food – salt, fat and sugar – there is not much dignity in my lust to be first in the door at Hill Country Chicken. I’ve actually given them 24 hours to find their mojo before invading the bustling corner storefront a night later. The wattage is blinding. On my normal tasting rounds I often need a flashlight to see my food. I hesitate at the door, hoping I haven’t overdone the turquoise eye liner. But it’s starting to rain. What the hell! Fried chicken.
By 8:45 the line starts to look more manageable. Photo: Steven Richter.
I park the Road Food Warrior and our friends from Paris at the tail of a queue doubled twice around up to just inside the door, and sneak off to seek the boss. Given the palpable intensity as pilgrims inch toward the pick-up counter for near-religious consultations, I sense I will be invisible.
I met Marc Glosserman and his wife at Morandi one night weeks before he opened Hill Country BBQ July 2, 2007. I loved it. I raved. That makes me practically family. So, discovering his “no reservation” policy, I’d called ahead. Full disclosure: a table is waiting below.
Choose white meat or dark with a biscuit and find a table. Photo: Steven Richter.
With his Hill Country baseball cap and baby face he doesn’t look a day older. He hands us menus, hustles us downstairs, takes a poll. We are all dark meat eaters. We order sides, water, Boylan’s root beer, an elixir our French friends rather like: “Not too sweet.” I’m not a certified fried chicken expert. I follow the lip-smackings of soul food investigators and underground gourmets who’ve tasted everything. I made it to 151st Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard for the mythic $15 all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet at Charles Gabriel’s Country Pan Fried Chicken and followed him to Patroon’s upstairs bar one Friday night for the $25 fried chicken and fixings. Bird parts thickly crusted, really greasy. I groaned and moaned waiting 35 minutes for a creaky flea market table in the garage at Pies and Thighs in Brooklyn, wallowing in three-napkin ooze.
Intense research is required to make the choice; don’t procrastinate on pie. Photo: Steven Richter.
For me Hill Country’s bird has a distinct advantage. It’s a straight shot downtown from where I live. And the plump, moist, buttermilk-brined birds from Bell and Evans can hold their own in fast company. Grandma El’s skinless parts with a secret spicy coating is luscious, though too salty for my taste. Our French amis think I’m crazy to mention it. "Salt? We love salt.” I prefer the Texas classic, densely, deliciously crumbed, skin and all. Maybe it’s not the paragon of greasy richness Gabriel dishes up but the bird itself wondrously moist and rather elegant. And at $10.50 for three pieces and a biscuit, it’s near as cheap as Pies and Thighs. The parts are priced anatomically: breast $5.50, thigh $3.50, drumstick $2.25, wing $1.75, and three tenders with dipping sauce $6.50.
And the sides - $2.50 for a small cup, $5 for the large - are marvelous. The secret of the cheesy fried mashed potatoes is pimento cheese. The creamy cole slaw is just creamy enough, not over mayo’d. And the “blistered” corn salad, though not visibly blistered, is sweet and fresh, flecked with tomato and scallion. I’m the only one eating the carrots-n-raisin slaw, garden fresh and clean. “Eat your carrots,” my mother Saralee always used to say. I love that I still hear her voice.
The biscuits need work. Or are they Texas style? I got my biscuit taste at Sylvia’s where they are crumbly like short cake, salty not sweet.
I’m excited now to taste cherry pie. “Double cherry,” it says on the menu. Executive chef Elizabeth Karmal drops by our feeding station with a tray of the house’s $3 pies – crème brulée and the Cowboy, “a candy bar in a cup,” as she describes it. “That’s all that’s left,” she says. “The crowds are more than double what we expected.” She’s from a North Carolina family of bakers, but it’s her first time doing pies professionally. “I want to see if we can make these little pies into a kind of cupcake – you take it out of the dish and eat it in your hand.” I’m not so sure she’s on to a Magnolia moment though the price is right. The crème brulée crust is stuck to its baking dish. I’m eating it with a spoon, though it seems I am the only one in our quartet still eating. Puhleeze, it’s my job! Full disclosure: We pay the bill, $100 including the tip. (1123 Broadway at 25th Street, 212 257 6446. Noon to 11 pm, 7 days.)
Counter culture sandwiches made to order at SubNo7. Photo: Steven Richter.
Naomi and I have been best food friends since we met at a Burgundy society dinner a thousand years ago and then ran into each other by accident three times in France that Spring. She and her husband are the fussiest gourmands I know and only eat dinner at a handful of places they are sure will be wonderful…unlike me, forced by the demands of my calling to brave the stings and marrows of untried tables in search of a place worth heralding.
“Let’s go for lunch somewhere wild, downtown perhaps, where I would never get Richard to go.”
Visions of great Dagwood sandwiches fill my head. “Meet me at the Ace Hotel,” I instruct. “There’s a guy who does supposedly bizarre and brilliant sandwiches right in the lobby.”
Naomi is waiting for me at the Ace looking bemused. “There is no sandwich stand in this lobby,” she reports. I survey the scene: a ragtag army bent over their computers at long tables, lovers snuggling, young women French-kissing cell phones, poets napping.
So deceptive. All those blogs I read celebrating No.7 Sub in the Ace Hotel. We are told to exit onto Broadway, turn downtown and there it is, in a bit of a lull at 1:45. I study the menu signs overhead. The man at the cash register takes our order for “eggplant parm” and lamb meatloaf, two waters. He accepts plastic. At $9.95 each, I owe $19.90. The water with ice and straw is free. Each sandwich is made to order. I watch a guy up front in plastic gloves split a crusty submarine bun and layer it with who knows what. It gets wrapped twice and sealed by a tatooed bagger at the other end of the counter. “Is this it?” cries a young man coming in behind us. “Is this the famous sandwich place?”
Hunky sandwiches get double wrapped, sealed and bagged. Photo: Steven Richter.
We go around the block and reenter the Ace lobby again, looking for a cozy picnic spot. I spy a length of sofa free and since it’s the only space close enough to a table, I decide to overlook a menacingly long-haired animal skin we are forced to sit on. My lamb meatloaf is soft and bland in its warm toasted bun, but the eggplant parm with pickled jalapeno, fontina cheese and BBQ potato chips is fabulous.
“I’m so sorry, you can’t eat that here,” a lobby waitress interrupts. “We don’t let anyone eat food from other places in our lobby.”
“But doesn’t the sub shop belong to the hotel?” I protest.
“No. It has nothing to do with the hotel. You’re supposed to order from our menu if you want to eat in the lobby.”
I cannot quite believe the inconvenience of it. I sputter a little. I ask to speak to April Bloomfield, the chef of The Breslin, the adjacent feedery. “She’ll tell you we’re okay,” I insist. Perhaps the young woman is embarrassed to see a senior citizen humiliate herself over an eggpant parm sub. Perhaps I remind her of her grandmother. Silently, she retreats.
Naomi and I agree the meatloaf is not thrilling, even at its heart where a pickle hides, but we polish off the eggplant. I’ve been reading a few blogs. I see I missed the ceviche sub with hummus, jicama and leche de tigre mayo. I read raves for the fried tofu on my friend Marie’s site, It’s All Fare I must taste more. I persuade the Road Food Warrior to join me at the sub shop on our way home from a morning meeting downtown.
“This is it?” he asks.
The subs look huge and enticing on my fancy plates. Photo: Steven Richter.
“Oh, everyone says that,” I assure him. “Choose a sandwich.” He scans the menu overhead. Well, of course he doesn’t want imitation lobster with pickled ginger mayo and candied wasabi. Are you serious? Forget the broccoli sub with aged gouda – he’s not a broccoli kind of guy, or a tunafish type either. And he can’t imagine pickled blueberries with roast beef or the raison d’être of a vegetarian Rueben. He looks at me as if we’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. Finally he settles on the lamb meatloaf. I don’t mention I found it spineless. I choose a few others for research purposes and we jump into a taxi.
Clockwise from top, roast beef, fried tofu, heirloom tomato, meatloaf. Photo: Steven Richter.
I unwrap everything still warm for him to photograph in my office and then he goes home for lunch with half the meatloaf and half an heirloom tomato number (having forgotten his dismay at its soy bacon).
Here’s the bad news about No.7 Sub: the sandwiches don’t travel. Steamed by a journey into sogginess, they’re pretty awful. Even so, discarding the soggy bread I discover I am wild for General Tso’s batter-fried tofu with spicy pickles -- a feisty, fiery thrill. So what is the solution? If the whimsy of these sandwiches intrigues you – fried lemon slices, maraschino cherries, peanut butter and all - you’d best unwrap your choice at once and eat it en situ if you can find a quiet wall to lean against. Some regulars perch outside on the window sill. Others hike quickly to Madison Square Park. I suppose you could take a room at the Ace. Just don’t think you can hide illicit activity in the lobby. (1185 Broadway between 28th and 29th Streets. 212 532 1680. Breakfast from 8 to 10:30am. Lunch and dinner 11:30 am to 9 pm Closed Sunday.)