My friend was quite surprised when I invited her to lunch at the pork-loving Hill Country. The New York transplant features Texas-style barbecue (particularly Austin barbecue), alive with true Pitmasters carving up lots of smoked pork. But for my vegetarian tendencies, I carved out my own meal with a few meat-free sides.
The Texas Black-Eyed Caviar, probably the only vegan item on the menu, provided the meal’s protein, but also a refreshing lightness. With a dressing of red wine vinegar and oil, punctuated with onion, garlic, and bell peppers, the cold black eyed pea dish promotes the right amount of tang.
You’ll need that clean flavor to combat the seductive green bean casserole. That’s right, I called this poster child of tacky Americana, seductive. The thing is, when a dish like this is made from fresh ingredients, it makes a huge difference. Hill Country Pitmaster Robert Sonderman assures me that his personal top choice is no Campbell’s soup-derived monster. “It’s my favorite, hands down and I eat it every day. It’s classic, American comfort food and we execute it really well.”
He admits that it’s one of those dishes that has taken a beating when in the wrong hands. “It’s a Thanksgiving dish that mom messes up sometimes. My mom makes it pretty good, but we make it better here.”
Hill Country’s version starts with button mushrooms sauteed in oil and butter with garlic and onions, then it’s mixed with heavy cream to transform into a cream of mushroom soup base. Green beans are tossed in and fried onions sit atop the composed casserole before it sits under the broiler to finish.
Generic American Mom’s green bean dish finishes with French’s French Fried Onions to smiles of nostalgia and/or groans of an epicure’s enlightenment. At this downtown kitchen, sliced Spanish onions are dusted in flour, then fried and sprinkled with salt before topping the green beans and mushrooms.
This busy operation welcomes enough customers that dishes aren’t sitting out forever. Sonderman explains, “We don’t make all the sides and leave them up all day. We make that dish every 20 minutes.” But what happens when they’re just too busy? “If we run out, we use French’s crispy onions from the bag.”
Maybe it is just like mom.