Brisket. Photo by Nader Khouri.
The pork belly. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The St. Louis-cut spare ribs. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The BBQ sampler for two. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Smoked meatloaf sandwich. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Patpong buck. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The communal tables in the dining room. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The main dining room (from the mezzanine). Photo by Nader Khouri.
There are some surefire ways to get people talking about food in this town. Pick the best burrito and you have an onslaught of heated commentary on your hands (or is that salsa?). Right up there is barbecue: is it authentic, how the meat compares to your favorite place in South Carolina, does the sauce have too much vinegar … and it goes on. Open since the end of January 2013 in the Mission is ~HI LO~ from Scott Youkilis (Maverick, Hog & Rocks), Eric Rubin (Tres Agaves Products), and Dave Esler (Hog & Rocks), and of course it has garnered plenty of discussion.
I have been a fan of chef Ryan Ostler’s barbecue since I first had his vittles at Broken Record in the Excelsior—he’s manning Big Red in the basement, a massive, 7,000-pound, cherry-red smoker that was built from scratch by J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, Texas. As you can imagine, it takes some time to fine-tune smoking on that beast of a machine. He’s a talented chef, and obsessed with barbecue like the good Texan he is.
The team is calling their offering Northern California barbecue, which you can see in the sourcing of the ingredients, and some of the dishes have international flair, from Jamaican jerk chicken to the Japanese flavor notes in the pork belly. This is not about duplicating a pit in Lubbock, Texas—it’s its own thang.
I’m kind of obsessed with the St. Louis-cut spare ribs ($13), with their peppery bark (they have Four Barrel coffee in their rub), and they spend around 2 1/2-3 1/2 hours in the smoker. Ostler uses heritage Hampshire pork from Coleman in Iowa, and the flavor of the smoked-just-right meat is so delicious. This is not about mushy, fall-off-the-bone ribs that have been wrapped in plastic and reheated later—Ostler likes to ensure they are never more than an hour or so off the smoker (they come out throughout the evening). While the meat pulls clean off the bone, they have a satisfying texture with a bit of chew (but not stringy or dry); you can dip them in the housemade Texas red sauce, but I don’t think they need it.
Ostler uses hormone-free Creekstone chef’s choice for the brisket ($15), and smokes them overnight for about 11 hours. You get two portions: 4 ounces each of lean and moist. It’s some of the best brisket I’ve had in the city—the fat is creamy and well rendered on the moist pieces, with some good pockets of salt in the crust. The lean is where I like to use some of the sweet-hot-tangy red sauce, tucking it all into the pull-apart roll. If you prefer moist, you can make it your whole order, or vice versa with the lean.
There are some really peppery beef hot links ($11), full of fire and snap (Ostler plans to be making them in-house soon). If it’s your first visit, go for the BBQ sampler: for $45, two people (the sampler is scalable up to six people) get a platter of the ribs, links, and brisket, plus a choice of two sides, rolls, and cookies (Kat Zacher consulted on the sweets). It’s a good deal.
Then on your next visit, you should check out the pork belly ($12), which is cured overnight and simultaneously braised and smoked in tare (mirin, rice wine vinegar, sake, soy, brown sugar, and aromatics). Two thick, juicy slices are seared in a skillet on the pickup, the sugars getting all caramelized. Tasty.
A friend of mine had a challenging day, and I recommended she pick up the smoked meatloaf sandwich ($12) to fix things. It worked. A mix of American kobe beef and diced brisket smoked for four hours in pullman loaf pans makes one hell of a meatloaf, let me tell you. And tucked inside Texas toast with sharp cheddar and green tomato chowchow? Meow meow.
Ostler tells me his pulled pork sandwich ($12) is a bit of a mash-up between Hawaiian and South Carolina-style barbecue. The shoulder has a mustard rub plus 24 seasonings, and is smoked overnight. I love the big, meaty pieces in this sandwich—it’s not a saucy, shredded mess, and there’s a bit of acid from the pineapple juice he uses in the sauce. Suddenly the reasoning of having taro chips on the side makes sense, but they weren’t my favorite—I’d be cool with some potato chips. (I also think the pickles overall really need some work.)
There are a bunch of sides (all $7): highlights include the big, creamy baked beans with burnt ends and the collard greens. If you’re a fan of fried Brussels sprouts, go for ‘em here.
Since Hi Lo opened for lunch, and their catering and delivery are booming, they had to simplify their menu to keep up with quality control. I’m hoping Ostler will be able to add back dishes like his crazy-good duck wings, and I never got a chance to try the pho ‘cue with brisket. (There’s only so much barbecue I can eat every month.)
There are some ‘cue-friendly cocktails from Scott Beattie and Michael Lazar—my personal fave is the lemongrass-loaded Patpong Buck ($10), and the spicy hot michelada ($7) packs a wallop. On one visit, a Paloma ($10) was watered down and unbalanced, but it was a one-off. Wine on tap, good beer on draught—they got that too.
The airy space by Abueg Morris Architects (Comal, Nopalito) is a looker—I particularly dig the charred cedar plank siding on the walls and exterior. The downstairs has white oak communal tables (which you can reserve) and a few smaller tables, while the mezzanine has more two- and four-top tables above.
People have complained about the order-at-the-counter service. Here’s my advice: leave your tab open in case you want another drink or side, and let the expediters on the floor help you out with what you need, from finding a table to getting more cheezy grits. And hey, don’t miss those St. Louis-cut spare ribs.