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Review | Hill East Burger puts its own smoky twist on a Texas trend


Beef, smoke and time. These are the foundations of Texas barbecue, as sacred as Big Tex on the state fair. But when you grind that beef and turn it into a patty, the foundations start to crack and expose their structural weaknesses. A whole brisket, trimmed to a pit master’s specifications, can be made for a long, slow, slow stay in a wood smoker. But a ground beef patty? Not so much. A burger cooked entirely in an offset eats more like a chew toy for a hyperactive Jack Russell.

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The environment in a stick roaster is essentially inhospitable to ground beef, which probably explains why smoked burgers have only become fashionable in Texas in recent years—and only because pitmasters actually use their offsets to precook the patties. The burgers you’ll find at the Lone Star State barbecue joints usually require a two-step process: a short smoke bath in the pit, followed by a trip to a hot griddle, where the patty is broken up and cooked in its own fat. It’s barbecue and smash burger.

The LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue pit team in Austin more or less follows a similar process, and these were the patties that most impressed Chris Svetlik on his smoked burger tours of Texas. “Just very, very perfectly done across the board,” says Svetlik, who grew up in Spring, a suburb north of Houston.

Svetlik is a partner in Hill East Burger, a cozy and semi-kitschy outpost along Pennsylvania Avenue SE that specializes in the kind of smoked burgers that have become a fix in his home state. Svetlik had already established his Tex-Mex bonafide with Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle, but decided to venture closer and closer to Texas barbecue territory with his latest project. He found the right partner in Joe Neuman, co-founder of Sloppy Mama’s, one of the region’s most trusted smoked meat sources.

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If pitmasters in Texas have trouble smoking ground beef in pits, they should try it in a small storefront with no room for proper compensation, like Waylon and Merle, the pair of 1,000-gallon barrel smokers that sit in the parking lot at Sloppy Mamas in Arlington. When Neuman first developed techniques for the burgers, he used Waylon and Merle, but he understood that Hill East Burger had to find an alternative to the giant smokers. Enter the ungainly, decidedly unromantic Alto-Shaam, a single-compartment unit that takes the form of an R2-D2 droid equipped with a firebox that burns wood chips.

The Alto-Shaam solved the space problem, but left another problem unsolved: The par-smoked patties were still too soft for Neuman’s taste. This is when Ben Alt, the third partner in Hill East and a man better known for his skills with bitters and a cocktail shaker, suggested cold smoking the meat. So in addition to throwing hickory chips into the Alto-Shaam’s firebox, the crew slides a tub of ice into the box to keep the temperature around 3o to 35 degrees.

If you’re not charitable, you could call it a shortcut, or maybe even a cheat, to Texas’ still-open smoked burger traditions. I call it brilliant improvisation. The cold smoking technique keeps the unseasoned ground beef, formed into three-ounce balls, in their raw state even after a 30-minute stay in the smoker. This allows the chefs at Hill East to press and grill the beef balls just like any other line jockey at your favorite burger joint.

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The technique also understands a fundamental truth about smoking meat: to give the taste of wood smoke, you don’t have to cook the piece completely in an offset. But the traditions—not to mention the romance—of Texas barbecue run deep, which is probably why pitmasters first tried smoking burgers entirely in their pits, resulting in those melted rubber beef balls. She had to adjust their approach if they wanted a burger that was, well, edible. Neuman, Svetlik and Alt just took customization to another level.

One bite of Hill East’s “OK” burger will reaffirm the owners’ confidence in their cold smoking process. Check that out. Simply moving your nose over the burger will validate the technique. Invisible curls of hickory smoke tickle your nostrils even before you take that first bite. The smoke even stands up to the toppings, which include yellow American cheese (dubbed “the People’s Cheese,” a form of truth in advertising), fried onions, pickles, and a mayo-mustard-barbecue combo called HEB Sauce.

The patty here is a mix of dry-aged, grass-fed beef from Roseda Farm and trimmings from the prime brisket served at Sloppy Mama’s. The combination makes for a bespoke blend that’s already a mouthful of meaty goodness, but Neuman also aims for a 30 to 35 percent fat to lean ratio, which might give the average nutritionist chills but means your burger is dripping with flavor . The menu recommends double stack and in this case I think doubling makes sense, more for your gastronomic pleasure than your heart. The double stack intensifies the smoke, Hill East’s selling point. I wish the chefs would stop futzing with the smash burgers on the griddle. All that fat should make for a patty covered in brown, crispy bits. More often than not, the patties are nearly sterile from fat barnacles.

The menu, ambitions are tied to the size of the kitchen, meets the requirements you expect. The burgers are limited to just a handful of options, although you can occasionally add a daily special to the menu. The “OK” burger is the preparation least loaded with toppings, meaning it’s the best showcase for the smoked beef. But my favorite is the Puebla, a double stack topped with Neuman’s pepper sauce in which poblanos and red onions are tossed in tallow, smoked and combined with cider vinegar and honey. If this sounds like too much of a good thing, you might be looking at the wrong restaurant. (By the way, Hill East also serves an excellent and unconventional veggie burger, the crunchy edge of which is partly due to the grits mixed into the patty.)

Despite its name and mission, Hill East Burger does justice to chicken. The kitchen relies on thigh meat put through a tenderizer to mimic the texture of chicken breast; the tender thighs are marinated in buttermilk, pickle juice, and hot sauce, dredged in flour, dipped in buttermilk again, and dredged a second time before being fried. The resulting bird is a marvel of textures, the crispness on the outside giving way to chicken so tender it eats like pâté, or maybe even mousse. The nuggets are not put through a tenderizer, but they are paired with sauces of your choice, any of which would be the star in any other restaurant. The “beefonnaise” sounds like a lab experiment gone wrong, but the intoxicating mix of tallow, mayonnaise, and candied garlic became my all-purpose dunking sauce, good for nugs, curly fries, or just directly on my index finger.

Hill East Burger — the initials are a clever homage to Texas’ beloved HEB, which apparently didn’t stop the grocery chain’s lawyers from sending a strongly worded letter to its owners — may have three partners. But the interior design is purely Svetlik. DIY Wagon Wheel Chandeliers. Armadillo taxidermy. Tableware caddies made of wood and dried cholla cactus. Even an antique jukebox brimming with country classics from a bygone era. Press L3 and listen as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard exchange verses on Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” while you tuck into a smoked burger with poblano sauce. It could be as close to Texas as possible in Washington.

1432 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, 202-744-3339; hilleastburger. com.

Opening hours: Monday to Friday from 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM; Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 pm to 11:00 pm.

Nearest metro station: Potomac Ave., with a short walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $1 to $20.50 for all items on the menu.

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