Located on North Conway's main drag where Routes 16 and 302 overlap, Hillbilly's Southern BBQ provides a convenient pit stop after a day of skiing or shopping. The spacious interior's wood paneled walls and fireplace are welcoming touches for couples and families, while the separate bar area with flat panel TVs is a much needed man refuge from the outlets.
Hillbilly's has two kinds of pork ribs (spares and babybacks), brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken, smoked turkey and wings (fried, not smoked). Pizzas can be had with pulled pork or BBQ chicken, but oddly, there's no listing for plain or with traditional meat/vegetable pizza toppings. Non-barbecue options include burgers, steaks, and a few typical pub appetizers (wings, nachos, mozzarella sticks, Buffalo shrimp). There's also a salad bar with two soups.
A barbecue competitor/judge joined me on a four-stop crawl that led off with an early weekday lunch visit to Hillbilly's.
Haystack: A half order of the "haystack"—onion rings intentionally stuck together in the frying process—was more than enough for two to share. These had a typical beer batter approach with a light but voluminous shell bronzed to a pretzel-like color. I liked the flavor of the batter, tolerated its thickness (high batter-to-onion ratio, but it worked) and disliked the lack of seasoning.
Chili: As I've said often and recently, chili as a side seems to be the rule rather than the exception in New Hampshire, so we took advantage of this to sample the Hillbilly's rendition as a makeshift appetizer. This one had mucho beans but poco flavor; if Franco American made a chili, this would be it. The meat component wasn't brisket or anything with smoke on it. Instead, crumbled ground beef hid among the proliferation of beans and stewed tomato skins.
We split a 2-meat combo and a 3-meat combo.
Brisket: Served unsauced by request (we made a blanket request that anything not already sauced be spared of saucing), the brisket was cold, rubbery, tough and fatty. Smoke was extremely light. Unfortunately, there was no other flavor to complement the smoke. The compound problems easily placed this serving in the bottom 20% of all briskets I've had at restaurants.
Chicken: Rubberiness thrust itself again into the chicken, but only on the skin, which was oversauced with my least favorite of the sauces that were also available at the table. Under the skin, the white meat had no smoke. A chalky texture limited my sampling to only two unpleasant bites.
Ribs: These were probably the highlight of the meal, at least relatively speaking. Similarly oversauced and slightly cold, the ribs compensated with plenty of meat (full spares with good thickness), a thick crust, low fat content, good moisture, an instantly noticeable smoky flavor (the smokiest of all the meats) and decent all around flavor. Texture was about average, possibly a little past done.
Pulled pork: This was the hardest meat to assess. A big pile of meat was lightly sauced and pulled into mostly long chunks that were rustic in their chewy, firmer-than-ideal texture. Bark and pink color were not too hard to find, but smoke was extremely light. I still believe the pork was smoked, even though it had a bit of that familiar oven feel. I bet many of the textural question marks arose more from the reheating than the smoking, so I'd be curious to try the pork again later at night or during a busier period.
Wings: Available for selection on the combos, the wings were fried (sans batter) and tossed in the sauce of choice. The result was pleasant enough, with mild sweetness, but if I didn't already know that we chose General Gao's, I'd never be able to guess it. The interior was moist, the exterior was slightly crisp and the stiff overall texture suggested that the wings needed to cook a little longer.
Four sauces are available in plastic squeeze bottles on the table. I would have liked to try these on the meats, because most of them were at least serviceable when tasted solo. Original was my least favorite, with a tomato base that was only slightly kicked up, just a little too ketchupy for my taste. Sweet was your typical dark brown commercial Kansas City style. Rum was similarly sweet but less commercial tasting, with some refreshing Caribbean style spiciness. My favorite was either that or the Tangy, a smooth, golden mustard concoction that may have been the Cattlemen's product I see being used in restaurants with greater frequency nowadays.
Cole slaw felt and tasted like it was from a mix that wasn't mixed: stiff, near-dry cabbage with minimal mayo and less than minimal flavor. Mac and cheese offered elbows treated "pasta style" with an application of cheese that was just enough to lubricate it but not really potent enough to give it any cheesy flavor. Beans were an interesting sweet and sour approach that reminded me of maraschino cherries.
The Bottom Line
Execution at Hillbilly's Southern BBQ was uneven to say the least, with more misses than hits. It's possible that the few minor hits could have greater frequency and impact on a future visits, but the joint's main calling card—manfood oasis in the midst of outlet hell—is trumped by superior food, drink and atmosphere at another barbecue joint up the road.
Urbanspoon reviews of Hillbilly's Southern BBQ