Monday, October 2, 2023

When life gives you seconds: Dustin Martin's Hill City Chop House a hit

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TOLAR — Clues to what Dustin Martin was meant to do with his life were all around him but it took a while for all the ingredients to come together like the meat he seasons to perfection and smokes for hours at his Hill City Chop House.

In the months since the restaurant opened last October on the town’s main strip, Martin’s meats and side dishes have become so popular that the city purchased tables for the city-owned breezeway next door to help with any customer spill-over. Mayor Matt Hutsell even bought radio spots to advertise the new business, according to Martin.

Local teachers phone in lunch orders. The church crowd descends after Sunday services. About 60 members of the Corvette Club roared into town specifically to get some Hill City, and now the Cadillac Club wants to come find out what all the fuss is about.

When top sellers are running low, such as banana pudding or white cheddar macaroni and cheese, made with a touch of brisket rub and mild Hatch chili peppers, Martin posts alerts on social media. The food is made fresh daily and there’s only so much of it, so if you snooze, you lose.

Smokers behind the restaurant, by a parking lot that Hill City shares with the Department of Motor Vehicles office, is where much of the magic happens. Hill City’s meat selections include brisket, pork ribs, smoked turkey breast, smoked bologna, original Waygu sausage, and Akaushi Wagyu jalapeno cheese sausage.

Cranking up the smokers has Martin rising in the wee hours just like he used to do on some of the jobs he worked. This time it’s different, though. This time, he truly loves what he’s doing.

WINDING ROAD

Hill City Chop House is named for Hill City Highway in Tolar, where Martin learned to drive, even though he grew up in Granbury. He graduated from Granbury High School, Class of 2003. His first job, which he loved, was working the hot dog stand at The Home Depot.

As a young man, Martin was adventurous and perhaps a bit risky. He loved motorcycles and wakeboarding. His love of outdoor activities and his everybody’s-buddy personality led to him meeting a lot of people and making a lot of friends. Life was good, but it almost ended in his early 20s before it ever truly began.

A car accident on Holly Hills Cemetery Road left Martin with a broken back, broken ribs, two collapsed lungs, and minus his right kidney. He was in a coma for 14 days and flatlined a couple of times.

He managed to recover but about a year later, on Memorial Day 2007, he was in a serious wakeboarding accident on Lake Granbury. Martin slammed into the railroad bridge.

He was rushed to Lake Granbury Medical Center. A doctor there told him he was going to be taken to a Fort Worth hospital because “we don’t do amputations here.”

In Fort Worth, Martin was told that if he awoke from surgery and saw his leg up in the air that meant he still had a leg. If he awoke and did not see his leg in the air that meant it was gone. There was a 50% chance either way.

Martin beat the odds a second time. He awoke from surgery with his leg intact.

However, he faced another long hospital stay — about six weeks. He spent six months in a wheelchair and rolled across the stage at Texas State Technical College to claim his diploma. He studied mechanical engineering there.

After graduating, Martin was hired by a company in Weatherford but was among about 180 employees who were later laid off.

His career path after that involved buddies who wanted him on their professional team.

He worked for a year and a half as a parts runner for a roofing company in Scottsdale, Arizona, then accepted another job offer from a different friend who needed a heavy equipment operator for his environmental cleanup company in Williston, North Dakota.

“The weather is not fun up there,” Martin said. “It’s extremely cold all the time.”

For five-and-a-half years, Martin worked for that company, living in a “man camp” with a bunch of oilfield guys whose meals involved gas station food or nuking something in the microwave.

This was unacceptable for Martin, who had always been exposed to cooking and had a trailer with a smoker that he used to cater for friends. Martin’s brother was an executive chef and his late father, Andy, loved to grill and would cook a pot of beans every Sunday.

“I was like, no, no, no, no, no. We’re going to have meals at the house,” he said of those man-camp days in North Dakota, when he hauled wood on his trailer from Texas to use for his smoker. “That’s when I honed in on barbecue.”

Martin cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the 15-member crew, all while still doing his “real” job.

“I would send all the crews out to the jobs, have lunch ready by the time they got back from the job, and then fire up the smoker for dinner,” he said. “If there were too many spills or too many jobs, I would put the cooking on hold and we would go do the job and come back and finish (the cooking). But, like (with) a smoker, you can throw a bunch of logs on it. And this was before I really honed in on the art of it. This was me just throwing wood in and cooking it and people going, man, this is the best brisket I’ve ever had.”

Martin started entering oilfield cook-offs and rib competitions and did well in those contests, he said.

When things began to dry up where the work in North Dakota was concerned, yet another friend offered Martin a job. That job was in Southlake doing drywall for commercial construction. Eventually he realized that he didn’t enjoy the work. It wasn’t something he felt passionate about.

During this time, he still had his trailer and still cooked for friends, including a buddy who sponsored dirt bike races.

“My job for construction went from Monday to Friday and then on Friday, whatever time I got off, I would fire up the smoker and then cook all Friday night and Saturday morning,” Martin said. “I mean, it was insane. I was making more on a Saturday than I was making a week at my job (that) I wasn’t happy at. So, I said, what am I doing here?”

Martin moved back to Granbury because, naturally, another friend offered him a job. After about eight months, Martin’s rent house burned.

That event, along with jobs that taught him what his passion wasn’t, convinced him that he did not want to continue along the path he was on.

And then one day, another friend rang him up.

‘MEET ME IN TOLAR’

John Newman is in real estate and is one of Martin’s best friends.

“He’s like a brother to me,” Martin said.

Newman had just purchased five buildings in Tolar, one of which was a “turn-key restaurant,” the former Razorz Edge Cafe at 8718 U.S. Highway 377. He phoned Martin and said, “Meet me in Tolar.”

Newman felt confident that Martin could operate a successful restaurant in that space but Martin wasn’t so sure.

“I told him I was nervous,” Martin, 38, said. “But then again, I’m like, you know, if I don’t do this now, when am I going to have another opportunity like this?”

He decided to go for it. On Oct. 6, after about 10 months of doing electrical, plumbing, and other work at the location, Hill City Chop House opened for business.

The restaurant seats 69, with room for another 30 on the patio. There is also the breezeway. There is parallel parking in front and across 377, which is two lanes in Tolar. During the DMV’s business hours, half of the parking lot behind both buildings is available for Hill City customers. On weekends, when the DMV is closed, Hill City has the whole parking lot.

The restaurant is open Thursdays from 4-9:30 p.m. or until they are sold out. On Fridays, hours are noon to 9:30 p.m. Hours for Saturday are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday, the restaurant is open from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In addition to smoked meats, the Hill City Chop House menu includes a variety of sandwiches (cheese Wagyu beef, jalapeno Wagyu beef sausage, smoked turkey, bologna, brisket, brisket grilled cheese and smash burger) and sides (borracho beans, potato salad, coleslaw, elotes (Mexican street corn), and brisket chili.

“Specialties” include loaded baked potatoes, chili dogs, brisket chili cheese hot dogs, brisket mac, and brisket chili cheese Frito pie.

There are Dublin sodas and dump cake.

If any food is left over at closing time, Martin takes it to the local firehouse for volunteer firefighters to enjoy. His generosity also extends to the Tolar Education Foundation. Hill City will be providing sides for the TEF’s “Taste of Tolar” fundraiser in April.

Martin said he is trying to make the chop house a fun place for his team, which includes fiancé Nicole Hollingsworth, Jack Allison, Mara Hall and two high school students, one from Tolar and one from Granbury. Martin and Hollingsworth often handle off-site catering gigs such as golf tournaments and other sporting events while employees handle things at the brick-and-mortar location.

“We’re just extremely excited to be here,” Martin said. “It’s fast paced, but it’s fun.”

Life, which almost slipped from Martin’s grasp twice, is the best it’s ever been. He has found his passion, both professionally and personally.  One gave birth to an exciting business venture, the other will soon give birth to their daughter.

Sitting at one of the wood tables in his restaurant, Martin smiles easily and often as he talks about his life.

“I don’t mind getting up at two or three in the morning to start a fire up here,” he said, referring to the smokers that are to him what a canvas is to a painter. “I used to be getting up at three in the morning to go sit in an office. This is my office now. It’s a lot of fun.”

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