Pit-side dining with a helping of family pride at The Salt Lick
October 23, 2011
DRIFTWOOD, USA – As the holidays start to creep up once again, I couldn’t help but think about last Christmas when I spent the holidays visiting with my husband’s family in Austin, Texas. I won’t lie and pretend that I wasn’t really really excited for not only some tasty tex-mex (see “Breakfast, Austin-style” for my other entry on Austin eats), but also BBQ. Lucky for me, the Texas tradition of finger-lickin’ goodness involved a pilgrimage just outside the Austin city limits into the Hill Country town of Driftwood, the site of the much-celebrated Salt Lick restaurant.
Talk about family style…the restaurant’s roots run all the way back to the mid-1800s, when the current owner’s great-grandmother brought her flair for Mississippi barbecue to the wagon trail, searing and then slow-cooking meat over coals as she crossed the prairie to Driftwood. This same technique is used in Salt Lick’s in-house barbecue pits today, though over the years the family recipes were “Texafied” to include local spices like chili, cumin, and cayenne.
What began as a single pit with the owner sleeping on a cot next to it until all the meat was sold (literally!) is now a behemoth operation of two separate dining houses that in total seat 800 people. Each is filled with picnic tables and an indoor barbecue pit, and your mouth will water from the moment you set foot inside, as the delectable cuts of meat are laid out before you, doing their slow-cooking thing on the circular pit.
Yet with barbecue such a familiar sight in cowboy country, what makes The Salt Lick stand out? Plenty. They cook the meats–beef, pork, and chicken in all their parts–on live oak instead of mesquite, which burns cleaner and lends a lighter flavor. Their “secret” sauce is on the sweet side (this is Texas bbq, after all) but has a delicious spicy kick and doesn’t have that typical barbecue “burnt” aftertaste because they leave out tomatoes. Meats are top quality, and the brisket–a source of Texan pride–is especially moist. It’s no wonder that culinary shows like Man v. Food and The Best Thing I Ever Ate have picked up the smoky Salt Lick scent and sung the pit master’s praises.
While the main attraction is of course the meat, the sides–I mean “fixins”–are worthy of mention too. The coleslaw and potato salad are not mayo-based but instead come with a mild vinegar dressing for a lighter touch. The beans are delicious, and the peach cobbler is supposedly to die for, though tragically I failed to save room for it.
You can wash all of this down with some wine if you’ve got a hankering. It used to be a B.Y.O.B. situation, but the recently opened wine bar/cellar/vineyard has taken this once-casual outpost up a notch on the foodie scale. Locals tend to be skeptical about this “posher” side of Salt Lick (that old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” Texas attitude), and as wine pairings go, this does tend to be a bit of an odd one.
But the meat of the matter remains the same: the enduring values here are food and family. And the best way to combine those is to order the family platter–a feast of brisket, ribs, sausage, three sides, and soft white buns (similar to hot dog buns) for your sandwich-making pleasure served in all-you-can-eat fashion. So corral your nearest and dearest…it’s Texas, y’all!
Rachel Levin contributed to this post.