BBQ Texas: The Salt Lick

An ongoing series of reports from beyond Austin’s BBQ City Limits.
The Salt Lick
In Driftwood at 18300 FM 1826. 512-858-4959,
Hours: 11am-10pm daily
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.04.13
We don’t always get to choose what defines us. And like it or not, the Salt Lick defines Austin barbecue to much of the world. That world might be my cousin from Greenville who heard it was the best in the country. Or the “Top Chef” audiences who watched TV cooks heatstroke their way through a Salt Lick summer campout. Or the Guardian newspaper in London that wanted to shoot the Salt Lick for the Austin City Guide it launched last year.
Nevermind that it’s 25 miles away in Driftwood. Nevermind that in a land where smoke reigns supreme, it treads the saucy side of the thin red line. And nevermind that it’s not the best barbecue in Austin, nor even within a 50-mile radius. The Salt Lick has become Austin’s barbecue ambassador, an envoy like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, but maybe not Dennis Rodman. And here’s what our ambassador says about us.
It says that we overtrim our lean brisket, leaving it to dry out even in the short trip from the cutting board to the table. It says that sitting at the barbecue table is no place to worry about fat, because the fatty brisket is the prize here, with a sealing layer of glazed peppered crust and an insulating layer of half-rendered fat that not only carries the smoke but keeps the meat beneath it rich and pliant. The burnt end is a caramelized prize, a flash of what the brisket could be if it held onto its crusty resolve.
Our ambassador also says eat all you want for $19.95. Brisket, pork ribs and sausage with coleslaw, beans and potato salad. Kids 11 and under eat for $6.95. Or have a two-meat plate with two sides for $13.95. They have turkey, chicken and beef ribs, too. The ambassador also advises that it’s cash-only and BYOB, but we’ll get to that.
With a glaze that runs the gamut from sweet to ... sweeter, the pork ribs are fatty and tender, chopped into tips and flat ribs of such variety in length you could build a xylophone from them. I’ll let my cousin from Greenville speak to their texture: “If you want to judge a rib, the rule is hold it up and bite to the bone, then pull away. And if it tries to pull away but stays on the bone a little right where you bit, that’s the perfect rib right there.”
A beef rib is $9.95 all by itself, cut so there’s meat on both sides of the bone. It’s long and flat, a mere echo of the short-rib warclubs of Lockhart or Taylor or John Mueller’s operation in Austin, and $10 seems like a lot to pay for something that's half bone and connective membrane. Getting the meat from that bone is hard-pulling, greasy, gamey business.
Because the Salt Lick is in the winemaking business with its vineyards next door, you can buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack at the tasting room, but the Salt Lick is still a BYOB place, a veritable campground of rollaway coolers and softsiders spilling a wild array of home remedies, from Bud Light longnecks to Jester King bombers to party-size jugs of Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. The waitress opened my beer for me, pausing a beat to let me know it was a twist-off without pulling my man card on the spot. She was country-diner friendly even in that livestock-barn environment.
The Salt Lick has grown well beyond its original limestone lodge house with the fireplace at the far end. There’s a children’s playground on one side and an entire second feeding pavilion on the other, separated by an adult playground, where the ice-chested throngs tailgate like they’re at the barbecue Super Bowl, sprawled across picnic tables and sitting on low stone walls. A concessionaire sells hand-pressed lemonade, and little bags of popcorn dot the procession like fireflies. It feels like the midway at a county fair, fed by acres of dusty parking so thick they bring in sheriff’s deputies to keep an eye on things.
More accurately, the atmosphere carries the echo of a livestock auction, except you’re bidding on racks of ribs, whole briskets and chandeliers of sausage smoking over the open pits you’ll walk past on your way to the table. The staff will let you walk right up to the fire to shoot pictures, knowing you’ll carry on its diplomatic mission the Austin way, across the Internet.
On the side: Take a big baked potato and cleave it into building blocks of disparate size, saving some to mash up for mortar. Throw in mustard for golden color and background twang, pitch in soft-cooked onions and you have the Salt Lick’s potato salad, served warm like family dinner. The coleslaw is lacy and loose, tossed rather than soaked with sweet vinaigrette and sprinkled with sesame seeds like an Asian slaw. It’s the right acidic counterpart to the barbecue. The beans, meanwhile, embrace the barbecue like a brother, incorporating loose shreds of it for a campfire experience.
Dessert: A proper blackberry cobbler has a job to do. It needs to leave a deep purple stain on everything it touches. It needs to be warm and thick with crust like the top layer of a biscuit. It needs to be half-sweet, half-tart. It needs to take you beyond ridiculously full to sublimely stuffed. And the seeds need to lodge in your teeth all the way home. This is a proper blackberry cobbler. ($4.95)
Sauce: The Salt Lick takes heat from Texas barbecue purists for its saucy two-step. First, with a liberal mop sauce on the pit, then the table sauce that seems to get on everything: the piles of family-style brisket, the pork ribs, the tabletops and eventually every child in your party (including you). It’s a swampy yellow color, a mustard-and-vinegar potion as sweet and thick as syrup, good with pork but the bane of brisket.
(TOP: Clockwise from top left: Fatty brisket, lean brisket, mustard-vinegar barbecue sauce, pork rib tips, coleslaw, potato salad, blackberry cobbler, beef rib, sausage and pork ribs, center. INSET: Clockwise from left: One of the Salt Lick’s show pits that customers file past on the way to their tables; the business has grown way beyond the bounds of its original building in Driftwood; cords of oak firewood waiting for the pits; a beef rib. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
For a tour of barbecue in Austin,
see Fed Man Walking’s