The Salt Lick is living testament to the notion that Texas is just too big to be defined by a single style of barbecue. Plenty of people attempt to apply the same standards of measurement as those that dominate the imaginations of members of the cult of Texas barbecue (and I could certainly be accused of being a member of said cult). It just doesn't work though. The barbecue that comes out of The Salt Lick is a different animal, but its place in the legacy of Texas barbecue is solid. The thousands of people, Texans and tourists alike, who visit the characteristic restaurant and surrounding grounds every week and leave happy and satisfied are proof of that.
The huge numbers that patronize this sprawling barbecue joint can swell on weekends and fair weather days. The waits can be almost as long as the famous line at Austin's Franklin Barbecue, but they are more likely to be under an hour. Regardless, the difference is that instead of standing uncomfortably in an asphalt parking lot for hours (or sitting on a canvas folding chair if you were smart enough to bring one), vast patio seating beneath gigantic twisted oaks is more than ample. Depending on the time and day of the week, a band may be on hand for entertainment. At the far end of the complex, there's a playground for those who brought their kids along. Guests can wander around, play Bocce Ball or check out the rows of grapes used in making wine for Salt Lick Cellars. Yep, you read that right. There's a vineyard on site complete with a tasting room (The Salt Lick doesn't sell alcohol in the restaurant, but you can bring a cooler or buy wine or beer from the tasting room). So if you're not inclined to just sit and relax in the shade, there are plenty of distractions to occupy your time. The wait at The Salt Lick is part of it, and honestly, if you just went straight to a table upon arrival you'd miss out on what is actually a very pleasant and relaxing experience.
Some hard-core barbecue aficionados might scoff at the idea that atmosphere and environment even matter at all—that it's only about the meat—but as a hard-core barbecue aficionado, I'm here to tell you that those other people are wrong. Or maybe it's that their tunnel vision is so strong that they just can't relax and enjoy a good sit, which ironically is sort of the opposite attitude of what barbecue should be about. This is a cuisine that occupies a dominant position in any Texas event, whether it's a small family get-together, a wedding, a fair, a company "picnic," whatever. More than likely barbecue will be involved. It's about people coming together, milling around, not rushing. It's communal.
The Salt Lick takes that to heart, sealing the deal with their big, wooden picnic tables and family-style servings. It's possible to order by the plate, but if you've got more than two people in your party it's worth it to order the all-you-an-eat, family-style meals. Some of all the essentials come in large bowls and platters—the Texas trinity of meat: brisket, pork spare ribs, and sausage and the Texas trinity of sides: beans, potato salad, and slaw—all with the requisite white bread, sliced onion, and pickles.
There's a myth in Texas that sauce is not a part of our barbecue history. It is. Very few places in the state do not offer sauce at all, vast numbers of them will automatically put it on top of the meat, and most Texans expect it to not only be there (either on the side or on the meat), they want it and use it. It is, like it or not, a part of our tradition, and it's this area where Salt Lick departs most noticeably from the style of barbecue that tends to dominate the rest of the Austin and the broader Central Texas area (and which more and more influences the barbecue in the rest of the state as well). Whereas many Central Texas barbecue restaurants make use of only a dry rub—plus the flavor imparted by the smoking process—The Salt Lick does not shy away from sauce. In many ways their sauce is what makes them shine. Meats are basted and glazed, arriving at the table with a slightly sticky, slightly sweet coating. Sprinkled at strategic points along the long tables are bottles of their original and spicy sauces, and people make liberal use of them. It is no more right or wrong than the dry-rubbed meats that have become so hugely definitive in Texas. Indeed, even one of the top pit masters in the state, John Lewis of Austin's la Barbecue—who turns out some of the most succulent, dry-rubbed brisket out there—confessed to me that he loves The Salt Lick's sauce when I interviewed him last Fall. Anyone wanting to get a taste of what Texas barbecue really is should keep in mind that there are variations upon a theme, and The Salt Lick is a legitimate and important part of that story.
So pick a nice day (that's not hard to do here), round up some friends, pack a cooler, set aside a few hours, and make the short but lovely drive out to Driftwood. Try a sampling of as many of the a-little-bit-sweet and a little-bit-smokey meats as possible. Dig into their signature vinegar slaw, ranch-style beans, and smashed potato salad. Embrace their vinegary, emulsified sauces. Put smoke rings, sausage casing snappiness, and rib meat consistency out of your mind. Just eat, enjoy the company, and relax, and then you'll be doing it right.
18300 FM 1826, Driftwood, TX 78619
Good for: kids, groups, events
Additional info: BYOB (beer & wine available in the tasting room), cash only (ATM available), long waits on weekends and fair weather days
GET THE COOKBOOK...
The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family, and Love
Scott Roberts shares recipes from the famed barbecue joint, but beyond that he shares stories of his family's history in Driftwood, Texas and of the history of barbecue itself. With so much dialogue these days about barbecue, what is is, what it isn't, and what it means, this is another valuable perspective from someone with a deep connection to those ideas.