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The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que

January 11, 2012

Apparently, if you know you’re bar-b-que, you’ve heard of The Salt Lick before.  Duff Goldman, The Food Network’s Ace of Cakes listed The Salt Lick as the Best BBQ plate he’s ever had on the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”.  When you walk into The Salt Lick’s Driftwood location, there’s a picture of Bobby Flay, who also thinks that The Salt Lick’s bar-b-que is one of the best he’s ever tasted.  When I mentioned The Salt Lick once at work, 2 people sitting nearby where I was discussing this with someone else came out of their offices to talk about how good The Salt Lick is.

I, too, love The Salt Lick.  It has to be, by far and away, the best bar-b-que that I’ve ever eaten.  My husband would agree with this statement, and he’s not even a big bar-b-que fan.  He and I have even joked about flying to Austin just so we could go to The Salt Lick.  Wait, was that a joke?  Maybe we were actually being serious.

About 18 months ago, when we knew we’d be making a weekend trip to Austin for my cousin’s wedding, I started looking into other things we could do in and around the Austin area while we were in town to mak the most of our trip.  After having seen the episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” which featured The Salt Lick, I knew I had to at least look into the possibility of making a trip out to Driftwood, TX, where the original Salt Lick is located.  Sure enough, everything worked out where we’d be able to stop by there just before heading to the airport and flying home.

The story of how The Salt Lick came to be is one of a family’s generation’s old tradition of bbq that has turned into this well-known bar-b-que restaurant.  Back in 1867, Bettie Howard, the great-grandmother of Scott Roberts, the current owner of The Salt Lick, was a 14-year old orphan living in Mississippi, when she met a surveyor, James Howard, who happened to be passing through.  Bettie, who was struggling to survive, told James that though she couldn’t promise to fall in love with James, if he would marry her and take her back to Texas with him, she’d bear all his children and take care of them.  So, they got married and traveled by wagon from Mississippi to Driftwood, Texas, where they eventually settled.  Along the way during their journey, Bettie would bar-b-que meat for them to eat by searing the meat and then slow cook it over coals, the same way the family makes their famous bar-b-que today.  Once in Driftwood, Bettie had 9 Howard children.  One of them, Roxanna, eventually gave birth to Scott’s father, Thurman.  Years later, Thurman was called into service by the government and joined the navy.  While stationed in Kauai, he met Hisako, Scott’s mother, a native-born Hawaiian of Japanese descent, and married her.  In 1956, Thurman and Hisako moved their family and their 2 young sons back to Driftwood, where the family had spent generations.  After having to travel so much away from home for work, Thurman and Hisako one day created a list of 54 things they could do in order to keep the family together in Driftwood.  The idea for The Salt Lick was born that day and appeared as number 14 on the list.  As Thurman tried out one idea after another unsuccessfully, he finally came to number 14 on the list.  In 1967, he decided that he would put number 14 on the list into action, cook bar-b-que, which he was good at, for paying customers.  Thurman and his 2 sons built a bar-b-que pit and Thurman would bar-b-que there starting Thursday night to start cooking his bar-b-que.  He would sleep on a cot by the pit and watch over the meat.  He would stay there all weekend long until all the meat he had cooked was sold.  As time went on, he would come home earlier and earlier.  After a few months time, Thurman and his sons decided to build a screened-in porch around the bar-b-que pit, and so The Salt Lick was born.

Driftwood, Texas is located outside of Austin in the midst of rolling hillsides and not much of anything else.  When you take a journey out there, you almost wonder why you’re driving to the middle of nowhere just for some food.  But, believe me, when you get one taste of The Salt Lick’s bar-b-que, you’ll know that the trip to Driftwood was more than worth it!

The same bar-b-que pit that Thurman Roberts built years ago is still the centerpiece to this restaurant.  All their meats and sausages are grilled and smoked over this bar-b-que pit.  The Salt Lick believes that by using only the best cuts of meat available and cooking their meat low and slow over the pit, that is how they achieve perfection in the smoke flavor of their bar-b-que of the meat that just falls right off the bone.  The fire for their pit is created by using the densest oak around which helps the fire burn low and slow.  Atop the oak, The Salt lick throws on pecan shells which help create the smoke that gives the meat its flavor.  Once the meat has been dry rubbed, it’s thrown into the center of the pit to sear.  Once seared, the meat is moved to the outer edges of the pit to cook low and slow, and it’s kept moist for hours by constant bathing in The Salt Lick’s wet sauce, which consists of 32 individual spices.  The spices which have a heavy sugar and vinegar content allow the meat to caramelize, and as the fat renders off the meat and falls down into the pit and hits the pecan shells and the oak it creates the combination of smoke that makes the meats tender and full of flavor.  Also, I’ve read that because The Salt Lick’s bbq sauce does not contain tomatoes, as most places do, this allows their meat to remain moist and cook for hours on end, whereas in using a sauce that contains tomatoes it burns easily and therefore can’t smoke for as long.

Whatever The Salt Lick’s secret is, I’m buying it.  When I think of bar-b-que, I can’t help but think back to the bar-b-que I had at The Salt Lick that was so mouth-wateringly fantastic.  It was out-of-this-world good.  I had ordered a bbq platter with ribs, tri tip, brisket and sausage.  Mind you, I don’t even like sausage, but The Salt Lick’s sausage was so good and so full of smoke flavor that I couldn’t stop eating it.  The brisket was beyond fantastic, and the ribs really were fall-off-the-bone tender.  The food was so mind-blowingly good that after I was done with my meal, before we headed to the airport for our flight back to California, I had to go back and order a package of barbecued meat to go that I could bring home to eat.  I loved it that much!  I wasn’t about to leave Austin without taking some home.  Little did I know that this place was so popular that they actually have a little location at the airport!

The Salt Lick has built up a reputation of having the best bar-b-que around that people travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles just to try their delicious food.  They must serve hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day when it’s really busy.  It’s so busy that when you pull into the Driftwood locations parking lot, the first sight you’re greeted by is Texas Rangers directing traffic.  Imagine, if you will, you’re in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and you pull into what seems to be this unassuming road side dinner and you’re greeted by Texas Rangers with six shooters at their hip directing traffic for all the people who come each day to eat The Salt Lick.

I’ll never be able to go to Austin without dropping my Driftwood to get my bar-b-que fix.  It’s so bad that a few months back, when my boss was on his way to Austin for a business conference, I asked him to stop at The Salt Lick’s airport location to pick up a gift package of The Salt Lick’s bar-b-que sauces and rubs for me to help tide me over until I can get out to The Salt Lick again myself!

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