Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Salt Lick

DRIFTWOOD: The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que
18001 FM 1826

Driftwood, TX 78619
Open Daily 11-10


Update: I've often thought that the Salt Lick is a joint that serves very respectable smoked meat, and is vastly overrated at the same time. The wait for a table on this sprawling campus of barbecue can exceed and hour, but no worries as you can enjoy drinks and live music al fresco on one of the many picnic tables provided. A visit here isn't just about barbecue. It's about atmosphere, catching up with friends, and taking the Salt Lick vibe while enjoying a few cold ones or some of the wine produced by Salt Lick Cellars from the on-site vineyard. Always good marketers the folks at Salt Lick found a way to make middle-of-the-road red and white wines (made from Zinfandel and Viognier grapes respectively) become their best sellers simply by calling them "BBQ Red" and "BBQ White". I fell for it, but I fell harder for the Sangiovese which was much more pleasing and drinkable on its own. With the Sangiovese as an option (all of these options can only be purchased on site at the Salt Lick) I don't see a reason to purchase the others if only for kicks based on the name.

The real reason for this trip was for the beef ribs which are now featured on the daily menu after being available on Sundays for years. The Salt Lick uses back ribs which are usually cut down to the bone unlike meatier short ribs, so I balked a bit at $17 for a two rib plate. When I took my first bite I was amazed at how much meat were on each bone. The tender meat was laced with well rendered fat. The ribs were nicely smoked with a good layer of flavor from the direct heat blast they received on the open pits on display out front. The meat is basted with their thin, sweet sauce while cooking so it helps to form a nice crust. The meat is also coated with the sauce just before serving - a practice that I'm usually not fond of, but it's different at Salt Lick. Of all the BBQ joints that I've eaten at, this is the most successful combination of meat and sauce that I've had. It's a thin oil based sauce that seeps into the hot meat almost becoming one with it. A mere afterthought topping, it is not.

Of the sides, the sesame flavored slaw was the only notably good one. Pintos were simple and underseasoned and the potato salad was just chunks of underdone potatoes bound together by a some mashed potatoes and bit of vinegar. When the bill came I had to run out to the ATM after being reminded of their cash-only policy. After a $2.50 surcharge, I had enough cash for the the check and a shirt. It amazes me that a joint won't take credit cards...oh wait, they do the next door over in the beer and wine shop. Maybe they're just making too much from diners who have to pay that ATM surcharge.

After the meal I wanted to investigate a claim made by Scott Roberts, owner of the Salt Lick, in an interview with Texas Monthly a little over a month ago. When asked about whether or not they use gas-fired cookers to smoke, he said "We had some smokers that we put in that were gas-fired, but we don’t really do those anymore because they have a drier heat than the wood does." I find it hard to believe that the small pits on display could really cook all the meat required to feed 2000 people on a Saturday.

These pits are certainly beautiful and provide a great spectacle at the entrances. Sauce is mopped onto mounds of meat while the fat drips and sizzles on the fire below. The resulting live oak smoke creates a fragrant dining area and whets the appetite, but what's back in those huge kitchens not open for public view?

I hung back at the stacks of live oak waiting for someone to come grab a few sticks. Before long an amicable pit man came out and I asked about the pits in the kitchen. Without a hint of shame he said there were six gas-fired (presumably Southern Pride or Ole Hickory) smokers where they smoke the meat overnight. The meat is then refrigerated and basically reheated for about three hours on the direct heat pits on display. I'm not saying this man should be ashamed of how the meat is smoked, but it's obvious the owner was trying to hide it in that recent interview. If you've already got 2000 customers waiting in line for your food on a Saturday, why be deceiving about how the meat is smoked?

I'm not ashamed to say that I enjoyed this meal just like I have others here in the past. These ribs might not be the best thing I ever ate, but they were the best beef back ribs I've eaten anywhere. I just wish they could be honest about how their meat is prepared. Not withstanding their mailed-in performance at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival the following day (it was some of the poorest meat there) their rating remains the same.

Rating ****

2009: The Salt Lick is renowned throughout Texas, and holds a special place in the heart of BBQ fanatics. Many recent reviews have decried the demise of this mecca of Texas BBQ claiming that it's all about atmosphere, and not enough about what's in the pits. The setting alone may be worth the drive if you come with a group of friends. The large group of picnic tables and BYOB policy make for a tailgate party atmosphere, which is the best way to survive the long waits that are sometimes over an hour. Once inside, the seating is nearly all on communal picnic tables, and the dining is also communal. While the menu holds several a la carte options, most folks opt for the family style at a steep $19/person, but if you come hungry you can make it worth your while.

When ordering family style, a large plate full of pork ribs, sliced brisket and sausage came to our table for everyone to fight over. Our first plate was covered in the Salt Lick's unique sauce which is a mustard and vinegar based sauce with a sugary sweetness. The sauce married well with the meat fresh from the pit. The brisket had little crust, and the ribs tatsed of little more than the sauce. We requested a sauce free second plate with crusty pieces of brisket. This is where the Salt Lick shines. The brisket had a crust like no other with deep flavor and abundant sugar cookies. The meat was smoky, tender and moist with great flavor even without the sauce. Even as a purist, I'll have to admit that the flavor of all their meat is elevated by the sauce. Unfortunatley, it was the ribs that almost needed the sauce. The tenderness of the ribs was excellent, but the crust was lacking depth of flavor, and the smokiness was fleeting. The overall flavor was good, and the meat moist, but it didn't stand out like the crusty brisket. The sausage was also good with a fine grind, mild balck pepper flavor and a good snap to the casing. The news got even better when the third plate arrived and was as good as the second. When the final plate came out, we were to full to indulge any further, but the waitress was happy to box it up for us. Who else does that for family style?

To the detractors out there, give it another try after you get your nose out of the air. To all of the others, bring some friends, some beer and a wad of cash (no credit cards here) and enjoy an evening in the Texas Hill Country.

The Salt Lick Bar B-Q on Urbanspoon


Columbaire said...

I really miss being able to get tempura and kimchi with my ribs.

At least Mrs. Roberts still has her parking spot.

The Salt Lick is a 5 star tradition, but I'm not sure its barbecue rates 4 stars.

The Le Family said...

Our family favorite! Every time we're in Austin, we pack up the cooler and head to Driftwood for the family style and fabulous peach cobbler. To us, this is BBQ PERFECTION. Love that carmelized bark on the brisket. May it never change!

whargoul said...

We thought the food there was really good but for us the Turkey the real surprise. So tender, juicy and flavorful. I'd absolutely get it again (and this is coming from a guy that doesn't care for Turkey in general).

Was it worth the wait? Probably. But we probably wouldn't wait more than an hour next time.

The worst part for us was the band they had playing in the picnic table area. It was almost like Andy Dick singing "Light My Fire" by The Doors...just not right.

Jason said...

I don't think I could handle eating in a place where the owner was caught lying about what happens in the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

I agree with so many of your ratings but when it comes to Salt Lick we deviate sharply. Some of the worst BBQ I have ever had; so tough and so little flavor.

Anonymous said...

I'm still a little skeptical of "breaking the case" on this one...

So this one random blogger is the only one EVER to see behind the Great Oz's curtain at The Salt Lick?

No health inspector, no former employee, no "slightly" more reputable food critic, NO ONE else has seen the kitchen of one of the most famous BBQ establishments in all of Texas?

A more thorough reporter/journalist/blogger would give the owner of the restaurant a chance to respond to the allegations before they were posted.

I know it's "just the internet," but there's still a responsibility for the truth - especially when there's only one side presented (without a shred of tangible evidence).

I'm not saying who's right and who's wrong, but it seems a little fishy to me...

BBQ Snob said...

Hello Anonymous (aren't they always?). Being such an obscure subject, I doubt there's much interest from journalists or most food critics about the exact type of smoker being used at any Texas BBQ joint. Admittedly, there are few people that it matters to, but the owner knew that the folks who would read his interview are part of that small crowd that does care. The Health Department would also have no reason to care as long as the equipment is clean and functions properly. The idea that they cook all of their meat only on those small pits out front is simply impossible given the demand. I didn't pull back any curtain, I just asked a guy who runs those pits in the kitchen what they use. He didn't hesitate in his answer that they were gas-fired stainless steel cookers, and he had no reason to mislead me.

Dustin said...

It wouldn't take a journalist or investigator to crack the mystery of hundreds of pounds of meat not being smoked for 20 hours on a small, indoor, open pit. It's logistically impossible.

PatronSaint said...


Check the contents of this very website if you don't think the author has credibility in the bbq world. He's done more reviews, been to more places, spent more time and money, and been written up (and been ripped off) by more other journalists in their own reports on bbq, than anyone else I know of in the bbq world.

He's got a good bit of credibility here. Your anonymous conspiracy theory does not.

Jacob said...

I think you nailed the part about the atmosphere being a big sell for Salt Lick, sadly I think that is the only thing going for it. The Oasis on Lake Travis also has amazing atmosphere, but like Salt Lick the food doesn't measure up. I wish I could have tried either of these places 20 years ago when apparently they not only were the best around, but some of the best restaurants in Texas. Sadly they are both now over rated and sorry excuses for food.

Living in Austin and being a BBQ lover, I too often get in arguments over the merits of places like Salt Lick, and to a minor extent Rudys (which for the record, as a chain I think is fine... but don't call it the best BBQ). The only argument I ever hear is that the crowd speaks for itself. But hopefully pop music and Twilight movies and books have taught us that popularity does not always equal perfection.

With Franklins, JMueller, and Donns in city limits no one needs to drive 30 minutes. Even Vic's does a better job with the same gas smokers within Austin.

Now I'm hungry and thinking about good smoked fresh brisket. Anyone want to save a spot for me at Franklins Wednesday?

Scott said...

Hi BBQSnob, Scott from Salt Lick BBQ here!

First off, thank you VERY much for the well-written and positive review of our BBQ. We appreciate fans like you very much, and love hearing feedback from our guests, as this is how we are able to continuously improve our establishment.

I’d like the opportunity to comment on the smokers. Yes – we do have both Southern Pride and Old Hickory smokers in our kitchen. However, please note that these are NOT electric and run on gas. We use the gas as a secondary heat source, it's the wood that actually cooks the meat. I misspoke in the Texas Monthly article, but what I was trying to say was we no longer use electric-fired smokers, as it severely dries out the meat, and was trying to let people know if they are doing it at home they are better off just using wood.

We also are proud to admit that we do refrigerate our meat for 24 hours, which is a technique my father began playing with right before his passing. I’ve perfected his technique, and I truly believe this process makes our BBQ more flavorful and full of juices. The cold sets the smoke and spices. We finish the cooking process on the open pit that our customer's see; when we put the meat on the open pit the meat isn't done yet. This process caramelizes the sauce and makes juices ooze out of the meat and basting sauce runs off the surface falling on the coals, flaring and creating a unique smoke that rises back up and give our meats their last flavor profile.

I have been teaching this technique for years at the Central Market class, but try to be extra cautious when explaining this because if consumers are not careful, the refrigerated air will dry out the meat.

One last thing… We’re by no means ashamed, or trying to hide anything from our loyal patrons; we love giving tours and are always proud to show off our facility and processes! After reading your blog, we actually began thinking about opening up the back of our kitchen so it’s more visible, but that just isn’t possible right now since we’re adding another kitchen line for the Salt Lick Cellars. But by all means, keep up the feedback and the great ideas – we are always open to considering new things that we may have not thought of that our customers may want.

I hope this clears up any confusion, and I’d be happy to answer any remaining questions you may have. We’d also love to have you back out for a FULL tour… Just let me know in the email I sent earlier today.

- Scott

PM Summer said...

Scott, thanks for the clarifications. I hadn't been to the Salt Lick in over 30 years since my UT days, but revisited Driftwood just this year after moving to Hays County. I was pleasantly surprised by the both the food and the fun (just the screened in barn in my old days).

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

The Salt Lick is one of those places that becomes hard for people to judge.

Your typical foodie (read that "food snob") gets the most pleasure out of pointing out obscure places only they have the keen insight, adventurous spirit, and open mindedness to appreciate.

A place like the Salt Lick is known by everyone.

And nobody turns to food experts that point you to the obvious popular places.

Another class of diner really resents when their little hole-in-the-wall becomes popular and everyone and their dog is allowed to go to a place they used to have to themselves. I've seen people talk down a restaurant because of the kinds of cars that pulled up.

And there are those that believe good food can only be sold in small batches. To them, the successful scale of the Salt Lick means that it has become an industrial process and is not longer the small artisanal concern they favor.

I haven't yet made it to all of the famed Texas BBQ's yet, but I've had some good meals at several of them.


I have had not only some of the best BBQ of my life at the Salt Lick, I've had some of the best MEAT.

I admit to not having been there in a year or so, but I intend to make the trip out to Driftwood next time I'm in that area, and I suggest you do to.

Ronald said...

Wow nice food, it looks amazing in my perspective, i never eat a food that looked like that, i wish i could be there sometime so i can taste it for myself :D


Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.