Salt Lick Barbecue

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When I decided to head to Austin for a little vacation, my hostess, Jane, asked what I wanted to eat. “Barbecue?” I responded back, questioningly. Isn’t that what one eats when one comes to Texas? And although the bulk of my trip has been experiencing the joys of the Trailer Food culture, I was granted my day of ‘cue. Salt Lick to be exact. Now you can’t throw a dead cat in this town and NOT hit a barbecue joint, but the Salt Lick is something special. For starters, it is quite a drive outside town. Practically in the middle of no where. Driving as far as we did, I was beginning to wonder where the heck we were going.

Then we pulled into this dusty dirt lot. Cars were driving through and kicking up more dust. There were hundreds of cars. To the right of the parking lot was outdoor seating with a live musician and to the right of the lot was the restaurant. We had arrived. We were there mid-afternoon so it didn’t take long to get a table and walking past the grill, I could see HUNDREDS of pounds of meat being cooked. The smoke wafting through the air predicted an epic meal. A stack of 1950s green Melamine plates were placed in front of us while we perused the menu. I let my hosts order — apparently the only thing to order — that which is known as Family Style; endless helpings of beef brisket, sausage , and pork ribs, served with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, and pickles and onions.

My hosts brought their own wine, two fabulous bottles of rosé, a South African Mulderbosch and a truly spectacular Charles and Charles Columbia Valley Rosé. It seems that all of the alcohol in the Salt Lick is BYOB. The rosé was a great choice. Everything was served family style. Of the side dishes, the cole slaw was my favorite, undoubtedly because of the heat of the day and the coolness of the cut slaw and the fact that it was a bit more vinegar-based than the mayonnaise-based slaws. The potato salad was adequate and I at least appreciate that it was German-style and, again, not mayonnaise-based. The baked beans were almost lack-luster (but having access to the Rancho Gordo beans, it is not a surprise that any other bean would not impress). There was a hint of smoke to the beans, but I felt they lacked a strong sweet-and-sour component which usually complements good barbecue. And I did not bother tasting the bread, but I could see that it was ample and soft which I know is appreciated by many who put together self-made brisket sandwiches. I did appreciate the fact that there was an endless supply of pickles – again, in the heat of the day, having some bright astringency to juxtapose against the heaviness of the food was welcome.

But this was all about the meat. Our first platter of meat included eight or ten 1″ chunks of sausage, six pork ribs, and another dozen or so slices of brisket. The brisket was surprisingly lean and dry. My hosts knew better and as our first platter of meat emptied, they asked our waiter for “fatty brisket” next time. Moist and tender, a fork was barely needed to cut this into bites; it was very easy to shred before eating. There are much-enjoyed burnt bits alongside the tender centers and the sauce that is served is the same in which the meat is grilled has a rich tanginess and is the perfect complement to the caramelized meat bits. But for me, this was all about the ribs. I could not get enough of the flawless morsels that actually did fall off the bone. That ubiquitous phrase, “fall off the bone” tender was probably scribed after experiencing these ribs. Finishing a second — or was it third? — plate of ribs, there was still a bit of fatty brisket left and I couldn’t stop myself. One of the hunks left on the communal plate still had the crunchy, burnt exterior with tender, frayed bits of interior protein.

We finished up with a cobbler sampler; peach on one side and blueberry on the other, all topped with an ample scoop of vanilla ice cream. Very good, but not nearly as memorable as the meat. I found the fruit compote on the cobbler to be a bit too sickly goopy and sweet as though the freshness of the peaches was hidden by fake cornstarch. I also appreciate a bit more firm crust and I found the cake to be too soft with not enough crispy bits. But overall, those things which make the Salt Lick famous are what thrilled me; the smoke in the air, the packed benches of families all crammed together for want of giant platters of meat, the “experience.” This is not a fancy-schmancy, sit-down restaurant. It is loud and busy and a place that must serve upwards of thousands of pounds of meat a day. You have to appreciate that fact. There is some outdoor seating with live music where another hundred or two-hundred people gather for familial experiences with great food and company.

So greatly appreciative to my hosts – the Kings and their son, Andrew, for letting me share their Father’s Day at such a quintessentially American experience. It felt like going to church where one worships the almighty roast animal; performing mass with the smoke in the air akin to the incense of church and the high priest, the chefs who administer the host to the brethren. I am saved and reborn in the brotherhood of barbecue. Amen.
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