The Salt Lick BBQ: Overcoming Mother’s Day Mob for ‘Cue

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Barbecue Texas

The Salt Lick holds a special place in my family's oak-smoked hearts.

The Salt Lick BBQ has become a Lurie family tradition. My father first ate at the now-legendary Hill Country barbecue establishment while attending grad school at UT in the late ’60s. My father, brother and I now convene in Austin each spring to eat obscene amounts of barbecue, always concluding our long weekends at The Salt Lick. Not only for nostalgia’s sake, but because The Lick features some of the best barbecue in the state. Meaning it’s some of the best ‘cue anywhere.

The Salt Lick entrance resides along FM 1826. FM stands to Farm-to-Market, clearly a bygone term now that the farmland between Austin and Driftwood is being developed at such a rapid clip.

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In honor of Mother’s Day, The Salt Lick was overflowing with customers.

Easily 100 people waited outside the next-door pavilion, listening to a guitarist sing songs from local artists like John Prine. Unfortunately, my dad and brother had a 4:10 flight to catch, it was 12:40, and our ETA on getting a table was an hour to an hour-and-a-half. There was a pretty good chance they’d miss their flight. We were given two options: takeout or chance it. We stuck it out. Thankfully, after over a half-hour, the teenage girl who controlled the list took pity on us and allowed us into the Banquet Room, usually reserved for special occasion bookings.

The stone banquet room was strung with white Christmas lights and fit several rows of lengthy picnic tables.

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The Pavilion housed minimal decoration. A wagon wheel and Lone Star were two exceptions.

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Considering how many times we’ve eaten at The Salt Lick, we didn’t need a menu. Family style ($15.95 per person) included unlimited portions of sliced sausage links, pork ribs and beef brisket.

The Salt Lick’s meats came slathered in sauce. Ribs were especially succulent, with bronzed skins and tender meat that was infused with sauce and smoke. Brisket was juicy, with a nice quarter-inch smoke ring and caramelized crust. The links could have featured crisper casings, but they were still juicy and had good flavor. As part of the meal, we also received white bread, a plate of pickles and onions, and bowls of pinto beans, German potato salad and cole slaw.

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The most eagerly anticipated part of the meal for my family is always burnt ends. Sadly, I saw pit men trimming and discarding these prized caramelized brisket crusts, which form when the slathered sauce absorbs oak smoke. It’s incredible that other customers wouldn’t place the same value in burnt ends.

Barbecue Sauce Texas

After 40 years in business, The Salt Lick doesn’t hold many surprises anymore, but I was happy to see one new entry: habanero barbecue sauce.

The Salt Lick’s classic burnt-orange barbecue sauce features a tantalizing mix of sweet and spicy that builds with each bite to a delicious zenith. The habanero version added one more complex note. It’s like a singer who goes from a sixth octave to a seven-octave range.

I’m sure they were fine, but I didn’t bother with plates of sesame-studded white bread or pickles & onions. I preferred to preserve stomach space for stellar meats.

Pie Texas

I spotted several freshly baked pecan pies sitting on the counter in the main dining room, removing any doubt about what I’d eat for dessert. The pie was excellent, topped with candied pecans, with a syrupy filling and satisfying crust.

Cobbler Texas

My father ordered peach cobbler, which was a little too pasty, and could have used more peaches. This was our meal’s only down note. Even warm, the cobbler couldn’t find redemption.

On the drive to the airport, on a hill next to The Salt Lick, my father noticed “Thurman’s Mansion.” Turns out it’s literally the house that barbecue built, named for Thurman Roberts, who founded the restaurant in 1967 with his wife, Hisako. Based on Amber Novak’s article in the Austin American-Statesman, sounds like it won’t be long before Hisako is able to build another mansion. The Salt Lick empire already encompasses Bergstrom International Airport and Salt Lick 360, a restaurant with an expanded menu along Highway 360. There’s now a branch of The Salt Lick up and running at Red Rock Casino in Summerlin, Nevada, ten minutes west of the Las Vegas Strip. According to Ms. Novak, Station Casino Inc. plans to open two other Vegas branches in 2007, in their Santa Fe Station Hotel & Casino and at Sunset Station Hotel & Casino. The expansion effort is being led by Thurman’s son Scott Roberts, who also plans to open a Salt Lick in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie and a branch just north of Austin in Round Rock, next to Dell Diamond, a minor league baseball park. Roberts also plans to open Salt Licks in Houston and San Antonio. The quality level at the original location has survived Mr. Roberts’ early expansion efforts. Hopefully when we return in 2008, the attention to detail is still where it needs to be.

Since Mother’s Day revelers were spilling out of The Salt Lick, the experience and food may have been a shade less satisfying than last year, but The Salt Lick at 90% was still better than most barbecue restaurants at 100%. Next year, if we time our visit better, I’m sure we’ll get that 10% back.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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