Thursday, May 21, 2015

Good Eats: The Salt Lick, Driftwood, Texas

I’m not a BBQ snob. I don’t get embroiled in those discussions of whether Memphis BBQ is better than Kansas City BBQ, for example, or if Carolina BBQ is better than Texas BBQ. Whatever BBQ you like is the best BBQ. Most of us are influenced greatly by the BBQ we ate growing up. For me, that would be the sliced brisket from Sam’sOriginal Restaurant in Fairfield, Texas. (See "Good Eats: Sam's Original Restaurant and BBQ, Fairfield, Texas" from August 2012). That BBQ has more or less been the standard for me over the years. It is smoked over hardwoods, and just pulls apart on your plate. When served, it is covered in a sweet BBQ sauce. The potato salad, beans, and bread are among the best I’ve ever had.

But over the years, my tastes have altered, and today I prefer to use no sauce when possible. It’s kind of like a steak with me. When served a steak, I always sample a bite. To me, a properly seasoned and cooked steak needs no sauce. The same with BBQ. If the BBQ is truly good, it does not need sauce. And that is one of the many things I like about the central Texas meat markets. Most of them just serve meat, and some of them don’t even provide any type of sauce other than hot sauce. It's that rich smoky flavor that I crave these days.

I’ve heard about the Salt Lick outside of Austin near Driftwood for years. It has been featured on numerous food shows. Needless to say, it has a reputation. I knew that as a good Texan, I could not go to my grave without at least one visit to this legendary establishment. So during our stay at Blanco, we took the short drive through the winding narrow backroads of the Hill Country to Driftwood to see what the fuss was all about.

We were impressed with the scope of the place upon arrival. The parking lot is huge, and the restaurant itself sprawls through the oaks. We arrived a few minutes before 11, and only a few other people were ahead of us. We stood in line outside at a little booth. A young lady would then greet us, escort us in and seat us with our menus. It is a slow process, as the distance from the booth to our table was probably about 50 yards. The problem is not the distance, but the time it takes the young lady to escort a group in, then return for the next customers. But we figured the wait would be worth it.

We were disappointed.

We decided to try the senior combo plates (see the Driftwood menu). Donna ordered the sausage and ribs while I ordered the brisket and sausage. We could then share so that we could sample a variety of meats. These plates cost $9.95, a reasonable price for a reasonable BBQ dinner these days. We each were served a dish with about 6 slices of sausage. I had one thin strip of brisket, perhaps the thickness of a crepe, while Donna had 1 rib. So, that $9.95 wasn't looking like a good value now. The meat lacked any real flavor, and the brisket was a bit tough. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t have the flavor we’ve grown to love in smoked meats. And that is because the meat isn’t smoked. It is cooked over an open pit, so there is no smoking; note the picture on their web site.

The sides were a bit unusual as well. The potato salad was basically potatoes cut into squares and boiled, then mixed with some brown liquid that coated them and provided a bit of flavor. I saw no bits of things one normally puts in potato salad, such as pickles or onions. Donna said that some of her potatoes were not done enough. The slaw also was merely shredded cabbage coated in some sort of slightly seasoned mix, but it, too, had little flavor. The beans were  fine, and the bread was great.

So, is the food at the Salt Lick bad? No, not at all. I cleaned my plate. But it is not what Donna and I look for in BBQ these days. We prefer places such as Smitty’s Market in Lockhart or City Market in Luling. I suspect that a lot of folks simply eat at the Salt Lick because of its legendary status. But if you look over the web site, you'll see all sorts of testimonials from various organizations, publications, and others, so a lot of people like this place.

And one final thing. Should you go to the Salt Lick, be sure to take cash.

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