The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que

18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619

Phone: 512-858-4959
Hours: Open 7 days 11-€“10
Website: www.saltlickbbq.com/
Twitter: @SaltLickBBQ
Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheSaltLickBBQ

TMBBQ Rating: 3.25

More Reviews

January 16, 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…

Review

December 6, 2011

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.

(This review originally appeared on Full Custom Gospel BBQ.)

Comments

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10710008025522679863 strategym

    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

    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!

  • http://www.worldswithoutend.com/ whargoul

    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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12702085992741914402 Jason

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

  • Anonymous

    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

    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…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13823666726747359204 BBQ Snob

    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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15170598522798191992 Dustin

    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

    Anon,

    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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00846820317664384644 Jacob

    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?

  • http://www.saltlickbbq.com/ Scott

    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

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08841490283131875648 PM Summer

    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!

  • Rod Reichardt

    Nice review. I didn’t even know they had beef ribs as I haven’t looked at the menu in years. I have added that to my list. As far as the gas fired smokers go I can’t say that I care how the meat is smoked. I do care about results and I have no complaints that. To me the Salt Lick is all about the sauce. We never have less than two or three bottles at home now that we can get it at HEB. We live only a couple of miles from the Round Rock location (next to the Dell Diamond) and have always assumed that the meat they serve wasn’t cooked there. They don’t have the ambiance of the Driftwood location but the wait is shorter and they take credit cards. I would take a bottle of their sauce to other BBQ joints if I could do it without offending. The second best thing (after the sauce) is ordering “family style”. They keep bringing food until you can’t eat anymore. We feed the whole family of four for $100 and always take home a “to-go” box of meat for later. I don’t know of any other BBQ restaurants that do it that way. If I had to compare their meat to other places meat without the sauce, I might feel differently. But since they put the sauce on all the meat before it’s served there is no chance of that happening. Yes the sides could be better. I don’t go to the Salt Lick for the sides. Or the wine.