One Sunday afternoon we went out for barbecue, but we got a late start and missed Smitty’s in Lockhart, which closes at 3. So we thought we should fill a gap in our barbecue education and try one of the most renowned barbecue hotspots in the region and headed west to Driftwood and the famous salt lick. We’d been to their location on Highway 360 in Austin before, but had never tried the original. It was about time.
Driftwood is a small town 25 miles south of Austin in the ugly border of the Hill Country near Wimberly with its limitless supply of retirees and street fair vendors. It’s far enough from Austin to still have some country charm, but close enough for easy access from the Yuppie enclaves of West Austin.
The Salt Lick was nothing if not picturesque from first view on. The entire property was shaded by live oaks and pecans and surrounded by vineyards. The old rustic buildings were charming with a wishing well and lovely landscaping. Even the parking lot was scenic, with decorative vines covered fences surrounding the row after row of new Mercedes and BMWs and huge, expensive SUVs. Inside the restaurant, the main dining area and accompanying screened in overflow area had rustic charm too, with long tressel tables and a fantastic giant brazier for the meat to keep cooking on while waiting to be served.
Sadly the atmosphere was the high point of the overall experience. I knew something was different at the Salt Lick when I saw a parking lot full of expensive cars and a crowd waiting outside at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon. Then I was given a pager and told there would be a 40 minute wait. Suddenly I had the feeling that I was at The Olive Garden rather than the country barbecue joint I had thought I was visiting. Once we got inside things were different too. It’s one of very few barbecue places I’ve been to which had a hostess to seat guests and actual waitresses providing table service.
To their credit, once we’d waited and were finally seated, the service was very fast and efficient. It was a bit disconcerting to order from a menu rather than a list on the wall, but we adjusted and managed to order a bit of everything, which meant standard barbecue selections like brisket, pork ribs, chicken, turkey and sausage, all served on hard plastic three-section school/prison cafeteria plates. Sides consisted of just coleslaw, potato salad and beans. At a time when the best barbecue restaurants are diversifying and experimenting with interesting alternative meats and sides, it’s surprising to see such a trendy restaurant with such a limited menu.
We tried as many of the meats as we could manage, which meant giving the turkey a pass. Plates normally come with the meat covered with sauce, and their sauce was pretty good, but as always, we got it on the side so we could get assess the quality of the meat more thoroughly. The best thing we tried was the brisket. It was lean, tender and had a smokey flavor with a tasty sweet rub on the outside. It was surprisingly flavorful for such lean meat. The pork ribs weren’t bad, but as far as I could tell they were cooked on a grill, not smoked. They reminded me of the baby back ribs at Chilis. They were good, but the sweet sauce that covered them was a bit overpowering. They’d probably be appealing to people used to short ribs in the midwest or north. The chicken was tender but a bit dry and short on flavor. The sausage was the worst item. It was a dry, fine-ground and vinegary ring sausage, distressingly similar to the most mass produced grocery store ring sausage along the lines of what Eckrich produces, with maybe a bit of black pepper thrown in. Truly horrible. If you’re going to make your own sausage, it’s got to be better than the bottom of the line grocery store option. As far as sides and condiments, the plates came with pickles, onions and bread. The pickles were good, but the bread was a stale slab of Mrs. Baird’s rolls. Wonderbread would have been better.
On the whole the Salt Lick was below expectations. The barbecue was adequate, but not great. It was certainly not up to to what you would expect from their reputation and not in the same league as the best barbecue in the area. It might be appealing to yuppies from the north, but it falls short of the Central Texas standard. The site and the atmosphere can’t be faulted, but it’s the meat that makes the meal, not the setting.