The Finger-Lickin’ Life and Times of The Salt Lick

Few things are more beloved to Texans than barbecue. The Salt Lick in Driftwood inspires barbecue aficionados from all over the world to make a pilgrimage to its hallowed live oak-fed limestone pit.

The place has quite a list of awards. In addition to awards from The Austin Chronicle that have named the Salt Lick “Best Barbecue” 11 years in a row, and 11 Austin Citysearch awards, plus two “Best of Weddings” awards from The Knot magazine, and the award for “Best Barbecue Sauce” from Rachel Ray, it also won a competition on The Today Show, coming out on top as “Barbecue Challenge Champion.”

In addition to its renown as one of the best barbecue restaurants in Texas, the Salt Lick also boasts an unusually charming story of origin dating back to 1867, just after the Civil War.

The Great-Grandma of Barbecue

Bettie, the great-grandmother of Scott Roberts, the Salt Lick’s current owner, was an orphan barely getting by in Desoto, Mississippi. Opportunity struck in 1867 when she met James Howard, a surveyor passing through the area on his way to Texas. With the promise of bearing him lots of young’uns, she convinced him to get married and take her with him. Along the way, Bettie cooked for her new husband by searing meat and then slow cooking it over coals, the method used to this day at The Salt Lick’s barbecue pit.

Growing Driftwood

The small family settled in Driftwood and quickly grew. Bettie, true to her word, bore nine Howard babies, increasing the tiny population of Driftwood considerably. Roxanna, one of her daughters, raised Thurman, Scott’s father. Though he was also raised in Driftwood, Thurman was drafted into the Navy. When he completed his service, he moved back to Driftwood with a wife and found a job with a construction company that meant a lot of time on the road.

What’s the Big Idea?

Weary of life on the road, Thurman sat down with the wife one day, and listed 54 ideas the family could try to keep them settled in Driftwood and bring him home from the road. They started by irrigating a field and selling produce to local grocers. They also tried their hand at making candies. They even raised pecan trees and ran a shelling business.

In 1967 Thurman, decided to explore item #14 on his list of 54 ideas. He would cook for paying customers. He recruited his sons to help him build a giant barbecue pit just off the farm-to-market road, using locally-mined limestone. On Thursday evenings, he would go out to the pit and begin cooking meat; there he would stay all weekend, sleeping on a cot. He wouldn’t go home until all the meat had been sold.

Sales were good and grew at a brisk pace. With the addition of a screened porch, The Salt Lick was born, a hundred years after his family first arrived in Driftwood. With the original pit still in use, The Salt Lick grew up around it. Now, the facility seats 800 people, and an average Saturday sees about 2,000 ravenous customers.

It’s All in the Technique

Sticking to the family’s century-old technique, Salt Lick sears the meat first, and then moves it away from the hottest part of the fire to cook slowly and absorb the delicious, smoky flavors emanating from the pit. Thurman began by cooking beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausages; later he added turkey and chicken.

The Salt Lick’s precise and careful approach to barbecue has consistently raised it above most or all of the competition. The smoke pit in particular is a unique feature, and you can see it as soon as you walk in the front doors, hung ’round with sausages and covered with meat, smoking mightily. The smell tantalizes for quite a distance.

While mesquite is the go-to wood for many barbecue joints in Texas, the Salt Lick uses live oak. Live oak is a dense oak common to the Hill Country area. The density creates a slow, even burn and very fine smoke particles, so the meat doesn’t get gritty the way it will with some other types of smoke. It also infuses the meat with a lighter and less bitter flavor.

A bucket of wet pecan shells wait by the fire for occasional flare-ups. These serve to keep the flames at bay, and also add another element to the smoke’s unique flavor. Sauce dripping down from the grill also vaporizes in the flames, adding to the savory deliciousness.

Getting Saucy

The Salt Lick’s sauce takes its cues from Southeastern barbecue, using sugar and vinegar instead of tomato sauce, which can burn and become bitter. The sauce is mopped on to the meat four times as it cooks, allowing the sugar to caramelize on the outside, helping the meat retain its juices.

In an average year, The Salt Lick cooks and serves more than 750,000 pounds of brisket, 350,000 pounds of pork ribs, and 200,000 pounds of sausage. The brisket takes the most time to prepare, cooking for 20-24 hours, while the pork ribs take only 2.5-3 hours. The sausages spend 3 hours soaking up their smoky flavor before another 45 minutes over direct heat.

An Aside About Sides

The most popular option on the menu is to order “Family Style.” Each person at your table pays about $20, an everyone can have as much beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw, beans, bread, pickles and onions as they’d like.

Though the barbecue is clearly the star of the show here, the Salt Lick’s homemade coleslaw, potato salad, and beans are quite tasty in their own right. And, if by some miracle, you manage to stop eating the delicious mains and sides before end of the meal, there are also desserts.

Homemade pecan pie, blackberry or peach cobbler, or the good ol’ stand-by ice cream, are there to fill up whatever space remains. Don’t let a full stomach discourage you, though. You can also take a full pie or cobbler home and continue the party there.

But Wait, There’s More

You don’t have to be a meat enthusiast to enjoy all The Salt Lick has to offer. Right next door is Salt Lick Cellars. In 2006, the owners planted 35 acres of different grapes including Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Granache. The first bottle of Tempranillo hit the taste buds of Texas wine enthusiasts in late 2008. In 2009, a tasting room was built, which showcases many Texas wines and handpicked beers from Texas breweries.

In 2013, The Salt Lick teamed up with Austin’s own beer-brewing bad boy Jester King to create Salt Lick Pecan Wood Smoked Saison. Using centuries old malting techniques, the grains were dried over wood fires, giving the beer a characteristic smokiness to add to the wild and tart flavors common of the brewery’s other beers.

There is no doubt that The Salt Lick has become a beloved fixture for barbecue lovers everywhere. It continues to grow even today, often being featured on foodie shows and topping barbecue “best of” lists all over the place.

They’ve even expanded operations outside of Driftwood, with locations in the Austin-Bergstrom airport and Round Rock. Word on the street has it that there are even licensing deals being made as far out as California.

But there will never be any place with all the charm and history that you find at the Driftwood location. Even if you don’t live nearby, it’s worth a trip. But when you go, remember they don’t accept anything but cash. There is a handy ATM near the front door, but checks and credit cards won’t do. They also don’t sell any liquor or beer in Driftwood, but they’ll happily sell you a gen-u-wine 20 oz. Big Red, a traditional Texas favorite. The dining room is built beneath the shade of huge oak trees, catching cool breezes even in the heat of summer, and is rich with sights and experiences you won’t find anywhere else in the world.