Places to Eat

The Salt Lick: Cooking Up Family History with a Side of Barbecue

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After hearing Salt Lick Barbecue owner Scott Roberts’ story, as we did in January, you could imagine his father Thurman saying, “Put a fork in it. We’re done!” And I’m not talking about the meat.

Thurman was readying himself to build the pit in the mid-1960s that would eventually hiss, crackle, and smoke its way to fame, delighting thousands of barbecue pilgrims every year. He wanted to make sure he could comfortably reach the round pit’s center from any angle. So, he made one mark on the ground with his boot heel and another mark reaching forward with his barbeque fork. He then enlisted Scott to help build his dream.

The Salt Lick: Cooking Up Family History with a Side of Barbecue

Photo: John Spaulding

After they collected enough rock, sand, and gravel on the property, they laid a concrete slab, and built a small structure with a temporary wooden wall to enclose the pit. That small space originally sat 12 hungry Texans but included no electricity or running water. As the eatery grew, Thurman wanted Scott not to change certain things about the restaurant. While mostly honoring his father’s wishes throughout the years, Scott broke only two of them—he added telephones and air conditioning. His customers continue to be grateful for the latter.

Those humble smokehouse origins began over 50 years ago, when the drive from Austin to little Driftwood was nearly three hours, now a half-hour drive away. “My father was an optimist,” Scott says. “He would move that wooden wall and expand the seating every time the wait got to be as long as an hour. He said, ‘If anybody were to honor me by coming all this way, I don’t want them to wait much longer, and I’m not going to run out of food.’” He was true to his word.

The Salt Lick: Cooking Up Family History with a Side of Barbecue

Photo: John Spaulding. Original interior of Salt Lick building. (Photo taken before coronavirus guidelines enacted)

In addition to building the pit and small restaurant, Thurman started with three meats—brisket, pork, and sausage. You can still enjoy those today, but in addition to uniquely flavored dishes of potato salad and sesame seed coleslaw, they offer turkey, chicken, and now bison ribs. The latter has been quite a hit with diners, due to savory flavor and the extra meat on the bone.

Scott’s connection to the area goes back much further than his dad. We can thank his great-grandparents, James and Bettie Roberts, who originally settled the property in 1867. Driftwood was an unincorporated 4.5 mile stretch of Onion Creek, where a series of switchbacks created a catch for firewood to be gathered by the locals, hence the name. Though most of the Hill Country is limestone with a few inches of topsoil, the Onion Creek switchbacks created 18 feet of alluvial soil, a planting heaven for cotton farmers like the Roberts couple and their nine children. The family flourished and lived in a homestead not far from the current property. Scott said that his Texas roots go even deeper, with some of his relatives counted among the original “Old Three Hundred,” a group of settlers and their families led by Stephen F. Austin, arriving around 1830.

What makes The Salt Lick unique? Many would say that it all boils down to the sauce. Generations have tweaked the recipe, resulting in 37 different ingredients. Scott’s mother, Hisako, was the last to complete the process, adding more Asian flavors such as ginger. Scott’s ancestors needed a way to keep ingredients from spoiling, due to lack of refrigeration. Vinegar was also used to preserve the freshness of the meal, and the mustard-based flavor was taken from their old Southeastern roots. The meat is basted with the sauce over that open pit and caramelizes, holding in the juices. Scott proudly says that it’s still made that way, and no plans are in the works to further modify this special recipe.

The Salt Lick: Cooking Up Family History with a Side of Barbecue

Photo: John Spaulding. Salt Lick Cellars offers a variety of wines made from grapes grown on property.

So what has changed lately? The original location has expanded to accommodate additional indoor and outdoor seating areas, vineyards, and a separate building named Salt Lick Cellars, showcasing their wines made from grapes grown on property. Those vineyards currently comprise 52 of the property’s 200 acres, planted with grapes such as syrah, grenache, tempranillo, and mourvedre. (Their mourvedre is our favorite.) They also created a blend of three of those grapes which won a recent Double Gold medal at the San Francisco wine competition.

The history of the Roberts family, like the land itself, is a large portion of what makes the Salt Lick unique among the many terrific barbecue establishments in Texas. And the barbeque, combined with the inviting atmosphere, is what has kept us coming back to the original location for nearly thirty years. While they have temporarily closed the dine-in portion of the restaurant due to the nationwide coronavirus outbreak, you can still order for curbside pickup as well as delivery (within a 15-mile radius), and they still ship their meats, sauces and dry rubs within the lower 48 states.

Enjoy tasting history! Check out the menu on their website at www.saltlickbbq.com.