Thursday, October 22, 2009

Surprising Septuagenarians in the South West (or "Eating Like An Asshole Week: Day 6 PART II")

I've visited my sister in Austin a total of three times now. Each time I've been, I've sworn I was going to visit the legendary Salt Lick and until this trip I had failed to do so.

Technically, I guess I've been to the Salt Lick before, but not the one in Austin, nor any other town in Texas. Instead, I have eaten twice at a now defunct Salt Lick spin-off restaurant that existed for a time in Tupelo, MS. The place had come recommended to me back when I lived in Tupelo, but it took me a while to actually go there. The Tupelo Salt Lick was located in a tobacconist shop in down town, but there was a kitchen in the back and a few tables scattered about, just right for a quick lunch. My wife, then girlfriend, went their and enjoyed brisket tacos that were amazing. While we dined, we read the table tents that detailed how the Salt Lick: Tupelo was a spin-off of the Salt Lick Austin and their meat was prepared with similar spices if not the same wood fired clay pit oven. This was all the brainchild of, I believe, but don't quote me, the daughter of the owner of the Austin Salt Lick, who'd relocated to Mississippi. By the time the wife and I tried to visit it again, a few months later, the kitchen part of the tobacconist shop had relocated to a tiny alley-based shop around the corner and were only serving cold meat sandwiches and no brisket. They said their cook had left.

Since then, I'd seen the Salt Lick Austin on a number of TV shows (including Man V. Food) and had heard tales of its greatness from people who'd been, but had not been able to get there myself. I was determined to change this, but I had doubters among our crew. It was pointed out that the Salt Lick was, like, a 40 minute drive outside of town and the wait to be seated once we arrived would likely be at least the same. Our other major option was Five Guys Burgers, which, while very appealing, was also a good drive away and through thick afternoon traffic. Our decision finally came down to the fact that traffic wasn't so bad in the direction of the Salt Lick and while we love Five Guys Burgers, we've already had that experience. Salt Lick was the way to go.

For all its reputation and popularity, the Salt Lick is actually a fairly simple operation. They only accept cash (ATM on premises), they don't serve alcohol (it's BYOB all the way, including the little jar of Grand Marnier my wife brought which she thought might not be welcome) and they have a fairly limited menu, but they don't have to be anything other than what they are because what they offer is something very few other restaurants on the planet can claim: the best barbeque ever. The Salt Lick is located on what looks like an old ranch, with a large dirt parking lot and a stone walk leading up to the door of what might have once been a barn. Inside there lies magic.

We knew we'd made the right restaurant choice before we'd even walked in the door, because what was cooking over that clay pit could be smelled from far out in the mud & gravel parking lot. Inside was an expanse of wood plank floor covered with bench-lined tables full of very happy people. However, I'm afraid the decor and people were mostly lost upon me as I was immediately distracted by the immense barbeque pit right at the front of the place, which was covered in the most amazing looking array of meats I've ever seen. Spread out atop the grill were chunks of brisket, sausages and ribs and ribs and ribs. It nearly brought a tear to my eye.

I have little memory of the immediate minutes surrounding that, except that we were soon taken to a table where our waiter brought us menus and a tub of ice for the remaining Blue Moons that I'd BYOBed. When he learned we'd never been there before, he just grinned knowingly, like a parent taking his kid to Disney World, looking on with knowing pride as they walk into the Magic Kingdom for the first time.

Now, Salt Lick's menu contains has some economically-priced offerings, such as the barbeque sampler plate for around $11. However, we had been advised in advance to ignore all options except for that of Family Dining. For $18 each, the Salt Lick brings to your table all the meats (as listed above), all the side dishes (potato salad, slaw, beans) and bread and they keep bringing them as long as you can keep eating them. And with all of the above in plentiful supply there, we very quickly had a table full of bounty spread before us, into which the six of us hungrily dug.

"Bring you some more meat?" our waiter asked a couple of minutes later.

"Meat... more..." we said, well-cleaned bones jutting from our collective maw. "Potato salad... more," we added. Seconds later both appeared. On the edge of the meat plate, I spied a charred corner of brisket and grabbed it. This was from one of the outer pieces of brisket, seared to what I hoped was perfection. I saw Adam on Man V. Food eat just such a piece on that show and he had to be excused for a personal moment afterward. Popping it into my mouth, I knew exactly how he felt. It was like a religious experience, so savory, so wonderful, so meaty. It was everything I had expected, but so much more.

And the ribs... OH, THE RIBS!! Despite my triple use of the word some paragraphs ago, I'm not particularly a rib man in day to day life. I love the taste of them, sure, but I cannot usually abide the mess that comes with eating them. For these, however, exception was necessity--nay, mandatory! Just sweet and succulent and falling right off the bone fantastic. The sausages too were a worthy thing. We gorged ourselves until we could feel our intellects sliding downward into stupidity.

"Bring you some more meat?" our waiter asked again, grinning his knowing grin.

Our plates brimming, the meat plate loaded with only a couple of sausages, we knew we weren't going to be able to fit much more, but we nodded, mouths full. Magically, another plate piled high with meat appeared.

When we could hold no more, we still had a goodly stack of meat before us. The waiter returned.

"Anyone have room for dessert?" he asked.

We did not, but somehow our mouths still said, "Yes." I ordered pecan pie a la mode, as did the wife. My sister ordered cobbler. While we waited for it to arrive, we ate a little more barbeque. Then it was there, and we were scarfing down pecan pie the way pecan pie was meant to be. Enormous, thick of crust and with no skimping on the pecans. I ate every bite. The wife saved half of hers. The waiter already knew where we were going next and brought us to-go boxes in which we packed up all of the remaining barbeque and sides. We then rolled ourselves toward the door, paid our bill and were gone.

As you can see from their website, there are other Salt Lick locations, including one at the Austin Airport. My sister has been advised, however, that the original Driftwood location is the one to visit, though I'm sure the others are fine. If you're ever in Austin, though, you NEED to get you some Salt Lick.


No comments: