Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Defense of the Salt Lick: Sides Matter

It's here! It's here! This afternoon, Texas Monthly will release the rankings of its very controversial and much-anticipated Barbecue Issue. It has already posted, without rankings, its list of the top 50 barbecue joints in the state. There aren't many surprises: Franklin Barbecue in Austin is on the list, as is Cooper's in Llano, Cousin's in Fort Worth, and Kreuz Market and Black's in Lockhart (Smitty's missed out).

One omission that disappoints me, but doesn't surprise me, is the Salt Lick in Driftwood.

The Salt Lick is one of the most popular restaurants in the state, but its reputation among barbecue snobs goes up and down from year-to-year. I understand why: somehow, for reasons I can't comprehend (since they've got some of the biggest, best tended pits in the world), their brisket is wildly inconsistent. I've had brisket there as good as anything I've had at Cooper's or Black's; I've also had brisket that was just ok. That's how it was on my last visit--I remember looking down at my plate at one point and thinking, This meat's nothing special.

That said, I also remember that visit as one of many in an unbroken line of magical barbecue meals that I've had at the Salt Lick, dating back a decade and a half to my undergrad days. How to reconcile that magic with the (sometimes) underwhelming meat? The answer will appall purists, but here it is: it's not all about the brisket.

Or to put it another way, sides matter.

(NOTE: in Texas barbecue, everything but the brisket is a side--bread, slaw, potato salad, yes, but also ribs and sausage and sauce... I'm even counting dessert as a side here)

Texas Monthly writes that their final score "considers intangibles like setting, service, and history, but mainly it is based on the meat. The brisket score counts the most." They say they take sides into account. But obviously sides don't count enough. Or, more likely, they haven't developed a scale that fully registers the total superiority of the Salt Lick's sides. This makes sense, to an extent. After all, sides don't matter at most barbecue restaurants. At most barbecue restaurants, you get a bag of white bread and a bargain-sized jar of jalapeños on your table. At most barbecue restaurants, the beans and potato salad are warmed-over afterthoughts, not much better than what you'd get in the prepared-food section of your local HEB.

But the Salt Lick gives you fresh baked bread, and they pickle their own jalapeños and cucumbers. Their potato salad and slaw are unorthodox but great (the latter is dressed in sesame oil, giving it a nice, nutty flavor). Their spicy sauce is my favorite barbecue sauce by far, their ribs are and sausage are excellent, and their blackberry cobbler is one of the state's dearest treasures.*

Let me try to put this into a crude numeric form, using a scale of 1-10: if the meat at Black's or Cooper's is consistently at 9 or above, then the meat at the Salt Lick averages around a 7--sometimes it's a 5, sometimes it's a 9. On the other hand, all of the Salt Lick's sides are 9s, while the sides at most barbecue restaurants hover around 3 or 4 (or lower).

The result is that the Salt Lick is an eating experience unlike any other barbecue restaurant. When I go to one of the state's big barbecue names, I look forward to it like I look forward to a meal at any world-renowned restaurant. But I look forward to the Salt Lick like I look forward to Thanksgiving dinner**. It's a more complete experience--different, but certainly not inferior. So the Salt Lick deserves mention on any list of the best barbecue joints in the state. And any scoring system that leaves it off is a busted instrument.

*My one complaint with their cobbler is that they don't serve it with Bluebell Ice Cream.

**An especially appropriate comparison, since the Salt Lick, like Thanksgiving dinner, makes me feel like I'm done eating for the week.


  1. It's not served with bluebell? Could have sworn it was. Either way the ice cream is delish with the warm gooey blackberry cobbler.

  2. No, it is not. Blue Bell vanilla would take it to the next level.