When we decided to make a trip to Austin , I was determined to have me some real Texas barbecue. The New Jersey – New York region is not known for great BBQ ; if there are any great BBQ joints hereabouts they are a well-kept secret. Some years ago I did have some scrumptious ribs at Pearsons BBQ in Long Island City, Queens but they were forced to move because neighbors objected to the smoke and smell, and their new location in Jackson Heights was just not the same. Most other places here feature meat so thickly coated with sweet gooey , tomatoey sauce that it completely masks any flavor the meat might have. Not a patch on what I tasted in Kansas City, MO, at Gates BBQ and at Arthur Bryant’s, back in the early eighties.
My first experience of Texas BBQ was a disappointment and it was entirely my fault. While in Austin , we had planned a day trip to San Antonio and I saw from the map that we would be passing through New Braunfels. I remembered the name from a Food Channel show and checked Frommer’s guide to locate a BBQ joint there. There were only a few listings and only one, The Smokehouse, seemed to be a BBQ joint . ( My mistake, and a big one ).” Why not stop there on the way back and have some BBQ ?” I suggested to my hosts. Unfortunately, they were too nice to dissuade me.
We did stop in New Braunfels on our return journey , at The Smokehouse . Immediately we entered I had strong misgivings because it looked more like a country store than a BBQ joint. Where were the plank tables ? Where was the BBQ pit ? Where were the waiters ? Where was the crowd of hungry regulars ? Instead, across the back of the store was an array of glass fronted cabinets where you could pick up smoked turkey, beef brisket, sausage and ham. Nearby were racks of jerky ( beef, turkey,pork and lamb ).To one side was a counter where you could place an order for BBQ ,then seat yourself to eat it. It felt more like a cafeteria than anything else but it was too late to go elsewhere.
It turned out that the establishment was named for the smoked meats that it specialises in , not for BBQ. And of course one can’t expect great BBQ in such a place.We had the mixed platters with brisket, ribs and sausage with sides of beans, coleslaw and french fries. The food wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t that good. The ribs were the best of the lot but still ordinary; the slices of brisket and the sausage were mediocre. My wife also had the pea soup which was thick and flavorful but it didn’t make up for the rest. What was even more galling was that , as friends told us later, there was a top-notch BBQ place ,called Coopers, in New Braunfels not far from where we were dining. If only I had done my homework….
A couple of days later, our friends took us out to a real BBQ place , The Salt Lick, in Driftwood about 20 miles away from Austin. I had a good feeling about it even as we turned into the huge parking lot which was almost half full even though it was a Monday afternoon.The Salt Lick itself was a sprawling one story building built low to the ground. As we entered, I immediately saw , just in back of the cash register , the barbecue pit with racks of ribs , strings of sausages and slabs of brisket slowly browning and giving off a most tantalizing aroma. In no time at all , we were seated at one of the picnic tables perusing the menu. Here too we opted for the sampler platter with brisket, sausage and ribs. The platters were served with sides of potatoes, beans , onions and pickles. We asked for coleslaw and jalapeño sauce , on the side please. All around us were families enjoying their food and, luckily for us whose stomachs had begun to growl, our meals were on the table directly.
Note to myself : next time , order just the ribs at a BBQ joint. Not that the brisket or sausage at the Salt Lick was bad ; they were actually very good. It’s that the ribs were s-o-0-0 outstanding . The meat was moist, it was succulent, it was juicy , it was soft yet firm … in short, it was perfect. I can’t tell you what the sauce components were because I was too busy wolfing down the meat. All I can tell you is the ribs had just a hint of thin, slightly vinegary sauce .They were perfect as they were and didn’t really need the jalapeño sauce we’d asked for on the side.
My wife has been cutting back on meat and is mostly vegetarian but she was the first to suggest that we might order some more ribs . That’s how good they were ! We did order another pound of ribs (they’re four to the pound) , only the ribs, and they too disappeared in a trice. All the sides were good , particularly the coleslaw and provided a nice counterpoint to the meat.
We didn’t really have room for dessert but we forced ourselves to try the blackberry cobbler and we ‘re glad we did. It came with a dollop of vanilla ice cream which went perfectly with the blackberries. We were glad we’d ordered it and only wished we’d had appetite enough to order the peach cobbler too.
The service at the Salt Lick is excellent, especially when you consider how busy they are . Our waiter was a very obliging, friendly young man and the other staff were similarly a pleasure to deal with. Incidentally, the Salt Lick was singled out for the excellence of the BBQ in the Food Channel show 101 Best Places to Chow Down. To check out the menu and the ambience click www.saltlickbbq.com .. The site also gives you some of the Salt Lick’s history and you’ll find it fascinating. There are other branches of The Salt Lick and if you are anywhere close to one of them I’d suggest you visit it pronto.
P.S Just before we left Austin , we stopped off at Rudy’s , another well-known Austin BBQ joint to sample the extra moist beef brisket. We’re glad we did because it was fabulous. Brisket is a rather tough cut of meat but here it had been cooked so well that the meat shredded as it was being sliced. It was completely different from slices of beef brisket that I had tasted elsewhere and I am amazed at how moist and buttery soft it was. The Salt Lick for pork ribs , Rudy’s for the brisket ! If only we could put the two of them together !!