If there’s one thing Texans take seriously, it’s their barbecue. If you’re a fan of the style of cooking and you haven’t made the drive out to Driftwood, you’re missing a whole world of meaty goodness, all in our own backyard.
There are only a handful of restaurants in Central Texas that carry a history so flavorful and legendary as The Salt Lick in Driftwood. This tiny Texas town, just south of Dripping Springs and a few miles southeast of Austin, carries with it a huge legacy of smoky meats marinated in Hawaiian and Japanese influence.
Out of the plethora of barbecue restaurants in the Lone Star State, very few still stick to the strict tradition of the open fire pit. This old world technique of smoking meats over red hot coals and wood is usually tucked away in humble Texas towns such as Elgin, Lockhart and Taylor. It almost makes the meat more special in a way, besides the tenderness of their BBQ brisket or the smokiness of their beef ribs.
The distinct flavors that Driftwood is best known for can be traced back to husband and wife, Thurman Roberts Sr. and his wife, Hisako T. Roberts. It was Hisako that perfected the sweet sauce that you can use to wet your meats, using many common leftover foodstuffs found around her own kitchen. Her Depression-era mentality carried over into her cooking style; the teaching “Waste not, want not” was a driving force in her life.
The restaurant was a retirement dream of the couple, who migrated to Driftwood in 1956 with their two young sons. Thurman Sr. would frequently be called away to work on far away Texas bridges, but he wished to be able to spend more time together with his family, retire and stay in Driftwood as long as possible.
Upon his retirement, Thurman and Hisako sat down with a notepad and proceeded to jot down 54 things they could do to stay in Driftwood. Some business ideas included irrigating a field, making candles, raising pecan trees and running a shelling business. Opening a barbecue pit was number 14 on the list, and after many smaller business ventures the family decided to turn their attention to smoking meats and serving the community.
It was 1967 when the pit was slated to be built, and after already gaining a following from his cooking at family reunions, he was selling out his meats in no time. The plan was to get to the pit on Thursday to start smoking his variety of meats, and he would sell them all weekend at the spot until it sold out. Eventually, Thurman was selling out earlier and earlier, so the decision was made to build out a proper eatery, starting with the screen porch around the pit.
These days, you can still see remnants of this early building, in their smoky limestone bricks used to make the original dining room, and of course in the infamous pit itself — one of Texas’ most photographed BBQ pits.
The mansion, as it’s called, is nestled along scenic Onion Creek, and boasts views of trickling creeks, packs of deer and maybe even a resident peacock or two. In addition to the main restaurant is the banquet pavilion, which can be reserved for parties, weddings, you name it.
Since The Salt Lick is located in a dry precinct, you are welcome to bring your own drinks, but the restaurant asks that you try to keep it classy (think beer or wine). When I visited last there was a general store in the restaurant that also served beer and drinks, but the hours might be iffy so come prepared. If you have an afternoon to spare and don’t mind a post-meal nap in the lawn, this is one eatery every Austinite has to try at least once.
And you might notice the picturesque vineyards right out front — that would be Salt Lick Cellars — their newest business venture into the wine market. It seems appropriate for the area, given that we are in the Texas wine country. The cellar offers the finest in area wines, from reds to whites — you have your choice of some of the best selections of wine to savor with your meal or alone in their scenic flower-lined garden.
In the end, it’s all about the smoky meats at The Salt Lick. You can expect the classics — brisket, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, chicken, sliced and chopped beef on their menu. Or if you’re really in the mood for a meat feast, go ahead and get the all-you-can-eat Family Style meal for an unlimited sampling of their Texas barbecue favorites. It’s tempting if you’re really in the mood for some Texas barbecue that can’t be beat.
The Salt Lick (map)
18300 Farm to Market Road 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619