Friday, January 28, 2011

One More Try

Was it just coincidence? Two nights ago, Duff Goldman (“Ace of Cakes” on the Food Network) was arguing that the brisket at The Salt Lick (right) in Driftwood, TX, was the best barbecue he had ever had. The next night, there is Adam Richman (“Man v. Food” and “Carnivore Chronicles” on the Travel Channel) rhapso-dizing over this same brisket.

Since we are only thirty miles south (and a little east) of Drift-wood, a trip was in order. And what a trip. Up I-35. West on RR 150. North on FM 1826.* Drive through a gate with “Salt Lick” in large wrought iron letters. Completely miss the “Private Property/No Trespas-sing” sign. Find out that this is not the place.

Drive further down the road and over the creek.

There it is. Finally.

A sprawling complex with limestone buildings, rustic wood fences, and an outdoor special event picnic area.

We entered through the wooden double doors and were immediately met by a young man who handed us real printed menus and told us we could sit wherever we liked. As I am walking toward the back of the indoor dining room (there is also a side enclosed porch), I suddenly realize that I am walking alone. My Favorite Traveling Companion had been sidetracked by the huge open pit full of ribs, briskets, and sausages.

There he was, with the encouragement and guidance of management, photographing the pit from the position favored by the magazines. I hope this doesn’t go to his head.

We found a seat at one of the large wooden picnic tables from which the paint or varnish had been worn eons ago and were immediately greeted by our server Hallie. (More on Hallie later.) “Was this our first time at the Salt Lick?” she asked. When we replied in the affirmative, she stopped to explain the menu.

They are known for their Family Style special—heaping helpings of beef, sausage, and pork ribs, served with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, pickles, and onions. Maybe in our youth we could have tackled this much food. Not today. You can order barbecue plates with up to three choices of meat (beef, turkey, pork ribs, sausage) with potato salad, cole slaw, and beans and bread, pickles, and onions on request. Or you can have a sandwich (sliced beef, chopped beef, sausage, or turkey) either by itself or with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, pickles, and onions. And the brisket comes as lean, moist, or burnt.

To maximize our sampling, we decided to order two plates—one with moist brisket and sausage (photo below) and the other with burnt brisket and turkey. A prize to the person who guesses who ordered the burnt brisket.

Let’s start with the sides. The cole slaw was shredded, crisp, and tossed with a very light oil-based dressing. If I were to come back and order one of the sandwiches, I would make sure to put some of the slaw on the sandwich. (As an aside, a woman seated at the table next to ours ordered the turkey sandwich, and it must have contained an inch-and-a-half of thin sliced smoked turkey. I don’t think she finished it all.)

The potato salad was served warm—not hot—and included whole potato cubes and mashed potatoes. This had a slight taste of vinegar that I later learned comes from seasoning the salad with some of their house barbecue sauce. It was described as their version of German potato salad.

The beans were good. Not too soupy and had a slight hint of chile powder or cumin.

Did you guess that I ordered the burnt brisket? This was brisket nirvana. Smoky flavor. Moderate chew. And just enough almost melted fat to make it juicy. This may have been better than the place in Kansas City, MO, where I had the burnt ends all those years ago.

The turkey was also divine—thick slices of ultra-moist and tender breast meat that weren’t so over-smoked as to lose the natural turkey flavor—as was the coarse-grind smoked German sausage. I learned that the sausage, while not made in house, is their proprietary recipe and the sausage is made for them by an outside processor.

Now the brisket. It was tender. It was moist. It was good brisket. But it was brisket. As I said to Chuck, “No matter how good, it’s still my mother’s pot roast except it's smoked and not braised.” We have concluded that we are just not brisket eaters.

All of our meats came bathed—lightly—in the Salt Lick’s barbecue sauce, which was described at forkintheroad/2010/ as “…mustard based, and you'd have to go 1001 miles to the east, to Columbia, South Carolina, to find other examples of mustard-based sauces. What's more, Salt Lick slathers it on the 'cue just as the smoking is finishing up, and keeps brushing the sauce on in the holding pit, which makes for a thick concen-trated coating by the time the 'cue hits the table. Friends, in Central Texas that's barbecue blasphemy.”

But we weren’t finished yet. The dessert list is short—pecan pie, blackberry cobbler, and peach cobbler. Or the “Half and Half”—half servings of both cobblers. We shared the half and half with vanilla ice cream. This was served warm and the tart berries contrasted with the very sweet peaches.

Did you think we forgot Hallie? No. For a place that is so hard to find, The Salt Lick was extremely busy that noon, and Hallie was juggling multiple tables. But she was absolutely on top of the situation—even anticipating Chuck’s need for a refill on his root beer. So as we left, Chuck made a point of praising her to the manager on duty. Hallie was standing right there, and I am not sure when I last saw someone blush that vibrant shade of pink.

Well, this was an entirely different experience. We had menus. We had a server. We had plates. We had forks.

We had really good food. We had a 4.5 Addie lunch.

As we left the parking lot, we noticed a two-passenger helicopter and a two-passenger "Official Pace Corvette" from the 2007 Indianapolis 500. We have no idea who they belonged to, but we prefer to think of the travelers as real barbecue afficio-nados.

*–“in Texas, the terms "Farm to Market Road" (FM) or "Ranch to Market Road" (RR) indicate a road that is part of the state's system of secondary and connecting routes, built and maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). This system was established in 1949 as a project to provide access to rural areas. The system consists primarily of paved, two-lane roads.

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