We arrived at our next stop after a long day on the road. We had driven all day and only been in one state – so you know we were in Texas. Having never been to Texas before, I was sure of only one thing: There would be barbecue.
Now, I’m from the East Coast and that usually means one is a fan of Carolina-style barbecue. The meat (usually pork) is served pulled, shredded or chopped. The predominant flavor is a vinegar-based sauce, and cole slaw is usually involved.
Texas barbecue sauce is darker, thicker, tomato-ier and sweeter.
After a flurry of back and forth texting from the road with friends in Austin, we agreed to meet them at a landmark Texas barbecue joint – The Salt Lick in Driftwood, not far from where they lived in Austin. We rolled into town in the middle of a beautiful sunset and found the restaurant on the side of a long, lonesome, bucolic road in what Texans call the Hill Country.
The Salt Lick’s roots go back to the mid 1800s in Mississippi. Bettie Howard — the great-grandmother of the present owner Scott Roberts — was a 14-year-old orphan in Desoto, Miss., in 1867 when she met James Howard, a surveyor passing through town. According to Salt Lick lore, she told Howard she couldn’t promise she would ever love him but that if he would marry her and take her to Texas she would bear and raise his children.
He took her up on her offer.
On the trip by wagon train to Driftwood, Bettie barbecued meat by searing it and then slow cooking it over coals – the same method the family uses today. When they settled in Texas, she kept her word and bore nine Howard children.
In 1967, Bettie’s grandson Thurman and his two sons built a huge barbecue pit. Thurman would go to the pit on Thursday night and start cooking. He stayed for the weekend, sleeping on a cot, until all the meat sold. After a few months, they built a screened porch around the pit, and The Salt Lick grew from there.
Among the four of us we ordered everything – brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage, turkey and a half of a chicken. We had sides of potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, pickles and onions. I sat down with Thurman’s Plate (“the dish that Poppa always ate”): brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Our friends brought a cooler filled with local beers and a box of wine since The Salt Lick is B.Y.O.B.
The space is fun and authentic. The barbecue pit is fantastic. The food comes out at a clip, is inexpensive (the entire meal for four was around $60) and there is a ton of it. The service is friendly and approachable. And after that day of driving and that meal, we slept a sound sleep deep in the heart of Texas.
Fred had planned the next day’s lunch. An avid fan of Top Chef, he had been reading about former cheftestant Paul Qui and his flourishing career in Austin, including the brick-and-mortar iteration of his East Side King food trucks.
We found East Side King hiding in the back of a divy dive bar aptly called Hole In The Wall, across the street from the University of Texas campus. It’s the ultimate college bar — dark and dingy with old-school rock music blaring from the speakers, pool tables, pinball machines, murals on the walls and band stickers on everything else. Qui uses this space to play his tasty, funky-fusion street food riffs on Japanese, Thai and Filipino cuisines.
We tried Thai chicken kara-age, liberty rice, poor Qui’s buns, Brussels sprout salad and the uber melting pot of a dish — chicken tortilla ramen.
The food was inspired. Everything was bright and fresh and colorful. The liberty rice –simply steamed jasmine rice, ginger, garlic oil, basil, cilantro, mint, onion and jalapeño – was bold and herbacious. The ramen was the perfect winter comfort soup – so layered and delicious we couldn’t stop eating it even in the arid 90-degree heat. All of this was confidently served up in little paper dishes with little plastic utensils, putting a mere $40 dent in the wallet.
We ate a lot of food – and fairly big food – but did not feel weighed down at all. We left with a spring in our step and a long-forgotten Clash song playing in our heads.