When we first came across the Salt Lick a half-century ago, it had neither four walls nor a restroom. It was just a smoke pit and makeshift tables on Thurman and Hisako Roberts’ 600 acre ranch. My, how it’s grown! Located in the Hill Country west of Austin, it has become an immense restaurant, banquet facility, and outdoor pavilion with seats for 2000. It is a veritable theme park of barbecue, its limestone buildings surrounded by rough-hewn log fences, the air smelling of slow-smoked meats. Compared to the region’s back-of-the-butcher-shop barbecue parlors, it’s a fairly civil place with ambience I would call Rustic Deluxe. There is a printed menu; you are served at your table by waiters; food comes on plates rather than on butcher paper; utensils are supplied; and the kitchen’s repertoire includes all sorts of side dishes and dessert as well as barbecued meats. Fancy it is not, but neither is the Salt Lick primitive.
One other element that separates the Salt Lick from the primal parlors: sauce. Unless you ask to have your meat dry, it comes already painted with sauce. Not that the meat needs it, but it does happen to be really tasty sauce, a tangy-sweet glaze with perhaps a hint of mustard. In fact the sauce is good enough to use as a between-meat dip for the slices of white bread that come alongside the meal. The sausage is smoky and rich, like kielbasa, made from equal amounts of pork and beef. Brisket, slow-smoked for sixteen hours, is lean and polite (unless you request fattier slices); and if it lacks a certain succulence, Salt Lick sauce is an instant fix. Pork ribs drip juice from the tender meat at the bone and deliver a stupendously concentrated smoke-pit flavor in the chewy burnt ends.
Among the worthy side dishes are an intriguing cabbage slaw flecked with sesame seeds and cool, German-style potato salad. And of course, pickles and sliced raw onions are available with every meal.