Tastes of Texas explores what makes the Hill Country institution so special.
Friends, our beloved Longhorns are off this week, and that means most of us won't be participating in any tailgating festivities until Thanksgiving. Accordingly, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to take a break from the practical "how-to" articles this series has encompassed over its relatively short lifespan, get a little abstract, and talk a bit about why I believe this series has a perfect niche in this community. It would be really easy to write pages upon pages about my passions for BBQing and tailgating and how those activities go hand in hand with Texas athletics. In fact, it would be so easy that I would essentially be doing my readers a disservice if I composed a 1000 word rant about how amazing tailgating is. Instead, I decided to convey my feelings about this series through the lens of a Texas Hill Country institution we all know and love: The Salt Lick.
The Salt Lick. Driftwood, Texas. One of the only open pit BBQ joints left in the state, and a staple in the Central Texas BBQ circuit. If any of you Texas Exes are like me this institution was a major part of your experience on the 40 Acres. But, why is that? While the food is fantastic at the Salt Lick, it certainly isn't the best the BBQ belt has to offer. When I was in the ATX, I knew very well that Lockhart, home of the glorious Smittys and Kreutz Market, was about the same distance as Driftwood. I would argue that Cooper's in Llano was far superior to the Salt Lick back in its heyday, and, hell, thanks Franklin's you don't even have to leave Austin proper to get your BBQ fix these days. So, why do we make the 45 minute trek? Why don't we just head out to the places with the "best" BBQ every single time? What makes the Salt Lick so damn special? Allow me to set the scene.
It's late Saturday morning in the spring semester, and you and a group of your closest friends are headed down to New Braunfels. The Guadalupe River is beckoning your name, and you know it has been far too long since you floated it with an ice cold beer in your hand. Everyone packs in to your buddy's pickup (or hybrid, for you hippies), and you cruise south down I-35. Y'all unload, grab your tubes, strap in the cooler, and sit down on that river for the next two to six hours. By the end of it all you look like a lobster, far too many inside jokes have been made, someone has inevitably embarrassed him/herself, and you're fairly certain you've consumed Lonestar Beer as the beer deities intended, for an ice cold Lonestar on a Texas river creates a taste sensation better than any microbrewed concoction could ever hope to achieve. Exhausted from what has already been a fantastic day, the one friend who volunteered to be the designated driver herds everyone back into the pickups, and you hit the back roads bound for Driftwood.
As you meander across the beautiful Texas Hill Country, you take it all in. The trees, the hills, the rock formations. You realize how truly blessed you are to live and attend school in such a special part of the country. Your thoughts wander, and you wish you could park the pickup, watch the sunset fall below the hills in an amazing Burnt Orange glow, and stare up at the beautiful Texas stars for hours. Then, suddenly, you're snatched back to reality. You come over a hill, and you see it: a massive compound with cars parked as far as the eye can see. As you pull in the lot, you're directed to your parking spot by what feels like 30 off duty police officers. You grab the cooler, and seek out the hostess who informs you that the wait tonight is approximately two hours. No one in your party even remotely balks at this. You have a full ice chest, your best friends are along for the ride, and you're in the middle of some of the most beautiful countryside you've ever seen; you're not about to let an extended wait ruin such a perfect day. As you begin your extended stay you start to take a look around. A dull roar from the patrons, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives, permeates the air, and there is a local artist playing the acoustic guitar off to the side. While to this day you can't even begin to recall his name, you know at the time the music felt like Mozart incarnate. Just as you're beginning to get lost in the moment, though, your buzzer sounds. You rally the troops, grab the cooler, and head on inside.
And, suddenly, there it is: one of the last open pits in Texas displayed proudly in the center of the room, smoke bellowing, filled with meaty goodness. Your group sits down at your massive picnic table, and the waiter's job is done in two minutes; it's family style all around. You're brought piles and pounds of brisket, spare ribs, and sausage with delicious German style potato salad, coleslaw, beans, and bread until your heart's content. (The veterans have a taste of the sides for fair measure but focus on the "Q" while the rookies overindulge on non-meats; you chuckle at the observation). You put more meat in your body than is reasonable or necessary, but it's completely worth the pain because at that moment it is the best BBQ you've ever had in your life. Try as you may to force down one more bite, unfortunately, there comes a stopping point, and you're forced to box up the remnants of your feast and uncomfortably make your way back to the vehicles. On the ride home you reflect that while you've probably had better BBQ at other places, you wouldn't trade The Salk Lick for anything. Today was perfect. Pristine. It was not the food that made the trip. It was everything else: the tangible intangibles. Friends, family, conversation, jokes, laughs, memories. Atmosphere. It doesn't matter how good the product on that plate is because without the atmosphere, the experience almost always falls short, and it's in this particular arena that the Salt Lick shines. It doesn't hurt that the BBQ is absolutely stellar.
And that, friends, is ultimately what it is all about. It's why I feel so incredibly lucky to be writing this series and why I'm so passionate about the topics we discuss. Texas sports have always been about more than just the product on the field or the court for me. It's an event. It's tailgating, game watching parties, passionate debate, tending to the BBQ pit, friends, family, food, and football. We love the Salt Lick because it's more than just the product they put on their plate. It's an institution. Similarly, with Texas athletics the product on the field may not always be perfect, but the atmosphere we create makes it all worthwhile.
I wouldn't have it any other way.