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I’ve been angling to get to the annual tech conference SXSW for a few years now and I’m glad I struck gold this year. By all accounts, this was the breakout year for the festival, with an estimated 30,000 people piling into Austin, Texas for the first week of the two-week festival (music and film events take up the rest of the time).
I know quite a few Americans through work, and some of them are native Texans, so I asked for eating & drinking recommendations the week before I flew out. No matter who I asked, they all insisted there was one place I should move heaven and earth to get to: The Salt Lick.
This place is a Texan barbeque institution, situated about 20 miles outside the city of Austin on a fairly lonely road surrounded by what appears to be a decent amount of not very much at all. I’m very fortunate to have friends who live in Austin and they were happy to take me out there – even the locals have a soft spot for Salt lick, it would seem. It’s a BYO place, so we pulled into a tiny gas station along the way and picked up a couple of sixes, including one of a popular local microbrew called Fireman’s #4 along with the coolest esky I will never own: a genuine NASCAR-branded polystyrene unit that I almost considered paying excess baggage fees to bring home.
I’m with Austinites Denise & Bryan, and the NASCAR esky
The outdoor waiting area seemed like a party just warming up, complete with live band, long benches and gas-fired heaters. We got through a couple of ales before the buzzer rang and we headed inside to our table, past the biggest grill I have ever seen.
The grill at the Salt Lick. Note full-size humans in background
Now if you talk BBQ to an Aussie, they will swear they not only invented it, but they perfected it. The Argentinians also claim to have a fairly firm grip on the hotly-contested title of world’s most BBQing nation. As do the Brazillians. And the Koreans and Mongolians, come to think of it.
But the Texans cannot be matched for sheer scale. They BBQ by the acre. Which would only be mildly impressive if not for the fact that, at The Salt Lick at least, they also make some of the best-tasting BBQ meat I’ve ever had. Pork ribs, beef brisket and sausage – it was all fabulous, incredibly tender, smoky and tangy.
Family style means you can actually feed an entire family from just one plate
We ordered ‘Family Style’, which meant the plates of meat kept coming (including plenty of ‘burn-ins’, the charred ends of beef that sit longest on the grill), accompanied by potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, pickles, and onions. There were at least a half-dozen different sauces to choose from, but they were barely necessary – the flavour of the meat was simply that good.
The Salt Lick also does a pretty good line of desserts: pecan pie and a couple of fruit cobblers (we’d call them crumbles, I suppose), but you are really testing the laws of physics trying to ingest more food at this stage of a meal like this.
Such is the legend of The Salt Lick, their catering arm was used as the drawcard at many of the parties thrown by media and tech companies in Austin that week, and I was stoked I got to taste their ribs again before leaving.
Austin seems like a reasonably diverse kind of a food town, but SXSW is such a hyper-real environment that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I did find a few of places that really suited my style: Second Bar & Kitchen is a stylish but reasonably priced restaurant (fairly new on the scene) on the edge of the CBD, The Old Pecan St Café did a breakfast that wouldn’t be out of place in Sydney’s café scene, Frank’s did absolutely brilliant late-night hot dogs and cold beer and I really fell in love with The Royal Blue Grocery – great coffee, soft, chewy breakfast tacos (these were an absolute revelation) and a playlist that majored on the likes of Modest Mouse, The Shins and New Order.
Getting back to Austin and South-by (as the locals call it) for 2012 is pretty high on my list of priorities right now. And when I do, The Salt Lick will have a list all of it’s own.
Pulled pork taco at the airport and Mr. Kitchen Hand's new favourite cap.