Growing Pains and Great Strides
Wondering what the second Salt Lick -- still with barbecue but also with fine wine and dining -- wants to be
I have to start with a confession. I love the Salt Lick barbecue in Driftwood. Their rich, calorie-laden sauce is one of my favorites anywhere on the planet; their brisket is tender and juicy and the occasional beef ribs are soul satisfying. I had heard owner Scott Roberts tell a Central Market cooking class that the Salt Lick 360 would be a departure, with some of their famous barbecue, but also with steak frites made with hanger steaks and frites fried in lard. The thought of a place that combined French bistro food and Texas barbecue made my mouth water. Plus, it would be so cool to be able to get that wonderful Salt Lick barbecue without having to hazard the later-night drive on FM 1826.
My wife and I went on a Monday night. The exterior was pleasant with a nice outdoor dining area for smokers. Inside, the place is divided into two areas, a well-stocked and lively bar on the left and the restaurant on the right. Their 37 tables were 80% full, and the first thing I noticed was the crowd: Rolexes, deep tans, and golf togs. The Driftwood funk factor was definitely missing. But, of course, this is the neighborhood for the Austin Country Club set. The second thing I noticed was that nearly everyone was munching away contentedly on the barbecue. The Hungry Cowboy Plate ($14.99), with a pound and a half of your choice of meats, was very popular, as was the Chopped Beef Sandwich ($8.95).
We were seated at our table and noticed an odd juxtaposition of styles: white tablecloths with brown paper on top. I found that completely puzzling. When we got the menu, it seemed neatly divided between a fancy American food faction and a barbecue joint. Since I know the barbecue, I thought I'd try something from the other side of the menu. We started with the Saltlick Seafood Sampler ($9.95). I wondered why the Salt Lick was spelled Saltlick, but didn't ask. A big heap of fried seafood came sitting on wilted greens. I tried the shrimp first, which had a delicious blue-corn crust and matched up nicely with the slightly spicy chipotle remoulade sauce. The catfish strips were about the same size as the shrimp, and also juicy and tender with a nice crunchy crust. The calamari was as tough as my old hiking boots, and the greens beneath them were greasy and wilted from contact with the hot oil. Judging by the presentation and temperature, along with the overdoneness of the tiny calamari, I would guess that the fry-cook simply threw everything in together, not thinking about the differing cooking times, and when they thought it was done, threw the whole thing on a bed of greens without taking the time to drain the seafood of excess oil. This should be an easy problem to fix.
I ordered a glass of Valminor Albariño ($6), a perfect match for lightly fried seafood. When it came, it didn't taste like Albariño. I asked the waiter, who assured me it was. I asked to see the bottle. When the waiter came back, he said that they had already thrown away the original bottle, but that it was the same as the bottle he showed me. In any case, he offered to give me a fresh pour, and it was fine. My assumption is that the original pour had been sitting in the bottle for days, not hours.
We started going over the dinner menu. No steak frites. I called the waiter over again and asked about it. Turns out they only occasionally served it. I looked around me and everyone was ordering barbecue, but I decided to soldier on and stay with the other foods. Our waiter was having a slightly heated conversation with another table. I asked him about it, and he said that many customers were coming in, asking for the all-you-can-eat plate and were unhappy when they found out they couldn't get it. He explained that their Hungry Cowboy Plate had 1.5 pounds of meat for $14.99, and he thought that should be plenty for most people. He's probably right, but then, people see "Salt Lick" on the sign outside, and they come in with a few preconceived notions.
We chose two different main courses. I had the Bone in Smoked Pork Porterhouse ($14.95). The orange sage cream sauce sounded a bit odd, especially paired with asiago and cheddar potato gratin. We also ordered a special, the Surf and Turf ($17.95). A nice cabernet sounded good with the combination, so we ordered an R.H. Phillips Cab at the bargain price of $20. The wine came first, and it was Texas room temperature -- warm. After a slight wait, the food came out. The pork was delicious -- juicy and tender. The sauce was strange, with the sweet orange flavors fighting with both the wine and the potatoes. The Surf and Turf was a good-sized hunk of steak, undercooked at rare, even though we asked for medium, topped with some good-sized shrimp that were overcooked. Again, the sauce, billed as Red Chile Roast Garlic Sauce, was peculiar. Like the other sauce, it tasted as though the ingredients had had no opportunity to meld, like they were thrown together at the last minute.
Our waiter asked how we liked the meal, and we were tepid in our praise. He then told us that this was the last night for this menu, and a new menu would be starting the following day. He also recommended that we end up with his favorite dessert, the Warm Brownie Ala' Mode (their spelling, $5.95). We ordered it, and it was indeed spectacular. They had the good sense to buy Miles Compton's stunningly rich and flavorful Miles of Chocolate to sell as their brownie.
We went back nine days later to try the new menu. The place was packed, but the crowd was a little different. Still mostly the country club set, but also a few small groups of women. They started to seat us next to a group of loud, laughing golfers who were enjoying their drinks immensely, so I begged for a different table. Just as we sat down, the person at the next table was unhappily sending her food back for being undercooked. We felt as though we might end up with another problem night. Then our waitperson appeared, a recent transplant from the Midwest, brimming with good cheer and a helpful, knowledgeable attitude.
Before the food, I ordered a glass of Smoking Loon Viognier ($4), a brilliant wine at a wonderful price. We also ordered two appetizers. The Queso Flameado ($7.95) was a creamy cheese with the nice touch of added barbecued brisket and sautéed mushrooms in the middle. However, instead of tortillas, it came with oily crostini. The cheese was delicious, and the serving was big enough for doggy bags. Our other appetizer was Crispy Shrimp ($8.95), a shrimp with cream cheese, wrapped in phyllo and baked. The shrimp was delicious, but the phyllo tasted like damp cardboard.
My wife decided that she wanted barbecue and ordered Babyback Ribs ($10.95). I was delighted to see that they had a special that night of Hanger Steak ($13.95), and ordered it. Still another person to the right of me sent her steak back for being undercooked. After hearing that twice, I decided to order mine medium rare (instead of rare) and hope for the best. We added an order of Onion Rings ($2.95) that looked impressive going to another table.
A meal like this deserves a jammy red wine, so I ordered a Siduri Pinot Noir ($33, made by ex-Austinite Adam Lee). The manager came over to tell me that they were out and tried to move me to a Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel, also a perfect match, but $45. When I told the manager it was too much, he offered to split the difference with me and sold me the bottle for $39. It was delicious.
The meal arrived, and my steak was glorious -- perfectly cooked, tender, and nicely juicy. The pomme frites were perfection, with a crispy exterior and tender, tasty interior. The ribs were everything we'd hoped for and exactly what we've become used to at the Driftwood Salt Lick. Only the onion rings disappointed us. They were soggy.
After dinner, we went over to the bar to check out the scene. It was about 10:30pm, and most folks had gone home. We sat down at the bar and enjoyed a Frangelico ($6.50) and a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey ($6). The bar was comfortable, and, at the late hour, very quiet and relaxing.
My final thought is that the Salt Lick 360 just can't seem to decide what it wants to be. Is it a nicely priced, semihaute American cuisine in a fancy place, or is it a barbecue joint? Is it a beer joint or a fine-wine place? One thing I can tell you for sure, the terrific barbecue here makes a trip to Driftwood a pleasantry instead of a necessity. And some of the dishes, especially the hanger steak and Miles of Chocolate, are worthy companions to the barbecue. I really want to love this place. It's closer than Driftwood, it has wine and beer and a bar, the prices are fair, and the service is very good. Given the tradition of quality at the Driftwood location, I'm sure this place will get better and better. In the meantime, you can't go wrong with the barbecue.
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