The Salt Lick Begins
The Texas Story Project.
In 1967, about 100 years after the first members of the family arrived in Driftwood, Thurman took a leap into the restaurant business by opening a barbecue stand. He had already won local fame for his cooking for family events and at a barbecue stand he hosted at the Camp Ben McCulloch Reunions each year.
One day he called me and our ranch hand, Guadalupe Ranchel “Lupe” Alvarado, to his favorite spot on the original homestead. He looked around a bit at the trees and location of the hill at the north side of the property and marked a spot with his boot heel in the ground. He then grabbed his barbecue fork from his truck, dug his boot heel into his mark in the dirt, and extended his arm so the tip of the barbecue fork would reach the ground. Turning slowly, he drew a circle around himself, nodded his head, and said to us, “Go grab some shovels, gravel, and cement. I want you to dig a 6-inch-wide, 6-inch-deep hole and fill it with concrete.” We had no idea why, but Lupe and I did what he said. When we finished that, he had us use rocks from the ranch to build a rock wall over this concrete footing. Only when he brought down his handmade metal grate did we realize he had directed us to build an old-fashioned smoke pit. After the pit was built, we cleared all the cedar trees from the area and took down the fence along the road so that cars could drive up to it from Ranch Road 1826.
That open pit still stands today in its original location and serves as the heartbeat for the Salt Lick restaurant. At first, it was just the pit. My father would bring meat down on Thursday nights, along with a cot and a sleeping bag. He would tend to the pit as he smoked meat all night and sleep under the stars. He would then sell barbecue all weekend until there was nothing left. He called the place the Salt Lick after a bed of big rocks in the field out where the parking lot is today. It was where we used to place nutrient minerals for the animals to browse.
My mother made side dishes up at the house and brought them down to sell too. There was no electricity, no running water, no rest rooms, and no place to sit. But people didn’t seem to mind. They would drive up, order some barbecue, and perch on their car hoods or tailgates to enjoy their meal. Eventually a regular customer convinced Thurman to add a picnic table out front, and as business grew, we laid a concrete floor and built rock walls around three sides of the pit, with a wooden wall on the far end to allow us to extend the building as business grew. After 18 months in business, Thurman finally added electricity and people were able to eat with lights rather than candles and lanterns, but it would be three years before he added running water and another two years before he added rest rooms. Despite repeated encouragement to install a telephone, Thurman never acquiesced, nor did he ever advertise or seek publicity for the restaurant.
In his mind, the best way to build his business was through word of mouth. In the early seventies, there was no MoPac Expressway. And still, people were arriving from Austin in droves. And they did it all by word of mouth. Thurman’s philosophy was, “If the food is good, people will talk about it and other people will come out. If it’s no good, they won’t come.”
Time passed and the Salt Lick grew. And grew. What started out as a weekend barbecue shack with standing room only is now a daily lunch and dinner operation seating more than 700 and serving more than 3,000 on a Saturday or Sunday. Throughout that time our family journey has had its ups and downs. After 78 years living her life within a three-mile radius in Driftwood, Roxie passed away, as did my grandfather and my brother, Butch. I met my wife, Susan, soon after graduating college, and we welcomed my daughter, Katharine Maile Roberts, on May 25, 1984. My father had passed away in 1981, and for a number of years my mother ran the restaurant while I came in on the weekends from working in Austin to help her out. In 1987 I officially took over the restaurant.
We started to notice that people were driving in from out of town on days that we weren’t open. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that we slowly began adding to our days of operation. Today we’re open seven days a week, rain or shine (except on Christmas day and Thanksgiving day). For years, as the Salt Lick grew, we continued to maintain and work the 500 acres surrounding it. In 2006 I designated the remainder of that scenic expanse of land to a new development project that will enrich the property and continue the vision my family had for Driftwood.
Before Thurman’s death, nearly three decades ago, he had begun building a new home, just up the hill from the Salt Lick. He built the foundation, the columns, and the framing all on his own but passed away before he could see the finished product.
Years later, I was able to pick up where he left off and finish his house, which now overlooks the restaurant, 50 acres of vineyards, a burgeoning home community, and miles and miles of Texas hills and valleys. The house, appropriately named Thurman’s Mansion, is now our offices and the venue where we host events and weddings. Today, as I gaze out over the landscape from the second-story balcony, I’m reminded of how my family has cared for this land for more than 100 years. They wanted their property and their home to be enjoyable and well kept so that people could see how proud of it they were. And that sentiment transcends just my family to many of the other families around here. There was always a desire to do the best with what they had.
It’s a way of life that extends back to the kitchen. You would be sautéing something, and if it burned a little, you started over. Without that type of care, you will never make a good dish. It doesn’t matter what recipe you have or what ingredients you have, because without that overwhelming desire to do the best you can with what you’ve got, you don’t have anything. That’s why my grandmother was such a good cook and why you wanted to be her guest at her Sunday dinners. That’s why my father and mother built a restaurant that still exemplifies that and has grown over the years. It is instilled in me through my family. And that’s why the story behind the Salt Lick is really a story about family. It began with my great grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents, and it continues through me and my daughter, Maile. She married in the Salt Lick vineyards on October 22, 2011, to begin her family story on this land.
What’s the secret to a good dish? Ultimately, the answer is you. If you respect the land around you, respect all the little ingredients that go into the dish to make it right—and the hard work and effort it took to make those ingredients—and respect the very heritage that made you what you are today, then you hold the key to great food
Posted July 11, 2016
TAGGED WITH: Texas Foodways