Famous Texas restaurant has roots in Hawaii

Published On: May 05 2014 04:41:00 PM HST

Mouthwatering ribs slathered in barbecue sauce, tender beef brisket sliced to perfection and juicy chicken basting.  If you love barbecue, this is the Holy Grail.

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"It was an epicurean delight," said Sandy Stevens.

Welcome to The Salt Lick.  This popular barbecue restaurant known for its open barbeque pit and hearty delicious meats draws in hundreds of thousands of people from around the world each year.

This bustling barbecue joint is about 30 minutes south of Austin in the tiny town of Driftwood.  Tucked underneath oak trees, this restaurant has plenty of island influences.

Born and raised in Lihue, Hisako Roberts and her husband Thurman started The Salt Lick nearly 50 years ago.

Their son, Scott Roberts, who runs the restaurant now, says his parents met on Kauai after World War II.

"He was a Chief Petty Officer and the jeep came with the office and he was driving around one day and happened to bump into her at the General Store at Nawiliwili Harbor," said Roberts.

The two got married and moved to Thurman's hometown of Driftwood and started cooking and selling barbecue on their property.

"Me and another guy started the pit for him.  That was just it.  A big round pit and we would cut the cedar trees down and laid the fence down and sell it to people who came up and down the road," said Roberts.

With Hisako in the kitchen and Thurman running the pit, the couple served up generous portions for their slow-cooked barbecue to hungry customers.  Word about the delicious food quickly spread and the couple opened The Salt Lick restaurant in 1967.

"We built the restaurant around the pit and when we first opened, it only sat 12 people," said Roberts.  "There was no running water, no electricity, no bathrooms."

The Salt Lick has come a long way since its humble beginnings.  It can now serve 300 people at a time and the main attraction of the restaurant remains the open pit.

"This is the original pit.  The first one we built.  It's fallen down a couple of times, but the original rocks are still in it," said Roberts.

This is where the culinary magic happens.  The fire slowly cooks the barbecue while pecan chips infuse the smoke flavor in the food and the sauce caramelizes on the meat.

Though the pit may have been the core of the restaurant, Hisako was the heart.  When Thurman died, Hisako took over adding her island influences in the food.

"The juices drip down and they hit the coals and flare back up again and that gives it another flavor," said Roberts.

Though Hisako retired and handed over the restaurant to her son more than 15 years ago, you can still taste the Hawaii flavors to this day.

"She added powdered ginger to the barbeque sauce recipe, so there used to be 35 ingredients.  She made it 36," said Roberts.

Take a close look at the potato salad and cole slaw.  Hisako gave this southern staple some Asian flair.

"She added popped sesame seeds to the cole slaw and potato salad," said Roberts.

It's those subtle flavors in this Central Texas cuisine which has the Salt Lick serving upwards of 5,500 people a day, often times waiting in a long line for hours.

"They are charred on the outside and very tender on the inside.  They fall right off the bone and I haven't had ribs like them anywhere else," said Sarah Barnhill from San Diego.

"It's messy delicious.  The meat's really tender.  The sides are all really good.  It's just great," said Lauren Seymour from Reno.

To accommodate its growing popularity, The Salt Lick has expanded adding a tasting room and winery and open patio for live music.  Despite the expansion over the years, The Salt Lick held true to its roots.  It's still cash only, BYOB and Texas Friendly, just like it was 50 years ago.

"Trying to stay true to what my father said you gotta serve a quality product and you had to be extremely friendly to people and try to make them leave with the biggest smile of their life," said Roberts.

In southern hospitality fashion, if you choose the family style option, you are not going to leave here hungry.  It is all you can eat until your belly desires.

Roberts says he is looking at opening at Salt Lick restaurant here in the islands.  He says he's scouting locations on Oahu.

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