Monday, July 23, 2007

We slept in and started our day with a Wal-Mart run. Anticipating several nights at various KOAs, we bought some cheap sheets and pillows. Anticipating two weeks of BBQ gorging, we also bought bran cereal and fiber tablets. We then headed for Taylor's Louie Mueller.

The building is dark and sooty, connected to a rundown storefront. Through the doors you enter a cavernous hall, which, if you're so inclined, resembles a chapel of meat. Since the smokers are placed within the building, everyone who walks in gets a little tenderized. You form a line, picking up drinks, checking out prices, and chatting with the pit boss. If you're lucky, he'll drop off a piece of cracklin or, in our case, some juicy brisket. We sat down with our trays covered with brisket, pork ribs, onions, pickles, and individual cups of vinegar-based sauce. We agreed that the brisket was a bit moister than Cooper's but not quite as smoky-flavored. Today's meal also leaned closer to a pepper taste than a salt accent. We universally agreed that the slaw was excessively creamy, slopped with too much mayonnaise. Even Jenny, who loves that stuff, only tried a few spoonfuls. That unpleasantness aside, Louie Mueller forms an essential (and clearly popular) point in the "smoke ring" surrounding Austin.

Heading toward Elgin, we left room for some of that town's world famous links. We made two stops: Southside Market and Crosstown BBQ. Southside Market is a huge multi-room space with family dining tables. The owners have a good sense of humor about their product. On the door a sign reads, "Thank you for not smoking." Inside, you'll find a scale, one of those self-weighers they used to have in grocery stores, set to 193. That number is a bit heavy for most folks, but at least you'll never gain weight around here. Signs are welcoming: "We're pleased to meat you," and t-shirts proclaim, "I love their guts." We sat down to a single link of sausage, dipping the meat in a tomato-based sauce that was thick with sweetness. The slaw balanced out vinegar and mayo bases without being overwhelmed by either. Finishing up, we drove into Elgin to visit Crosstown by the railroad depot.

The Crosstown is smaller than Southside Market, and it didn't invite us so readily, owing to a fierce smell of disinfectant. We decided to sit outside and enjoy a sausage link. This one was more chicken-y and much leaner and more compact. The sauce had a vinegar-edge and was less thick. After the third stage of our lunch I took a walk toward the railroad tracks, photographing old signs that had been painted into the buildings. The afternoon was quiet, with only a rooster crowing to break the silence.

In early afternoon we headed for downtown Austin and a much-needed break. After checking out some of the town's marvelous signage (including the Top Notch drive-in from Dazed and Confused) our destination was the Austin Motel, a local landmark since 1938. We checked in and tossed our bags in our "safari" themed room before hitting the pool, while Vienna checked out the local shops. As storm clouds rolled into town we splashed in the kidney shaped pool for a couple of hours. I so enjoyed floating on my back and studying the changing formations of birds that flew overhead. By evening our appetites had returned (amazingly) and we began our drive to the Salt Lick in nearby Driftwood. Here we learned that the Church of BBQ is a demanding faith. When taking a pilgrimage, one must occasionally suffer. This we noted as we experienced a particularly brutal outbound commute. Driving 290 out of Austin we discovered four stages of hell: A packed four-lane freeway that collapsed into two lanes before transforming into traffic-light surface streets that halted finally at a four-way blinking red light, at rush hour. Departing that awful road we drove a final 13 miles to the Salt Lick, which proved one of its slogans: "Way the Heck Out Yonder...But Worth Every Mile."

For the first time this trip, we were seated and served in the traditional restaurant style, on plates no less, making this an untraditional stop on our tour. The unique qualities of the Salt Lick continued when we dug into our meals. The brisket and pork ribs were coated in a mustard-based sauce, a bit sweet but also containing a surprising tang. Rather than the salt and pepper crunch of meats we'd had previously on this trip, this stuff glistened with an almost syrupy lustre. The coleslaw contained virtually no mayo but was rather sharp and pungent, flecked with celery seed. The potato salad looked more like a helping of sweet potatoes, colored orange by the addition of Salt Lick sauce. Jenny topped her meal off with a sweet peach cobbler while I left some room for pecan pie. She found her dessert to be less biscuit-y than a previous cobbler, more sweet, but she would have preferred a bit more crunch. I liked the pie, but no pecan dessert can compare with what Jenny makes. Her pecan pie, a Thanksgiving Day staple in the Wood Family, is packed with nuts held together by the slightest glue of filling. After our meals we were invited to tour the circular pit behind the front counter by friendly folks used to camera-packing diners. Here's the best thing I can say about the Salt Lick. Within about five minutes of sitting down we'd entirely forgotten the hellish trip necessary to get to this essential pilgrimage site. As I said, the Church of BBQ can be harsh, but following its precepts leads to joy.

We wrapped up our night in Austin, stopping under the Congress Avenue Bridge to witness the nation's largest urban bat colony take flight. Waiting under the bridge as the tiny creatures flitted and zoomed from their crevices we stood amazed at the squeaking chatter of night animals exploding in ragged waves from the bridge. Even with a little drizzle, it felt good to stand with crowds of happy onlookers, knowing we'd found the right place to be.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood