There are no pits that smell quite as much like Texas as the Salt Lick. Although other smokers' stars have risen higher in recent years, Salt Lick remains the state's quintessential meat pilgrimage because it's just so damn Texan. The whole experience is like the slow unfurling of a Lone Star flag, from the 30-minute journey from Austin down farm-to-ranch roads to the sprawling wide-open ranch estate to the same circular smoking pit that's been turning out spectacular meat since 1967. There's a reason they go through over a million pounds of brisket a year, and that reason is Texas.
The scene: Twenty-five years after Rudolph "Rudy" Aue decided to add slow-smoked barbecue to the offerings at his gas station and country store in Leon Springs, Texas, Rudy's has grown into one of the nation's top barbecue chains. There are nearly three dozen locations across five states -- Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona -- as well as a thriving mail-order business. While the chain locations are more restaurant than country store, many also sell gas like the original, and the consistency of the food is remarkable. In every case the meats are seasoned with the house dry rub, slow-smoked using nothing but oak, which Rudy's claims burns slower than mesquite, and served with house barbecue "sauses" on the side.
Rudy's strives to recreate the feel of a traditional Texas roadhouse barbecue joint in the Lockhart mold, and largely succeeds. They tend to be cavernous and decorated to look like an outdoor barbecue stand was brought inside. There is plenty of neon, beer logos, flags and signs reading things like "Shiner City Limits." A Disney-style line winds back and forth through roped lanes and often out the door, but it is a fast-moving, high-volume operation. As patrons head towards the array of registers, they pass long steel troughs filled with ice and a wide assortment of soft drinks and beer, including lots of small regional sodas such as Frostie Concord Grape and Blue Cream. Similarly, dessert includes Texas' famous Blue Bell ice cream. Sides are prepackaged in styrofoam bowls with lids which you pick up on your way to the counter.
There is a lot of Texan flair at Rudy's, which makes sense since most locations are in Texas, but none are as important as the counter itself. Just like at famous Texas barbecue temples such as Kreuz Market and Smitty's, the pits are right behind the register, meats are mostly cut by hand to your desired quantity, served on butcher paper from huge rolls, weighed on scales, and served with generous portions of white bread slices (in a bit of an update on Lone Star tradition they also offer whole wheat or half and half). The sheets of meat are then placed in distinctive stackable industrial plastic trays/boxes like those used to deliver loaves of bread to supermarkets, and customers help themselves to plastic utensils, large self-serve napkin dispensers, fountain soda, and a salad bar-like condiment station with complimentary pickles, pickled carrots, jalapenos and cherry peppers. Diners seat themselves at either long communal tables or smaller two- and four-person individual ones, all covered with red checkered plastic tablecloths. There are garbage cans everywhere, sauce bottles everywhere and even a handy hand-washing station that allows the sauce-covered to forego a trip to the restroom.
Courtesy Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY
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