By Ashley Park | October 2023
When you live in Austin, there’s always something going down. The festivals held here are a force to be reckoned with: Formula One races, two weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and SXSW, the tech, music, and film festival that has become globally recognized. Our city is jam-packed with activities and only keeps attracting more things. Don’t get me wrong, I love the constant influx of things to do; I compare myself to a Golden Retriever, requiring many walks and lots of activities to keep me busy. However, there are times where it grows increasingly important to stop, unwind, and enjoy the many offerings Central Texas has to offer just outside Austin proper. Whether you’re visiting or a local, the Hill Country Shuttle is the perfect way to get a true taste of Texas.
Sprawling along the two-lane highway, a matchstick fence made of cedar lines the property. As the van turns in, you see hills of grapevines planted in the shadow of a family home, all overlooking a dirt road parking lot. There are smokers burning, unfurling scents of meat wafting through the air. The expansive grounds are shaded by trees and adorned with picnic tables. You make your way down a long hallway and walk past the main kitchen. In front of you, a large pit with a roaring fire slowly cooks meat on the grill while sausages dangle above.
This is the historic Salt Lick BBQ and it’s one of Texas’ most famous barbecue spots.
Scott Roberts, the current owner, is keeping his family’s tradition of serving up some of the best barbecue alive and well. Although officially established in 1967, the Roberts’ cooking family tradition traces all the way back to mid-1800’s.
So what makes them different? For one, the wood they use. Cooked over live oak rather than mesquite, the barbecue tastes bright and is never bitter or gritty. They also don’t utilize tomatoes in their sauces, a departure you don’t often see in southern barbecue sauces.
The ambiance of the restaurant also sets itself apart. Across the massive dining halls, you’ll find long rectangular tables with benches. This food was made for sharing. Many of the items are served up family style, but have no fear, you can order individualized plates and sandwiches. It’s cozy and warm; it feels like you’re at your family’s cabin out in the woods. Sometimes when you’re in a space, you can feel when a lot of great memories have been made there. Their dining room carries that indescribable essence.
Behind the main dining hall, you’ll find Salt Lick Cellars, a small tasting room serving up their own wine blends. Be sure to pace yourself, there’s plenty of wine still ahead in our journey.
My recommendations: you can never go wrong with brisket, however I truly enjoy the turkey at Salt Lick. Turkey from many barbecue joints is often dry but Salt Lick’s is consistently juicy and packs a lot of flavor. You also can’t go wrong with their pork ribs that melt off the bone. For a unique side, try their coleslaw, a zesty and lighter take on the dish that has a slight Asian-fusion flair, a nod from Scott’s mother, Hisako, who was born in Hawaii and was of Japanese descent.
With our belly’s full, it’s time for the next leg of our Hill Country journey.
When you hear ‘Texas wine,’ many times it will conjure up a Gollum-esque voice in the back of your head, spouting out cynical ramblings. ‘It can’t possibly be good wine. This place is a scorching fire pit in the summer.’ And although the heat is extreme, Texas is still churning out some wines that are not be snubbed.
Why am I qualified to talk about this? Some people are passionate about sports. Some people love Pickleball. And me? I used to spend my evenings sabering sparkling wine bottles in my kitchen, flinging large kitchen knives around as the glass-wrapped corks went flying through the air. Wine isn’t a passion, it’s a necessity. Many years ago I had a photography gig in Spain. We were on a tight budget for this expedition, despite being an international shoot. I budged on some things with production, but the one thing I didn’t? Wine budget. My non-negotiable. Moral of the story: I love wine and have met many of them.
Speaking of European destinations (great segway here), the wine that you find in the Hill Country is reminiscent of those that you find in Italy. If you remember the 2004 film Sideways, Paul Giammati’s character delivers a heartfelt speech about the noble Pinot Noir grape, delicate and intricate. You won’t find any of those around here. We need our grapes rugged and burly, the Texan way. Thankfully the Texas High Planes are a similar climate to what you would find in Italy’s wine country. Italian grape varietals like Sangiovese, Vermentino, or Dolcetto are a perfect match for the terroir, and many of our Texan winemakers utilize them to their fullest potential.
The tour offers two wine stops, and in the best way possible, they could not be any more different. Fall Creek Vineyards offers a sleek and cozy tasting room where you can have your pick of their award-wining wines. Seated at individual tables, this is the perfect place to kick your feet up and relax.
Duchman Family Winery feels as though you’ve stepped onto a Tuscan estate. That is no mistake: the owners were so inspired by their trip to Italy that they wanted to replicate it here in Central Texas. Their tasting room is expansive, and more on par with a tasting you would have in Napa Valley. There’s a long hightop bar where you can have a full tasting of their award-winning wines or you can grab a glass and head outside to enjoy their relaxing grounds.
My recommendation: I love Duchman’s Aglianico, a blend that is complex, rich, and feels like a warm hug in your mouth. Fall Creek’s Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre is a medium bodied blend that is earthy with hints of cherry, a choice you won’t regret.
How could this day get even better? You can take these wines home with you. Pick up a bottle on your way out and enjoy later.
Truthfully, I’m always weary of shared transportation, and believe me when I say, I’ve seen it all. From subways to pedicabs, modes of transportation are not created equal. I was a competitive volleyball player for some years, and I still get a phantom leg rash whenever I think about the itchy 80’s fabric used on the bus seats that would charter us to the next tournament.
Thankfully, the Mercedes Sprinter van is sleek and brimming with comfort. The panoramic windows are optimal for taking in the relaxing views, and it’s a great way to meet new people. Even if you’re on the shy side, you know instantly that your fellow travelers are there to relax and enjoy the day, just like you. Austin Detour’s informal slogan is ‘Come as strangers, leave as friends’ and it’s easy to do just that when you’re sharing a a family-style meal at Salt Lick or exchanging some stories over a glass of wine at one of the tasting rooms.
My takeaway: this is the best way to enjoy a true taste of Central Texas. Even when your plates and glasses go empty, you will leave truly satisfied, relaxed, and recharged.
You can book your own Hill Country Shuttle here.