The Salt Lick

18300 Fm 1826 Driftwood, TX 78619 • (512) 858-4959 • saltlickbbq.com

I haven’t seen a restaurant of this scale since Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa.

It’s like a compound with a parking lot that rivals most shopping malls and lines so long they could teach Disney a thing or two; the wait for a table was two hours long, yielding an outdoor waiting area that is the size of most large restaurants. Even the line to return your buzzer when you actually do get a table was crazy long. In fact, the only reasonable wait was to place a take out order, which only took a mere 35 minutes. And then we ate at our “waiting table.” Also, fortunately the line to get booze while you kill time is much more civil.

Naturally after all of that hype and anticipation, you have to be wondering if it was worth it? And my honest answer would be… ish. The sausage is a bit of a letdown. As are the pork ribs. And the slaw and bean sides are nothing more than placeholders. But hot damn are the beef ribs good. As is the brisket with bread as soft as a baby’s bottom and the pickles to boot.

For dessert the chocolate pecan pie is decent, but is no competition to the one at Chili (not the chain, the restaurant in Austin). Whereas the blackberry cobbler proved to pack some serious complexity in it. Mucho me gusto!

But food aside, that’s not why you have to go to The Salt Lick. It’s just one of those seven wonders, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it kinda places. There’s a vineyard and a bocce court and live music and a grilling pit the size of a Sherman tank (pictured). Sure, it’s a bit of a drive and in the middle of nowhere, but the scale and awe will make it all worthwhile. Particularly if you stick with the beef ribs and the brisket.

 

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Exit 4

153 E Main St. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 241-1200exit4foodhall.com

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The concept of this place is interesting to say the least. Sort of like a mini food court that’s not located in a mall and not made up of your usual chains like Panda Express and Sbarro’s. It’s actually all locally sourced, serving up a jack-of-all-trades menu from all over the map (or more specifically all over Northern Westchseter), yet somehow they manage to let you put it all on one bill (that you kinda have to carry around with you from pavilion to pavilion- it’s complicated).

It’s also a dynamic than can easily become a recipe for disaster should you arrive and not know what you want. Especially with young kids who will quickly become more overwhelmed with the choices than Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson.

On the upside, most everything is surprisingly good, so it’s kinda hard to go too, too wrong, unless you have wildly high expectations. When I say “surprising,” however, I want to temper that by stating that I mean it only in the context of lowered expectations. Nothing will have you swinging from a star, but if you’d rather eat a pig, a fish or a mule, they pretty much have you covered (that was for all you Sinatra fans).

So here’s how I recommend playing it:

Step 1: Grab a table. Put your stuff down and have a member of your party stand guard. The last thing you want to do is get caught with seven trays of grub and nowhere to sit.

Step 2: Order the stuff that takes longer to make first. This would be your pastas, your pizzas, your burger and your bahn mi that are all cooked to order. Whereas the tacos, and barbecue offerings are much more prepped and take about two minutes or less to hit your table. So, assuming you like your family or friends, and want to actually eat “together,” then I recommend doing these options near the end of the batting order.

Step 3: Order stuff that doesn’t need to be ice cold or nice and hot dead last. This would be your sushi and glasses of red wine.

Step 4: Bon apetit!

So now that you’ve circumnavigated one of the more complex dining matrixes in the tri-state, here are my thoughts on the offerings themselves.

First up, let’s start with the sushi, sourced from Mt. Kisco Seafood down the street, so you know it’s pretty darn fresh. But more than just fresh, the sashimi bowls and the maki are really quite inventive and a step up from a lot of other places in the immediate vicinity. Yes, that goes for you Hito and Spoon.

Next up, let’s go Italian. Or more specifically the pizza, because the only pasta I’ve had there was my daughter’s kidsy butter and shells. So not really fair to judge them on that. My daughter, on the other hand, has a ways to go in terms of expanding the ole horizons. As for the pies, I liked both the fig, prosciutto and caramelized onion pie and the one with Brussels sprouts, smoked pancetta and gruyere. Neither compare to the likes of The Parlor in Dobbs or Zero Otto Nove in Armonk, but they hold their own handily against Old Stone and Village Social, which I actually think has one of the best pies in town. Nonetheless, the pizza is good enough to make you forget all about the fact that this place used to be Belizzi (RIP).

And now let’s take things down a notch. As in down South. As in TexMex and barbecue. Starting at the top, I’d go with the brisket sammy. It’s quite solid, topped with a bourbon sauce, slaw and cornichon. After that I’d go with the pulled pork. The sauce has a nice kick to it and it also comes with slaw on it as well. It’s not what I would call a runaway smash hit, but unless you’re willing to roll your bones all the way over to Portchester for Q, then it’ll do the trick. That said, little known secret- Dinosaur BBQ is available via Fresh direct. As is some seriously spicy slaw and brioche sliders. So if you don’t feel like venturing out for your barb-e-fix, then call in the reinforcements. Oh, and skip the tacos if you ask me. Truck and Hacienda are both miles better.

And most importantly… the booze. They have a nice selection of beer and wine by the glass so no complaints there either. Nor do I have many complaints on the whole. Exit 4 is a nice addition to the hood and the only other “something-for-everyone” deal in town apart from Village Social. So, if you’re like me and you’re saddled with two kids who don’t agree on anything when if comes to food, this “good enough” fare quickly becomes good on ya!

3 teeth

Micklethwait Craft Meats

1309 Rosewood Ave. Austin, TX 78702 • (512) 791-5961 craftmeatsaustin.com

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There are several pockets of food truck restaurants throughout Austin, but some, like Michlethwait, are not your average bear. Meaning there is no brick and mortar location as back up. It’s just the truck. But even that isn’t entirely accurate either, because the truck is a permanent fixture on a pretty sizeable plot of land surrounded by picnic tables with an equally sizeable parking lot and a smokehouse with a trellis for shade overhead and a port-o-potty should nature call. So fancy it ain’t, but these are the kinds of places I love. No pomp and circumstance, locals only and off the beaten path.

So off, that it’s a bit out of the way, so if you don’t have a car, be sure to Lyft your way to and from. That, or maybe ride a bike to help burn off the gluttony. But however you choose to get here, it’s definitely worth the trek, especially if you’re in no mood to stand in line for eleven hours at Franklin’s for your BBQ. That’s not to say that there’s no line here, but it’s much more manageable, particularly before 1:00pm when things get more crowded.

For recommendations, I say go full on brisket. It is by far the most tender, moist brisket I have ever had, without having to rely on fattiness to get there. In fact, it’s so damn tender I think I might’ve teared up a little. So good, I would even forgo the bread and pickles and just go it alone with a drip or two of their crack sauce.

On the flip side, I found their pulled pork to be quite disappointing. Very dry and lacking flavor. I’ve had better at Salt Lick in the airport and Q in Westchester, NY. Yes, in Yankee Country! Them’s fightin’ words for sure, but I call it like I taste it.

The baked beans and lemon poppy coleslaw fell somewhere in the middle for me. Both definitely good, but I’ve also had better. For better beans try Daisy Mae’s in NYC or Sandfly in Savannah, GA. And for better slaw, I could go on for quite a while, but for shock effect, let me drop some knowledge on you about Fresh Direct’s spicy slaw. It’s killer with the Que.

For dessert, Mickle came back strong with one of the best pecan pies I’ve had since my best friend’s mother used to make it down in Florida (RIP). That and her spice cake were the stuff of gods. But now I’m starting to depress myself, so let’s get to the knife count…

3 teeth

Positivo

100 Dorado Beach Dr. Dorado, Puerto Rico 00646(787) 278-7217 • http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/puerto-rico/dorado-beach/dining/positivo-sand-bar

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I am positively in love with Positivo. A jack of all trades and a bit of a chameleon, changing from more American fare by day, to Pan-Asian by night and somehow sticking the landing on both. Not that it’s without its misses, but I don’t want to get all negativo, because for resort food, even the misses are pretty impressive.

The setting is relatively standard for a resort of this caliber, situated completely outside with several tables right on the sand. Granted they are the furthest from your servers so should you opt for the better view, just know that attention will suffer a touch.

Of the droves of tasty looking lunch options we split an enormous kale salad that I can’t even imagine eating solo without blowing out your colon from ruffage overload. I liked it very much as it was loaded with goodies to keep it interesting, including corn nuts of all things.

We also had the chips and guacamole, which is the biggest miss of our stay, made surprisingly bland considering the locale. And while there were admirable attempts to make it interesting, they didn’t come through in execution. Nor did the Obsession cocktail, about which I was not very obsessed. It basically tastes like alcoholic coconut water with a spicy rim.

On the flip side, the brisket sandwich with chipotle aioli on ciabatta was pretty awesome. A touch too fatty to be fabby, but the flavors were dynamite!

For dinner the crispy snapper is a must, prepared almost like crispy orange beef, but with fish, obviously. So good. The ceviches are also decent, made very fresh as a ceviche should be, but the octopus was the more flavorful of the two because the halibut needed more lime to give it that all-important acidity.

But stop the presses come dessert, because we have an Ultimato. The grilled mochi is a stroke of brilliance. Caramelized on the top, it almost comes off as a roasted marshmallow wrapped around creamy red bean ice cream. It’s so good it almost makes up for all of the insanity caused by the Puerto Rican Parade in New York City. Almost.

3 teeth

Grit & Grace

535 Liberty Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222 • (412) 281-4748gritandgracepgh.com

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This was the best meal I had in Pittsburgh, not that my time there has been of any impressive duration that you should ever misconstrue my minute sampling as extensive. But in those four short days I managed to pack in a few highs and lows, with Grit and Grace taking pole position.

The winning performance of which I speak takes place in a narrow, subway car-shaped dining room decorated with a minimal contemporary touches so as not to distract you from the small plate army about to descend on your table. From dim sum to sandwiches and then sum, Grit & Grace fills your plate with anything goes. But that’s what makes this place a blast, especially for larger parties so you get to try a little of everything. And per the list below, you will soon see, I truly mean everything.

So, listing them in hierarchical fashion, here we go…

The Brisket Sandwich: It’s all you could ever hope for in a sandwich. Moist. Beefy. Contrasting textures and brightness from the kohlrabi slaw and pickled red onions. A little kick from the horseradish cream and thousand island sabayon. All on a wonderfully fresh baguette that would make any Frenchy proud.

The Mortadella Bun: No. Not a sandwich. A bun. As in dim sum. As in get some. Because this is definitely the best Mortadella sand- er, “bun” I’ve ever had. Loaded with the additions of chicken thigh meat, kimchi and bread & butter pickles, then sauced with coriander mustard and chili aioli. It’s definitely not your usual suspect, but hot damn does the road less travelled taste good!

Pot du crème: I’m normally not a huge fan of the Pot, but then again, I had never eaten at Grit & Grace before. And now I’m a changed man. Probably an Ultimate in the category since the competition is all but non-existent in my eyes. And note to Crème brulée, eat your crème out, ‘cause you’ve got nothing on this.

Lettuce Wraps: Okay, not exactly the sexiest of names, nor is it much of a looker to be honest, but look deeper… and open wide, because the duck confit piled on top of these leaves is loaded with flavor, along with even more kohlrabi (of the fermented persuasion), peanuts and cilantro.

Pork belly bites: Anything that starts with the words “pork belly” is already halfway to the promised land by default. Which can be both a blessing and a curse, because it’s that much harder to stand out in land where the bar is pre-set to high. Nonetheless, these “bites” had a favorable showing, glazed with orange, chili, garlic and a nice kiss of ginger.

Roasted octopus and mussels: This was the most conflicted dish of the night, being both good and bad at the same time. The octopus itself being the good, done nice and tender, as are the potatoes, which soak up the lemongrass broth like a champ. On the flip side, the mussels are the Bad. Tiny and overcooked, tasting like shriveled up wads of mollusk.

Carrot salad: In the midst of such culinary wizardry, it’s a bit hard for salads to make a lasting impression, but I do have to say that this one has a nice Asian kick to it.

Tomato salad: Conversely to the Carrot Salad, this one takes a decidedly Mexican approach to its flavors, which, while good, didn’t fare quite as well with the overall theme of cuisine.

Kimchi: It’s fine, but to present it as its own dish is a bit remiss. It’s a gloried condiment to be fair and that’s all you should use it for, to add some nice kick to the other dishes you find lacking.

Meatballs: I’m not sure if these were the ones normally served with ramen, but perhaps they should’ve been, because by themselves they were a tad underwhelming.

Pastrami sandwich: I wanted to love this one so much more than I did, but compared to the Mortadella bun or the Brisket Sandwich it’s an ugly stepsister. But not for a lack of trying, with accouterments like broccoli rabe, roasted garlic aioli and provolone cheese whiz you’d think it was Philly’s second coming. Sadly though, it’s just a false alarm.

Short ribs: Like the pork belly, this is another one of those dishes that usually has me at “hello.” And when you place it on a biscuit smothered with friggin’ béchamel, you’re definitely going for broke. But that’s what happened. It broke. They pushed this little dish so far, it overshot decadent and landed right splat on the face of “I wish I hadn’t done this.”

Soba noodles with crab: Remember that kimchi I mentioned? Save it for this dish. It’s crazy bland and in dire need of some kimchi lovin’, which is the worst name ever for a Korean porno.

Peach cake: Speaking of worsts, this was the most unfortunate of recommendations from our server and easily the lowest point of the meal. Dry, bland and unworthy of the term “dessert,” bringing no joy and only caloric guilt in its wake.

Other than that final transgression, the service really was excellent and the wine choices by the glass, while minimal, were fantastic. I had one white and one red and both were much better than your average bear.

So now that you’re done reading my novel about Grit & Grace (I told you we tried everything) you can certainly see that there are some land mines to be avoided. But with so many highs and two Ultimates, I find it hard to dole out anything lower than a quad.

4 teeth

Virgil’s

152 W 44th St. New York, NY 10036 • (212) 921-9494virgilsbbq.com

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Located smack dab in the epicenter of touristy hell, there exists a beacon of authenticity. That beacon is Virgil’s, shining bright through the fog of over-stimulation (a.k.a. Times Square) with pleasers like their killer pulled pork sandwich (pictured) piled high with pig parts so moist and delicious they probably don’t even need to top it with their coleslaw, but they do anyways, and I’m okay with that. The crunch of the cabbage against the tenderness of the meat- the cool refreshing milkiness of the slaw against the warm, slightly spiced pork- I’m more than okay with it. I’m in love with it.

But as good as their pulled pork sandwich is, the true headliner is their mac and cheese. Best in the city. Wifey and I honestly dream about it. Sure, we should probably be dreaming about each other, but let’s leave that for couple’s therapy. It’s got a nice hit of pepperiness, a perfect blend of basic, none-too-fancy cheeses like cheddar and American I’m assuming. All topped with an evangelical halo of crunchy, ever-so-slightly burnt cheese. Trust me, you want this bad.

I also dig their jalapeño cornbread. It’s cheesy, a little sweet, and of course spicy. Which reminds me, they also have a healthy selection of hot sauces worth trying if their barbecue sauce isn’t doing enough for you.

As for the ribs, brisket, chicken, etc… There are better to be had in the city. Daisy May’s is my numero uno when it comes to ribs, Hill Country and Blue Smoke for brisket- jury is still out on BBQ chicken. But getting back to Virgil’s, it’s still damn good. Especially when you take into account it’s location.

4 teeth

Sandfly BBQ

8413 Ferguson Ave. Savannah, GA 31406 • (912) 356-5463 sandflybbq.com

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If it weren’t for word of mouth and Yelp, you’d probably never think twice about stepping in here. Not only is it located in a tiny strip mall, but it looks almost like a poor man’s fast food joint on a respirator- not unlike several of the centurion patrons who managed to gobble down bites in between sips of oxygen from the air hose under their nostrils. I’m guessing they are either try to get into heaven quicker, or they just want a little taste of it before they settle down there more permanently.

Now I’m not sure I would go as far as to call Sandfly’s BBQ heavenly, but there are clearly those who would. That said, it most certainly is worth the visit, provided you don’t mind the Diners, Drive ins and Dives type decor. And to be fair, I’m not even sure if it’s enough of a dive to even make it onto Guy Fieri’s radar.

But the food doesn’t disappoint, after all, it doesn’t get packed by 6pm because it’s bad. To be fair it’s only about 8 tables, but I’m guessing the case would be the same even if they had twenty. So what’s all the fuss? Well, the brisket is solid, as is the pulled pork. And they offer three sauces on every table, one hot, one sweet, one mustardy. All three are good, but my favorite was actually the sweet.

The stars for me were the sausage with peppers and onions, which went killer with the mustardy sauce and the baked beans, which needed nothing but a mouth to call home. A distant third worth getting is also the fried okra. Nothing special, but since I’m a Yankee transplant, I’m a bit of a sucker for the dish.

On the mediocre side of things were the onion rings and the collard greens. And bringing up the rear was the abysmal, watery coleslaw. Sorry, I feel the need to be especially harsh on the slaw because Savannah is the site of two of the best slaws I think I’ve ever had, between Elizabeth on 37th and The Collins Quarter.

And last but not least, the biggest disappointment of the night was the one thing I never even got to try. So hyped up was their infamous coconut cake, “made from scratch everyday.” Well, apparently not EVERY day, because they didn’t bother to make it the day I went. Grudge holder? Perhaps. But not enough to keep me from going back.

3 teeth

 

The Libertine

38 E Washington St. Indianapolis, IN 46204(317) 631-3333libertineindy.com
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Ya gotta love low expectations. They never cease to amaze. Sure, call my skepticism snobbery, I’ll admit it. But c’mon, it’s Indianapolis. It’s not exactly runneth over with culinary cred. However, cred is definitely something Libertine doeth haveth.

From the moment you set foot in the bar-ish restaurant, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Indianapolis. Same diff. A bit on the narrow side, but made up for in spades with healthy does of cool. Feels like a mod version of something out of Sweeney Todd, granted that could’ve been partly due to our server’s attire.

Speaking of service, that was one of my major nits. First, she missed placing not one, but two different orders and then, to make matters worse, she brought a dish that we didn’t even ask for. Which would’ve been fine if it were awesome, but sadly it failed on my other major nit- too many over-cooked dishes. Three to be precise: the burger (which we didn’t order), the brisket and the parpadelle. The flavors in all, however, where very nice, they just need to learn when to take it off the heat.

Wait a second. This review isn’t going as intended. I actually loved this place. So, as Chris Martin would say, go back to the start, with the cocktail… The Rose Anonymous. Well, Rose is about to get famous, because it deserves nothing but accolades and exclamation points. Made with 4 Roses Bourbon, rosemary, lemon and ginger beer. It’s drinks like these that make cabs a necessity.

Then, right on the heels of my cocktail came the trio of bacon- pork, jowl and lamb. Accompanied with harissa, sweet apple and cherry mustard. Definitive proof that three is a magic number.

Keeping pace, were the heavenly deviled eggs. Groan away, but just make sure you get them, because they are ultimate worthy. Topped with whitefish and two types of caviar. Which equals three types of awesome.

And like the Beatles, the hits just keep coming. The lamb ribs were so moist a saucy it was ridic! If my tongue could marry these ribs I would be happy attend that wedding.

Even the Scotch egg was mighty fine. Done with a slightly thicker crust than usual, but it held up nonetheless. Crispy on the outside, gooey and yolky on the innards. And yummy-ass-yummy all over.

On the mortal side, the bok choy was also very good. Refreshing amidst the see of decadence on the table, with it’s bright hit of vinegar.

The mussels were also good, but compared to the waves of bliss before them, it was hard to get out of my chair for yet another standing ovation.

And naturally there were a few misses as well. The toast with chorizo is a big blah. And both desserts (there were only two options) were very unsatisfying. A beer, not of the root variety, float and a shortcake with blueberry compote. Both were so lacking that it both literally and figuratively left a bad taste in my mouth after such an awesome meal. A crime almost punishable by three knives- but considering how many hits there were, I’m squeaking out four… but barely.

4 teeth

Blue Smoke

116 E 27th St. New York, NY 10016(212) 447-7733 • bluesmoke.com/blue
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Having grown up in the psuedo-South (Flordia), I know that BBQ is a subject not to be taken lightly. So, in all seriousness, while Blue Smoke is great at some things they are so-so at many others. Basically what you might expect from a St. Louis boy like Danny Meyer. who seems to have never spent more time training in Italy and France than he has below the Mason-Dixon Line.

To help you navigate though the hits and misses, here are my thoughts:

The shrimp po’ boy is a solid good. Has some really nice kick to it and actually manages to best the pulled pork shoulder, which should easily be tops, but tends to be on the arid side, begging for sauce, which is always a cop out in the land of BBQ. Sure, the sauce needs to be great, but it shouldn’t be a moisture crutch.

Back on the plus side, the brisket is pretty damn skippy. I know a lot of people swear by Hill Country, which is also very good, but if you ask for the more marbled meat, you’re in for a fatty face filthin’ feast.

Another HUGE hit, which they sadly removed form the menu, are the sweet potato fries. Served in gigantic wedges the size of canoes and drizzled with a creme fraiche/sour cream that’s worth barging into the kitchen and demanding they whip you up a batch.

And last but not least, some clarity on pricing. Don’t listen to the Yelping consensus who seem to complain an awful lot about how expensive it is, but then categorize it as only $$. Make up your mind. This is why I left Yelp. Too many people with opinions that don’t agree with mine 🙂 Anyways, it’s no more expensive than you’d expect in the Flatiron. So, if you’re craving BBQ and this is closer than Hill Country, I say game on.

3 teeth

Num Pang

21 E 12th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 255-3271 numpangnyc.com

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I’ve been going to Num Pang since they were one location in Union Square. And back then they definitely owned every last drop of these four knives. But since they’ve expanded all over the city, they have unfortunately lost a step. Granted it’s a small, baby step, but a step nonetheless.

Some of the enduring wows are the 5 spice pork belly and the hoisin meatballs. But with special sandwiches like the grilled peaches & bacon, duck, grilled salmon and meatloaf they keep things interesting.

Honorable mentions are in order for the tiger shrimp, the peppercorn catfish and brisket, which would’ve gotten more love if it wasn’t served so dry. But virtually every sandwich here rocks with its spicy, messy goodness seeping from the sides. Just don’t forget to grab some Sriracha.

On the non-sandwich front their hot & sour chicken soup is killer and their blood orange lemonade is a great accompaniment to any of the above.

Such a great option when you’re sick of the same old sandwiches, but still want a sandwich. One with a little Vietnamese/Cambodian Banh mi action.

4 teeth