Hisako Roberts was of Japanese descent, grew up in Hawaii, and moved to Texas with her husband in 1956.
The Roberts' barbecue roots go all the way back to Thurman's great-grandmother Bettie.
Thurman and Hisako Roberts founded The Salt Lick in 1967. (All photos by The Salt Lick)
The Salt Lick offers up a special Sunday menu.
The Texas barbecue community has lost of one its real pioneers — a founder of a famed barbecue institution. Hisako Tsuchiyama Roberts, co-founder of The Salt Lick, passed away in Austin on January 18. She was 104.
While she was not a Texas native, Hisako left a lasting impact on the barbecue scene in the state she called home. Hisako was a key player in The Salt Lick’s creation, development, and popularity, and she brought her own flair to its food.
“Her legacy would be one of spirit,” her son, Scott Roberts, tells PaperCity. “She was one of the hardest working people I ever met in my life. She was totally committed to everything she started doing,” he adds. She was committed to both her education and her career.
Hisako graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA with a master’s degree in psychology before she went on to open The Salt Lick with her husband, Thurman.
Hisako and Thurman founded The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, together in 1967. Hisako was a Texas transplant, originally from Lihue, Kauai in Hawaii. She met her husband, Thurman, a tried-and-true Texan, when he was stationed in Hawaii with the Navy during World War II.
After meeting on the porch of the Nawiliwili Harbour Store, they married and moved to Thurman’s hometown with their two sons in 1956. Thurman’s ancestors had settled in the area back in the 1870s.
Salt Lick’s roots date back to then. Thurman’s great-grandmother, Bettie Howard, barbecued meat by searing it and slow-cooking it over coals. The Roberts family still uses this method today at The Salt Lick.
Before opening The Salt Lick, Thurman worked for a bridge construction company. The job required constant travel. He grew tired of the grind and sought a way to find more time with his family. One day, he and Hisako took out a yellow legal pad to brainstorm different ways the family could make a living and still spend all of their time in Driftwood.
Opening a barbecue joint was No. 14 out of 54 on the list. It won out, and Thurman and his sons, Butch and Scott, built a huge barbecue pit on the ranch where Thurman was born. The family got to work.
Hisako’s “goal was to make Salt Lick your favorite restaurant,” Roberts says, covering everything from service to the quality of the food.
His mother brought her Hawaiian and Japanese culinary influences to The Salt Lick’s famous sides. Her spin on potato salad includes celery seeds, and her veggie slaw is peppered with black sesame seeds. She even fried vegetables and shrimp tempura style.
Never Truly Retired
Thurman passed away in 1981, putting Hisako in charge of the restaurant. She stayed true to the way they had run The Salt Lick together. In 1987, she retired, passing the reins to Scott.
“I had really been associated with it since its conception. Nothing really changed at the restaurant,” Roberts says. “Even though she wasn’t working all the time, she still came in every day.
“Usually to tell us what we were doing wrong,” he adds, laughing.
Hisako remained engaged in the business she’d had a great hand in starting, especially with its customers. “She’d come in and talk to people. She always came and sat a certain table, table 14 by the front door,” her son says. She would eat and talk to people.
In 2012, Scott released a book about his family memories and recipes, Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family, and Love. The book, written with Jessica Dupuy, shared Hisako’s chicken and dumplings recipe and insights into her character. “Whether it was on our property, at the restaurant, in the garden, in the kitchen, Hisako was always doing something productive. It was just her way,” the book reads.
The book also details her style of cooking at the restaurant, like tempura, along with her home cooking. Hisako used fresh ingredients from her garden and would “adapt them with flavors from her heritage,” like stir-fried black-eyed peas.
Hisako will be remembered for excellent cooking, her financial acumen, love of education and more. In support of her love of education, her family has requested that donations be made to The University of Texas at Austin and Austin’s NPR station KUT, in lieu of flowers.
The Salt Lick chain is expanding, but it is certain to hold firmly to Hisako’s work ethic and standards. There are Salt Licks in Austin, at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, at Oklahoma City Will Rogers World Airport, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and in Round Rock.
A new one is on its way to Grapevine, set to open later this year or in 2019. Moving forward, her son is using his mother as inspiration.
“Anything she tried to do, she did it the best she could possibly do,” Roberts says.