BBQ City Limits: Ruby's BBQ

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Ruby’s BBQ
512 W. 29th St. 477-1651,
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.17.12
Kim Wilson autographed my table in 1990. He’s on the wall above in a crisp black-and-white photo, playing with Buddy Guy. And he’s coming through the speakers right this minute, doing a cover of “Time Is on My Side.” And today Ruby’s BBQ is on my side, because Kim Wilson is my favorite blues harmonica player, an admiration forged just down the street at the old home of Antone’s., where Wilson held the stage with legendary bluesmen and his own band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. (Look up “Sofa Circuit” for a contagious case of the who-cares blues.)
Ruby’s has watched its stretch of the Drag change since 1988, sprouting ugly Soviet-bloc condos on three corners. But it still has a view of Dirty Martin’s, Toy Joy and Ken’s Donuts, a solid reminder of its 24-year piece of Austin foodlore. In barbecue years, 24 isn’t so many, but Ruby’s has a rustic look, feel and taste that suggests further back. The brisket is the ancient brown of a standup bass, with a crust rubbed as smooth as the ebony fretboard. It lays down a beat for a three-meat plate ($16.95 with two sides), with the thicker and fattier cuts holding down a loose deep end and the lean running tighter on the high side. Its smoke weaves through the melody of the plate without pulling down the tempo.
Babyback pork ribs and Elgin beef sausage fill the front of the stage, the babybacks as lacquered red as Chinese ribs. They cling to the bone for strength but fall away when the moment calls for it, a balance of fat and lean with a surface like a strip of rawhide. Sausage brings the unexpected texture of loose-packed beef and fat and mellow spice in a casing both strong as cellophane and fully porous for the smoke to hit its solo notes.
Two sides: You want your side men loose but reliable, and that describes twirled fusilli pasta cased in clingy orange cheese and herbs and collard greens folded over like wet green cheesecloth that’s absorbed vinegar and sugar and porky notes from chunks of hard-cooked ham.
Dessert: If you can’t decide between the syrupy density of cobbler and the twang of banana pudding, Ruby’s puts those textures and tastes together in a bowl of banana bread pudding ($2.25), with pieces of almonds and tannic pecans for character.
Sauce: The guy with the harmonica in this barbecue band is the sauce, wailing with rebellious abandon to bring a peppers-in-vinegar swerve to your basic swamp-red mop sauce. It’s so far above most of its fellow players in the business that it hardly qualifies as barbecue sauce. Ain’t that tough enough?
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)