BBQ City Limits update: Ruby’s BBQ
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Hours: 11am-11pm Sun-Thu; 11am-midnight Fri-Sat.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.04.13
I have this theory that the New Q Movement is concentrating more on temperature than smoke. I say that because I’m finding barbecue with luxuriant texture, golden rendering and careful crusting, but about as much smoke as an E-Cig. The spirit of the wood is weak or absent altogether.
But after 25 years of smoking on the North Drag, Ruby’s doesn’t have that problem. I get postcard campfire character in most every bite. Brisket, ribs, chicken. They all beckon from the heart of the pit with smoke like Sunday incense. It’s not heavy or tannic, just present like the crackle of oaken embers.
That ring of smoke made me more open-minded about Ruby’s brisket, even though it was as fragile as an artifact (part of a 3-meat plate for $17.95 with two sides). The fatcap had gone full mahogany, melted almost to nothing, like a savory pudding skein, and the meat fell away at the edges, barbecue’s shockumentary of ice shelves shearing away under steady warming.
(ABOVE: Babyback ribs, at left, and St. Louis spareribs from Ruby’s, a barbecue haunt that’s stood for a quarter-century north of UT.)
The smoke played redeemer for babyback pork ribs. They were small and scrappy and wore their skin like iron, but the meat’s aromatic blush made up for that. Babybacks are standard issue at Ruby’s. An order of St. Louis spareribs ($13.95 lb.) required 25 minutes of patience for them to finish their firewalk. They’re cousins to the babybacks, judging from the hard patina of the outer shell. But there was more fat, more lean, more of everything.
A neoprene glove has more give than the skin of this barbecued chicken, though. The leg quarter is my favorite cut, but I couldn’t tear through to the meat with mere canines. I had to peel the skin away in one big sheet, a sheet with the tensile strength of a tarp. And like a tarp, it kept the meat underneath dry, when we want our birds to take a walk in the rain.
I’d eat sweet-and-sour collard greens at Ruby’s every time, but if I hadn’t branched out, I’d never have met the thick and stewy BBQ beans with a mean pepper bite, nor the Southwest mashed potatoes with butter and a tasty dodge of red and green peppers.
Ruby’s sauce is all vinegar and spice, except for the rush of red sugar like molasses on a biscuit. That sensory image contributes to the back-porch vibe. Ruby’s is a shambling place with a tintype aura that infuses the weathered dining room and the covered wooden patio on the side. Out back lies a sun-dappled plaza where a teal and red smokeshed stands. As a total barbecue experience, Ruby’s still feels like Austin in the ‘80s. It wasn’t the flashiest barbecue last time around, but Ruby’s was good enough to make the Top 10. The rise of New Q might change that standing. I don’t imagine Ruby’s will care. She’ll be out back taking a smoke break.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP, clockwise from top left: Chicken, Southwest-style mashed potatoes, BBQ beans, babyback ribs, St. Louis spareribs and brisket. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)