If there is good barbecue to be had in this city, it has been removed from its natural habitat. Like a Texas cowboy come to New York to prostitute his body, barbecue gone North has been estranged from its essential self. Barbecue is about knowable communal activities—gathering ’round the smoker, taking shifts turning the coals, putting together parish-wide buffets and picnics. It is an art of the countryside, a vestigial organ of the American pastoral, a wild sentiment domesticated in the suburbs, a real figment of the American moral imagination, a rural fantasy made material. It is a Gary Snyderian experience—like a smoke haze, three days of heat after five days of rain, swarms of new flies, drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup. It is anathema to the soot and despair of city living.
In New York, the barbecue restaurant invokes country living but, in the end, everything feels too smoothed and polished, too damn commercial. When I eat at Hill Country or Dinosaur Bar-B-Que or Blue Smoke, I enter with the wrong expectations and leave disappointed. The only way to enjoy New York barbecue, as it has been institutionalized, is to expect Universal Studios and smile, anesthetized, at ugly food and people at their ugliest.
If I had a dollar for every bad rib I’ve eaten here and every time I had dinner while people sat there drunk, I’d catch the next train back to where I live. I grew up in St. Louis, where barbecue happens in backyards. We threw down pork shoulders in oil can smokers and brewed sauce in big kettles. An authentic and genuine barbecue experience requires the “we,” the instantiation of creative energy in a communal task. Barbecue must be a live issue for the people involved: It must always really matter. That is why RUB BBQ is my favorite restaurant in New York. RUB is New York’s only sincere barbecue joint, the only spot where the anonymity of city life slips into an ecstatic rejoinder of recognition.
In 2005, Andrew Fischel started RUB BBQ. It’s half-acronym—the name means “Righteous Urban Barbecue.” Executive Chef Paul Kirk is in the Barbecue Hall of Fame, which is all you need to know about the quality of ’cue coming out of the kitchen.
Current Pit Master Scott Smith keeps the RUB smoker moving smoothly. He has the touch of a master craftsman. I imagine his hands are supple from stroking many sides of pastrami. He certainly has quite a way with a rack of ribs.
Although you can eat your way down the menu without any prior preparation, a savvy ’cue connoisseur approaches a visit to RUB as a question of strategy. It’s imperative to arrive early in the evening. RUB cooks a discrete quantity of meat each day, so it tends to run out of more popular menu items (burnt ends, I’m talking about you). Go with a good group. I define a good group as four fellow meat eaters, all without qualms about finger sucking or otherwise insanitary food sharing practices. Order meat by the pound and sides in the large size. Eat until you feel ill, then eat until it feels good again.
False prophets preach of “fall-off-the-bone” ribs. RUB’s ribs adhere to the competition standard: meat that yields without resistance to the tooth but remains attached to the bone.
Pulled pork, drizzled with RUB’s tangy house sauce, makes a nice sandwich folded up in white bread with pickles. Or try the pastrami, moist and smoky like a Turkish bath. It, like in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” speaks “of prehistoric times, earlier even than the era of the cavemen and lake dwellers that I have studied in school, a time when above the oozing bog that was the earth, swirling white gasses choked out the sunlight and aeons passed while the planet was drained for Man.”
As for side dishes—don’t miss the beans. They’re the most sublime legumes ever tasted—and, contrary to Pythagoras’ advice, I’ve eaten many a baked or barbecued bean in my time.
Burnt ends, though, are the best thing to eat at RUB. They are Satan’s McNuggets. They are little charred parcels of sweet beef fat and pink brisket. They are psychotropic: eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head-foaming-at-the-mouth crazy delicious. During live performances of “Born to Run,” Clarence Clemons (may he rest in peace) would, at the song’s climax, cover Bruce Springsteen’s ears as though to protect him from the wall of sound. Experiences of such profound and excessive beauty are too much for the human body to bear.
What is the purpose, the vocation, the destiny of RUB in the universe of New York barbecue? As Springsteen once evangelized: “To reeducate ya to resuscitate ya to regenerate ya to reconfiscate ya to recombobulate ya to reindoctrinate ya to resexualate ya to rededicate ya to reliberate ya, with the power and the glory with the power and the glory with the promise with the majesty with the mystery with the ministry of...” barbecue.
I came into town, a one night stand—looks like my plans fell through. Oh, Lord, stuck in New York again. At least I finally found a barbecue spot that reminds me of home. RUB cannot replicate barbecue’s native ecology. It does, however, come close enough to provoke a real reflex of pleasure. Cue gratuitous fist pumping, shirt waving, crawling over security guards onto the smoker to swipe a single drop of holy sweat, a variety of religious experience in no way inferior to pure rapture.