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RUB is co-owned by barbecue legend Paul Kirk, holder of more than 400 cooking awards, including seven World Championship of BBQ titles. It’s a full service restaurant with a small bar and a few plasma TVs. Seating consists of a few deuces and four-tops, some by a sliding glass door that allows al fresco dining in the warmer months. A long takeout counter and chalkboard menu add character, but for the most part, the ambience here is very low key. That's a good thing, because it means they're focusing on the food rather than the scene. RUB doesn’t have an open kitchen, but you can see the J&R smokers behind the counter. Voyeurs can watch the meats being prepared through a display window outside.
The RUB menu is almost all barbecue, but within that constraint the offerings are diverse. St Louis ribs are available by the full slab ($22.75) or half slab, and you choose which half you want: the long end's 6 bones or the short end's 7 bones. There are also babybacks ($24.75/slab), rib tips and deep-fried ribs. Add the usual brisket and chicken, as well as burnt ends, ham, turkey, sausage and pastrami, and it’s pretty obvious that it would take several visits to survey the full menu. I'm having a good time doing just that. After nearly a dozen meals at RUB, I’m still torn between old favorites and new discoveries. For the adventurous, RUB offers Szechuan smoked duck ($26.75) and a Down Home Pig Pickin’ (pull your own whole butt for $89.75 with 4 sides). On Monday and Tuesday nights, you can get the beef rib special (a single rib that easily feeds one person) and their pork belly appetizer special.
On my first visit, I got the long ribs and some pulled pork, along with vinegar cole slaw. The ribs, served on two slices of white bread in a paper-lined metal tray, were meaty, pink, and slightly smoky. They had a good flavor from equal contributions of pork, smoke, rub and the faintest application of sauce. Technically, these were prepared perfectly, though there wasn't any wow factor. The pulled pork was excellent, with long strings, small pieces and a little bark. The meat was extremely juicy, with a good flavor from smoke, pork and a light touch of vinegar. There were no sugary or mustardy flavors for distractions.
At the end of that visit, I chatted with owner Andrew Fischel, who noticed my photo taking during the meal. When he discovered that I hadn’t ordered RUB’s signature burnt ends, he brought me a few to sample, and they were spectacular. Tender, juicy and beaming with flavor from the meat and the rub, they provided the wow factor I was looking for. I wished I had ordered these originally, but I’ve had them in most of my subsequent visits.
With my wife as my dining companion for my second visit to RUB, I was able to sample 4 meats and 4 sides and get another perspective on the place. This time, we got a half a combo's worth of the burnt ends and they were again stellar: crisp and loaded with rub on the outside, super tender, super moist and super flavorful inside. I prefer these to 95% of the steaks I've had, and I've eaten some excellent steaks. The other half of the combo was smoked turkey. It had a nice flavor, good smokiness and a nice color on the outside. Great compared to most turkey you'd get at a deli, but a little dry compared to the other barbecue items here. Pulled pork was very good, nice and tender, with the straightforward flavors of pork, smoke and vinegar instead of the oversauced mess you get at most BBQ joints. Not quite as good as the first time, but still very good. The three ribs we added ($6.00) to one of the platters were small but meaty, and barbecued to perfection. These plump babies had great color and gushed juices at the mere suggestion of a bite. Their smoky, porky flavor was like bacon with bones.
I finally sampled appetizers on my third and fourth visits. Their BBQ bacon chunks are to pork what RUB’s burnt ends are to beef: a crispy, glistening exercise in excess, and excessively good. If you like the bacon at Peter Luger, you’ll like these too. The chili was very good, with a thick, dark beef base, just the right level of heat and lots of brisket bits and smaller burnt ends thrown in. I could live without the beans, but they contributed rather than imposed. Burnt ends lived up their now-expected level of excellence both times. Pulled pork was good but not as good as earlier. Ribs were very good both times, but didn’t produce the same pork epiphany I experienced on my second visit. The brisket in a 2-meat combo was sliced thin and fanned beautifully to show the pink smoke ring on each of the dozen or so slices. It was slightly moist, with a good flavor and texture.
Sides at RUB have been routinely excellent. Onion strings were crisp and well seasoned, with a little kick from either paprika or chile powder. Excellent vinegar based cole slaw was crisp and well balanced between sweet and tart, complementing the meats nicely. “Today’s greens” vary. Collard greens were okay, but meatless and more finely chopped than I like. Another rendition of greens had leafy collards, mustard greens, spinach and bacon, and I liked that much better. Baked beans were very smoky, loaded with hunks of meat (brisket, I think) and bathed in a deliciously savory sauce. I’ve had them a half dozen times now and they’re easily among the best baked beans I've ever had.
Some of the sandwiches at RUB are masterpieces. The Reuben Crusher—smoked pastrami, swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on toased rye—is a favorite, and the chopped brisket sandwich made with the pinkest of deckle might just be the best sandwich I've ever tasted. I also like the BLFGT (bacon, lettuce and fried green tomatoes), whose smokiness from the bacon is offset by the tartness of the tomatoes. There's even a rib sandwich.
In more recent visits, I've sampled a little bit of everything. The pork ribs have repeatedly reached the level of that second visit, and the burnt ends never disappoint. Chicken is pretty good, but not as good as most of the rest of the menu. The smoky, juicy pastrami is the overlooked gem here. Sure, the ribs are a given and the burnt ends are a must, but the pastrami is more than worth a try, especially in the Reuben Crusher. In early 2007 I finally tried the beef rib, a fork tender beauty that carries more smoke and spice than the pork ribs. It's easily the most hefty I've ever wielded, and it's one of the two or three best.
Prices can add up easily at RUB, but the portions are generous, and not just by Manhattan standards. Pork is piled high, there were 10 full slices of turkey or brisket in a 2-meat combo, side dishes are overflowing. The onion string basket was huge. The add-on ribs were from the short end of the rack, but three for $6 is more than fair. Interestingly, there was no cornbread, but two slices of white bread accompany each platter.
In the early days there was just one hot sauce and one barbecue sauce, a nice compromise between sweet and tangy. Now there's also a spicier sauce and a vinegar sauce. It's always refreshing to have meats that don't depend on the sauce as a crutch, but at RUB, the meats are moist enough and flavorful enough that it never even occurs to me to add sauce.
The options of ordering meats on sandwiches (most around $9.00), by the platter ($14.75 for 1 meat, $4.00 for each additional meat) or in bulk (most around $16.00/lb) allow a lot of flexibility. Depending on how many meats and sides you want, you can work the menu to your liking. I like to curl up in bed with a menu the night before a visit, figuring out the permutations ahead of time. Keep in mind that the RUB menu is a carnivore's delight, but the choices are limited if there's a vegetarian or seafood lover in your party. A pulled portobello sandwich looks interesting though.
The meats at RUB are cooked fresh, with no reheating using grills or microwaves. Because of the long lead times required for real barbecue, that can mean running out of certain items, but I see that as a plus. I'd rather have an item not be available, but know that I'm going to get today's product, not reworked leftovers. Although the quality is always high, I have noticed slight variations from visit to visit. But when RUB brings its A game, there's not a single New England or New York BBQ joint I'd rather eat at.
RUB is located right next door to the Gotham Comedy Club, where you can now enjoy their barbecue during performances. With speedy service, it’s also ideal for a meal before a movie at the Clearview Cinema a few doors down the street.
The bottom line: RUB is serious barbecue for the serious barbecue fan. If you’re expecting to use up several napkins on soaking wet, fall-off-the-bone faux ‘cue, you’ll probably be disappointed here. But if you like extra smoky meats cooked in old school competition style, you’re in for a treat. I think RUB has the best all-around barbecue in Manhattan and is among the very best in the Northeast region.
New York Magazine's profile of RUB
The Amateur Gourmet's review of RUB
New York Magazine's Best Of BBQ
Yelp reviews of RUB