The pompous and sanctimonious name kept me out of R.U.B. (Righteous Urban Barbecue) for weeks. So, too, was I skeptical of the wave of hype that carried its Kansas City impresario, Paul Kirk, into town. The fact that he’d published barbecue cookbooks and won lots of awards (425 according to the menu) failed to impress me—it’s America’s old-fashioned barbecues I’m obsessed with, and my experience of barbecue contests is that they’re often won by the guy who dumps kiwi jam in his sauce. I was also suffering from a case of bad-‘cue fatigue, occasioned by the half-dozen purveyors that have opened in the last few months, including the equally deplorable Smoked and Spanky’s.
Anomalously located on West 23rd Street, R.U.B. is utilitarian. A dozen employees careen behind the counter and inside the narrow kitchen, as if expecting a crowd of hundreds to traipse in the door at any moment. They eventually do, around 8:30 p.m. A greeter behind a podium directs you to the front room or the back room, both of which are pleasantly devoid of decoration. Eschewing both, I did what I’ve resolved to do at every new joint—carry out a shitload of food as a test, then take it as far away from the dining room as possible, knowing that many BBQs depend on smoke in the room rather than smoke in the meat to make you think you’re eating ‘cue.
I peddled home at maximum speed so the product would still be warm and spread the hoard in front of me on the counter. Like a hyperactive child trying to please its parents, but unsure of how to do so, R.U.B. offers a wildly irrational assortment of meats, including “Szechwan” duck and—in a particularly ballsy move for New York—pastrami. Since Kirk hails from Kansas City, though, the pork ribs are front and center. A full rack ($22) comprises 13 or so well-fleshed bones. They’re moist and hammy, with a bit of fat here and there and an exterior that’s mildly sweet. The accompanying sauce is a species of thick ketchup. It’s best to ignore it.
The sausage is decent too, three kinds sold by the sandwich ($7.50) or by the pound ($15.75). The “spicy barbecued” is coarse textured, with little chewy nuggets inside, reminding me of the smoked kielbasas in Polish butcher shops. The biggest disappointment, accompanied by a torrent of bad prose, is the “King of Kings—BBQ brisket, the Baron of beef.” Uniformly gray, fatless, machine cut, with a micrometers-thin smoke ring, it fails to charm. Given a choice between eating the front page of the Post or a slice of R.U.B.’s brisket, I’d be hard-pressed to decide.
Disasters aside, the bill of fare has many high points, including a side of deep-fried onions unsurpassed in the city. The turkey is consistently juicy, and the chicken—rubbery skin and all—is as good as barbecued chicken gets. In fact, you can’t go wrong going avian—the duck is also excellent, featuring a dark, plump breast and crisp skin, marred only by its sugary glaze. There’s virtually no chile heat, though, and the recipe has more in common with a red Coney Island candy apple than anything Sichuan. And what about the pastrami? Well, let’s just say that Katz’s and the Second Avenue Deli have nothing to worry about.