South Baltimore Joint Serves Up Hearty Lone Star Fare
A real, nice Texas barbecue restaurant with the wished-Iíd-though-of-it name Rub has opened in South Baltimore. It is the project Michael Marks has been dreaming up since before he sold Blue Agave, his Federal Hill temple to tequila and Mexican food. And, like that restaurant, Rub thoroughly reflects the extensive travels and abiding passions of its owner, but it offers less posturing and lesson giving.
Rub sits on the borderline between a groaning industrial neighborhood and what can be kindly called a transitional neighborhood. Itís not located here by accident. This is a corner straight out of a Walker Evans photograph, and Rub is meant to stir up authentic feelings about Texas and the good food that Texans make for each other. Expanses of corrugated metal and neon beer signs suggest a spilled-up honky-tonk on the first floor. A graceful layout of high-back wooden booths--emblazoned with the Rub logo--and more of that evocative corrugation lies upstairs. Six-pack cartons serve as tabletop condiment holders. The service operates at that opening-cast level of pure commitment.
Now, it sure is interesting that America is so big that it can accommodate different regional variations of barbecue. And probably because Baltimore is a neutral city in the great barbecue wars, you almost never hear of people around here pulling knives over the relative merits of Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, and Carolina barbecue traditions. Letís just say that Rubís version of authentic Lone Star barbecue, which revels in slow cooking over low heat and largely avoids applications of gooey sauces, is a welcome addition to the local scene.
The menu here is smart, streamlined, and full of purpose. A quartet of appetizers, big plates featuring the five different meats Rub works with--brisket, flat ribs, beef sausage, chicken, and turkey--and a handful of sandwiches. Skipping appetizers isnít a bad idea--the food here fills up quickly, and the place also offers a menu of slushy, head-pounding cocktails, concocted mostly from Jim Beam or Red Bull, to spend money on instead. Of these, the Lone Star lemonade and the spiked peach tea are served in cool little milk bottles. (And pecan pie and banana pudding await you at the mealís end, too.) The thing to do is order a mixed-meat platter ($13 for two, $16 for three, or $19 for all five), which come with two sides, thick slabs of white toast, and the traditional onions and pickles trimmings.
Brisket is the house specialty, and Rub treats its Black Angus beef with a chile-based rub and slow-smokes it over leisurely half-days. This results in something very tender and a little bit beautiful--the science of slow-smoking will frequently impart a pink ring to the meat--but the rub doesnít really result in strong flavors. Some palettes may find it too subtle both here and on the fatty pork ribs (whole-rack platter $22; half rack $13), which have been rubbed with jalapeŮo and cane sugar. But these rubs are employed as much for alchemy as flavor--itís a good idea to savor the natural meat flavors and then reach for one of Rubís three squeeze-bottle sauces (of varying degrees of heat and sweet to liven things up a bit).
This prudence is particularly true of the lightly smoked turkey breast ($11), a marvel of modest flavor that responds so well to a taste of honey. Beef sausage ($11) is a welcome addition to a combo platter but unlikely as a stand-alone entrťe. The organic chicken breast ($14) is the weakling of the bunch, responding least well to the slow-cooking method.
The two sides to get here are gut-busters: Texas corn pudding, with cream, onion, garlic, and serrano ham (sides are $2.50 ŗ la carte), and the creamed spinach, fattened up with cream cheese and flavored with caramelized onions, garlic, and serrano ham. Bits of bacon and brisket make pinto beans worth considering, but some other sides are fine but not newsworthy: a mac íní cheese that is properly creamy but could stand a little nontraditional intervention, home-style green beans that sounded better on paper, and prosaic skin-on fries.
Rub might strike some diners as a little contrived, and there is something stagy about the whole production. But itís actually a sweet and fun place to hang out in and talk about more interesting things than barbecue.