Remembering Ruby’s: Barbecue was family tradition, link to old Austin

  • Rebecca Markovits
  • Special to the American-Statesman
12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 Austin360 Eats

A couple of Sundays ago, I chatted with friends and family over the scant remains of what may have been my last lunch at Ruby’s BBQ. After almost 30 years anchoring what is for me a particularly nostalgic corner at the north end of the Drag, this well-worn Austin smoke joint is closing its doors Feb. 17.

The restaurant was crowded with loyal patrons anxious to get in one more meal, and as we stood up from one of the long tables on the small outdoor deck, reluctantly getting ready to leave, a woman hovered nearby.

“Don’t worry, I’m not trying to steal your seats,” she said apologetically. “I just want to take a photo for my friend — Ruby’s catered his wedding, and he’s scratched his name somewhere into this table.”

The wooden surface of the picnic table was shiny from the greasy, eager fingers of years of barbecue fans and cross-hatched with their names, etched into the wood like lovers’ initials. There were too many to count, and after a brief, unsuccessful hunt, the woman snapped a few vague, bittersweet pictures and withdrew.

I grew up in the neighborhood behind Ruby’s, roughly 300 yards from its esteemed brick pits, and I had my wedding’s rehearsal dinner catered by the restaurant. At my older sister Stefanie’s wedding eight years earlier — celebrated, like mine, under a tent pitched in the backyard of our childhood home — Ruby’s barbecue was also on the menu. When my parents approached the late, lovely Luke Zimmerman, who founded Ruby’s in 1988 with his wife, Pat Mares, about that gig, he insisted on taking them out to hear various local acts he knew to help find a band for the party.

A few years later, my father carried 40 pounds of Ruby’s famous chopped beef in a suitcase on an airplane to London for my brother Ben’s wedding to an English girl, waltzing the delicious contraband through “Nothing to Declare” wearing an expression of purest innocence. A particular favorite — crusty, savory burnt ends studded with caramel onions and doused in Ruby’s pert, spicy sauce — the chopped beef is easily the best in town and will be sorely missed. The Brits were duly impressed — or maybe “stunned” is more the word.

I’m the only one of my parents’ five kids who has managed to stay in Austin. Each Christmas and New Year’s, when our ever-ballooning family converges on Markovits HQ for our annual bout of food, family and sentimental squabbling, we are sure to traipse in a straggling, happy procession out the back garden gate and down the alley to Ruby’s. I think it gave Pat a bit of a kick to hear the accents of the British contingent each year, but not as much of a kick as it gave Ben to see his son Henry devouring substantial heapings of smoked meat. All my siblings took pleasure in introducing their kids, each born far outside the Lone Star State, to barbecue at Ruby’s.

On this Sunday, I, too, had brought my new baby along, vaguely melancholy at the thought that at only 4 months she was too young to sample the sauce, and now never would.

For a long time, the ragtag corner of 29th and Guadalupe where Ruby’s stands had held out against the inexorable shiny spread of the new Austin. Ruby’s was surrounded by such fine company as Milto’s Mediterranean Cafe, Conan’s Pizza, Toy Joy toy store, Antone’s blues club and its sister record shop, Taco Shack, Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, and Ken’s Donuts (to which, if we’d managed to leave any room, we’d often repair after lunch for a sticky, yeasty doughnut hole dessert, dished out by a lanky stoner who palmed generous handfuls into a bag in reckless indifference to the actual count). Most of these treasured establishments, except to the fondest of gazes, were as undeniably ugly as the busy sunbaked corner gas station around which they clustered, but along the wide sidewalks people loped comfortably, and even the traffic seemed lazy.

The intersection was for me the heart of a late ’80s Austin spiritual heyday unchallenged by the current boom. Its stoned-out, weirdo, carelessly friendly spirit was most famously captured by Richard Linklater’s 1990 movie “Slacker,” with its generation “floating from school to street to bookstore to movie theater with a certain uncertainty … like TV channel-cruising, no plot, no tragic flaws, no resolution, just mastering the moment.” And Ruby’s — with its additional flavor of smoke and sass, with its signed blues posters on the walls and its notched tables, its musician friends and tattooed staff, with its Frito pie and its all-natural meat and terrific veggie sides long before that was trendy — so wonderfully, achingly conveyed everything I loved about old Austin that I always took out-of-towners there.

My husband, a New Yorker whom I first took to Ruby’s when we were college kids and he flew down to meet my folks, used to call it the best-smelling corner in America. That perfume was courtesy of Ruby’s smoke, and without it the corner will never be quite the same.

Of course, whom are we kidding? Antone’s moved long ago, and we sadly lost Clifford Antone a few years before we lost Luke. Toy Joy moved, under new ownership, to a bright shop on downtown’s swish Second Street. Vulcan Video and I Luv Video retreated to cheaper digs, and it’s hard not to read their demise in every new Netflix binge-fest. They carefully count the doughnut holes at Ken’s now. No one’s a kid forever.

When I emailed my siblings about Ruby’s imminent closure, the sadness was palpable. “Can’t somebody take it over? I don’t think we should accept this,” Ben wrote from London. Final care packages of ’cue, to be sent to the snow-covered East Coast, were duly requested. But like the rest of Austin, we will lose something that will be harder to replace than just the brisket when Pat closes up shop this weekend.

When, about a decade ago, my husband got the all-clear after a terrifying but blessedly curable cancer diagnosis, it was at Ruby’s that we all celebrated. Champagne and barbecue. What could be better? As it used to say on an old Ruby’s T-shirt: “Better living through BBQ.” Indeed.

Rebecca Markovits is co-editor of the journal “American Short Fiction” and is working on a book about public spaces in Austin.