Many aspects of Austin culture exert a strong gravitational pull – the music, the arts, the food, the attractive surroundings. In the Eighties, Pat Mares and Luke Zimmerman were attracted here by an acclaimed library collection and the music scene, but instead found themselves the creators of a local barbecue legend.
In 1988, when Austin’s culinary identity was still pretty much defined by Tex-Mex combos, down home cooking, and barbecue, a Nebraska Czech farm girl and a cab-driving band manager from Minneapolis opened a Texas barbecue joint just north of the UT campus. Twenty-five years is a quite a track record for any restaurant – even more so for one where longevity depends on the daily management of live fire.
Pat recalls that she and her husband, Luke, and their buddy Greg Schilling rented the former Fajita Flats on W. 29th Street because the rental price was right in an economic downtown. Also, it occurred to them that a barbecue joint located in the immediate vicinity of the hottest blues club in town (Antone’s, then on Guadalupe), the busiest local gay bar at the time (the former Dirty Sally’s on Rio Grande), and the offices of the local alternative newsweekly (the then-office of the Austin Chronicle at Nueces and 28th) might just have a shot at success. In a previous incarnation, the building they leased had been one of the three Toddle Houses on the fringes of the University of Texas campus and it included the company commissary, which became their kitchen. They did much of the remodel work themselves, and had a brick barbecue pit built in what had been the commissary storage room.
Neither Pat nor Luke wanted to name to business after themselves, so they put several name possibilities in a hat and had their friends choose a favorite. Ruby’s BBQ had been a last minute addition, based on their recent viewing of Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind, where Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward go to a juke joint by that name. Ruby’s BBQ was the name choice by a large margin. Pat didn’t realize it at the time, but as the female face of the restaurant, she automatically became “Ruby” to many of their customers. It’s a mantle she wears with pride.
Though Pat had no professional cooking experience, growing up on that Nebraska farm where everything the large family ate was prepared from scratch daily, using farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients, stood her in good stead running a restaurant kitchen. “Our mission through the years has been to serve homemade, handcrafted food at reasonable prices,” she says.
Pat recalls that Ruby’s became Austin’s only barbecue joint serving all natural, steroid-and-hormone-free beef in early 1989, long before such an expenditure was fashionable. Wheatsville Co-op meat/deli manager Quincy Erickson approached Luke with a proposition. It seemed the nearby neighborhood grocery was having trouble selling the briskets they were buying from natural beef purveyor B3R in the wintertime. Erickson wondered if Ruby’s would like to buy them. That healthy beef brisket added to their overall food cost, but it became an early selling point and remains so today. Pat says, “At Ruby’s, selling all-natural beef brisket is a commitment, not a trend.”
Other items that have been added over the years and distinguish the Ruby’s menu from any average barbecue joint would be such items as vegetarian chili and jambalaya, tacos, salads, the mustard potato salad contributed by a longtime Antone’s employee, and a few Cajun items contributed by some friends of Luke’s. Luke and Pat even delivered in those early days, driving around town in a brightly tattooed van.
Much as C. B. “Stubbs” Stubblefield became famous for being the barbecue cook of choice for a generation of Lubbock and traveling musicians, the food and hospitality at Ruby’s made it the natural culinary extension of Antone’s during the years the famous blues club was located just across the alley. Clifford Antone held court at a designated table and all the touring blues greats, the house band, and big name local players dined there frequently. The restaurant maintained late-night weekend hours and music lovers knew hungry musicians were likely to be at Ruby’s, another selling point. When Antone’s moved Downtown to 5th and Lavaca, Ruby’s started closing earlier on the weekends, but continued to cater events for the club.
Ruby’s developed a long-standing relationship with another early neighbor: From the early days of both the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Contest and South by Southwest, Ruby’s has been an active partner, serving as the beer vendor at the hottest summer party every year and putting out a barbecue spread for 600 to 1,000 visitors at the South by Southwest annual softball game.
When Texas barbecue began to attract regional and national media attention after the turn of this century, Ruby’s was right there in the thick of things, as well. The restaurant was one of several local joints featured in Russell Yarnell’s 2003 documentary film, Masters of Texas BBQ, and Luke was one of the founders of the Central Texas BBQ Association the next year. On behalf of the CTBBQA, Luke approached Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge regarding gathering oral histories about Central Texas barbecue restaurants. Edge put Luke in touch with University of Texas professor Elizabeth Engelhardt and oral historian Amy Evans and the end result was a book titled Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket. Books and movies aren’t Ruby’s only claim to fame. They’ve also attracted the attention of culinary television commentators such as Anthony Bourdain, who is sometimes featured in their ads, smiling over a plate of barbecue.
Luke retired from Ruby’s in 2007 and devoted the rest of his life to his previous artistic passion, painting. His work was featured in two gallery shows in the last couple of years of his life. Luke died from complications of Hepatitis C and liver cancer in 2010. Pat continues to be the guiding force at Ruby’s, and though she’s got a good crew, you’re likely to find her setting the fires at night, checking the meat, or extending the hospitality of her place to new and repeat customers. Good food, warm hospitality, and a well-tended fire are the things that become this legend most.
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