Flavor: Pull-no-punches Southern food and barbecue
Ambiance: Down-home neighborhood bar with an airy feel
Service: Well-versed in all things beer and barbecue
I have a new home and, consequently, a new bar. Thankfully, my abode is within hollerin’ distance of what locals refer to – with only the thinnest veil of humor – as “Downtown Haw Creek.” If the hub of this aspiring mini-metropolis is, as some claim, Ruby’s Tap House, then its heart must be the merrily puffing barbecue drum-smoker. The device sits near the parking area that the bar shares with several other small businesses, busily infusing various cuts of meat – not to mention passersby – with the heavenly flavor and aroma of wood smoke.
I first visited Ruby’s about a year ago, in search of what was rumored by some to be the best barbecue in Asheville – a title that seems to hold stiffer and stiffer competition as time goes on. At the time, ED Boudreaux’s Bayou Barbecue was at the helm of the food operations at Ruby’s, and I left after a belly-busting experience with a solitary complaint, published in Xpress as follows: “They’re not in my neighborhood.”
Times have changed, and ED Boudreaux’s is thriving in downtown Asheville now, leaving Ruby’s and crew in charge of delivering Haw Creek its barbecue fix.
What hasn’t changed a whit is the place’s excellent beer selection. There’s room for 23 taps on the big red wall at the end of the bar (though they seldom seem to be entirely stocked). The bottled-beer selection is also excellent, with a smattering of organics like the Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgobblin and Fiddler’s Elbow along with a generous selection of brands I’ve never heard of, like the seasonal Santa’s Butt (in England, “butt” apparently means a large brewing barrel).
And Ruby’s is still home to all types of characters. For example, I strode in the other night sporting paint-splattered shoes, one striped and one solid-colored sock, and a T-shirt with a brown stain smeared across the chest. What’s more, an extension paint roller had splattered my hair with “Raffia Cream” dandruff. But I felt right at home: I bellied up next to a guy in a partially deconstructed suit that seemed to lose a piece with every beer, starting with his tie. Meanwhile, I saw a child on the floor eat something she had discovered down there on the planks, which she chewed with an expression of quizzical concentration, as if sampling a particularly interesting wine. Her siblings ran around her, one with a toy machine gun with which he gleefully “shot” everyone in the room. And rather than showing annoyance, some patrons made concerted efforts to appear “hit.”
For an exhausted painter – or anyone with an appetite, for that matter – Ruby’s still hits the spot. Not only is the beer the perfect cap to a long day, there’s also the selection of house-smoked wings that are served up free Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7:30 p.m. and cloaked with a different flavor every day. On the most recent evening I tried them, the flavor was Coca-Cola, which turned out to be much better than one would think. Let it be noted, by the way, that even though I am not at all a wing fan, I nibbled all of those little bones clean.
The rest of the menu items may not be free, but they’re cheap enough to be a steal. A small pulled-pork sandwich is only $4.95. For an extra $1.50, diners can add two sides and a hearty slice of Texas toast. A couple of the sides are cooked in something like church-potluck style; the mac and cheese, for example, carries the radioactive neon-orange shade of canned cheese sauce (just try to get a kid to eat the non-psychedelic version). The veggie salad – for those who want something a bit on the healthy side to accompany their plateful of dripping meat – is generally a winner with its variety of fresh, crunchy vegetables bathed in a spicy vinegar-based dressing. The slaw is a good choice as well; it’s made fresh and crispy, and not too sweet. The baked beans are excellent, and so is the brisket, which is positively dripping with fat.
For pure finger-licking satisfaction, however, few items rival a rack of ribs, and Ruby’s racks are pretty darn good – and my favorite item on the menu. They’re covered in a delicious, piquant sauce that’s just fine by itself, or can be supplemented with one of the restaurant’s many different sauces – similar to the way ED Boudreaux’s used to (and still does) do it. I’m partial to the plain and simple “Pulled Piggy,” as well as a jerk-spiked brew.
Though Ruby’s may not exactly be a haven for vegetarians, it does throw them a proverbial bone with several selections, including veggie dogs and burgers, an avocado melt and a smoked-tempeh sandwich. There’s also an ominous-looking jar of pink pickled eggs in the fridge for you brave lacto-ovo vegetarians.
For nongastronomic fun, there are plenty of activities. To the right of the bar is a spot for playing darts (I must admit that I’ve always thought that arming drinking people with pointy things to throw around is a questionable idea). Video games abound, and in the back there are pool tables, which, I imagine, will occupy way too much of my time in the near future. Between the drink, the food and the games, Ruby’s is becoming a welcome diversion, indeed.