ELV’s been goin’ a little ‘cue crazy lately. Which is frustrating because, next to Bangor, Maine, Las Vegas might be the worst barbecue town in America. What we get here are either franchises, or mom and pop joints doing things on the cheap. There’s no cult of ribs, sauces or brisket; precious little outdoor smoking; no pitmasters; no zealotry and no soul to the barbecued meats being sold to our chain-loving populace.
What all of this adds up to is precious little personality — either in the restaurant itself or the food. All that fake homeyness in places like Famous Dave’s and Lucille’s — the ersatz antiques, commercialized, bottled sauces, omnipresent, same old, same old sides, and chest-thumping menu descriptions (“Legendary!” “The best in the whole South!” etc.) — just reinforces how superficial everything is, and makes us long for some real ‘cue culture ’round here.
Of course smoked meat, even when done by franchised operations, or by people with barely a clue, still has its appeal, so most of these joints do a fair amount of business — and reinforce each other’s mediocrity in the process.
Having been ed-jee-kated in the South, ELV has something of a Ph.D. in Barbecue Eating, if you will. He has worked his way through ‘cue joints from Georgia to North Carolina, Tennessee to Kentucky, DuVall’s Bluff, Arkansas (Craig’s) to Martin City, Missouri (Fiorella’s Jack Stack), to every famous place in Kansas City (Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, Little Jake’s Eat It and Beat It, and a half dozen others) to a few pounds of brisket from Kreuz’s in Lockhart, Texas, thrown in for good measure.
We’ve eaten fabulous pulled pork at obscure places like a place called Zeb’s outside of Royston, Georgia that plops a long loaf of still-in-the-bag white, squishy bread beside you with every order (the entire air-filled loaf of which, when compressed to actual bread-like density, amounts to about four good slices). Another Georgia joint, Fresh Air Barbecue in Bogart, is in a run down, tar paper shack with about 6 tables, and will never make it into a guide book or food magazine, but makes a thin, chopped pork sandwich with a runny, vinegar/tomato sauce that ELV still dreams about.
And for pure barbecue street cred, it’s hard to compete with having eaten barbecued mutton from the Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky — an acquired tasted if ever there was one.
ELV considers Memphis barbecue ribs (Corky’s, Rendevous, et al) the most overrated items in the barbecue pantheon (with St. Louis ribs a close second), and Texas brisket the most underrated. Kansas City, MO is the one city he’d consider closest to barbecue heaven, but the area in and around Wilmington, North Carolina, the closest place on earth to a barbecue mecca.
And even though Maurice Bessinger (Owner/operator of Maurice’s Piggy Park in Columbia, South Carolina) is a documented, dyed-in-the-wool, Confederate/racist, we would drive hours out of our way just to slather his mustard-based sauce on a rack of baby-backs. Politically incorrect? Absolutely. More like downright damnable. But ELV employs something of a sliding scale of ethical consciousness when righteous ribs are involved.
The best barbecue Vegas has ever seen or tasted was at Struttin’ Gates Barbecue in a free standing building on East Desert Inn right across from Lindo Michoacan. Until it went out of business in 1998 (not for lack of business, but due to personal problems of the management), Las Vegans enjoyed the sort of slow-smoked, soulful, intense, meats that true aficionados crave. Just like in the Kansas City original, every person who entered was greeted with a loud: “Hi, can I hep ya?” every time the front door opened — disconcerting the first time you heard it, but fun and friendly thereafter. When it closed its doors, the barbecue bar was (it seems) forever lowered, allowing mediocrity in meat to flourish ever since.
Which brings us to RUB BBQ in the Rio Hotel. It’s problems are many….not the least of which is the fact that it’s huge (9,000 sq. feet) and almost always empty when we eat there. The menu has the requisite boastfulness (“….over 425 cooking and barbecuing awards!” etc.), but like all chains, it tries to be all things to all people, so you can expect okay food but nothing to warrant all the shouting.
If you must go, the two extraordinary things on the menu are the smoked pastrami and the burnt ends. The hot pepper vinegar sauce is also a winner, as is the regular, tomato-based concoction — that tips its cap to the oddball, grainy/sour Arthur Bryant’s sauce that people either love or hate. Pitmaster Paul Kirk sweetens his up, and makes it much more consumer-friendly in the process.
Smoky is definitely the watch-word here — even the baked beans have so much wood essence coming off them you’ll think your clothes will need dry-cleaning just from being at the same table. But the pork was inartfully pulled (i.e., gristly and stringy when we tried it), and the ribs decent enough, but not as sweet and succulent as Memphis Championship’s.
The real problem with RUB is its expense. Last week’s lunch of a burnt ends platter with two sides, and a bottle of Shiner Bock beer, set us back $33…for freakin’ barbecue….for one!
If we’d wanted to economize, we could’ve settled for a $14 sandwich instead of the $20 platter…and then we would’ve had a $27 lunch….in the Rio Hotel…for a barbecue sandwich and a beer!
The more we think about it, this $33 lunch represents the epitome of overcharging that Vegas hotels have specialized in for the past seven years. People go to swanky celebrity chef joints expecting to pay (and perhaps even overpay) top dollar for the experience. But when a lunch of cheap-ass, smoked meat runs you the same as a hunk of prime rib, you know you’ve been hosed.
In the Rio Hotel and Casino
3700 West Flamingo Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89103
p.s. The coolest thing at RUB is the barbecue-ready chopper out front made by the American Chopper guys.