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RUB’s Jonathan Meyer Cleans Up Your ‘Mystery Napkins’

“I’ve had people bite my head off to where you’re not able to serve them.”haha Photo: Melissa Hom

After serving as a barista at Cafe Gitane, Jonathan Meyer joined the opening team as a server at RUB, New York’s pick for Best Barbecue. “It was a huge change,” he tells us. “I didn’t know anything about smoking meats.” (Meyer’s primary love is the theater group he runs, PossEble.) Almost two years later, the Long Island native is informed enough to hold his own against southerners who he says “wear their barbecue knowledge on their sleeve.” We asked him to steer us through the very heated world of Righteous Urban Barbecue.

If a customer walked into your kitchen, what would he be looking at?
We have four main smokers. Each looks like a cast-iron storage facility with enormous doors that open onto shelves of meat. The back gets quite smoky. They put things in for an insane amount of time — chicken is six to eight hours, brisket is anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours.

When do the cooks come in to work?
The sous-chef and prep cooks are here at 5 a.m. They’ll smoke right up till 10 p.m. at night.

What’s a good time to go there to ensure you’re getting the best possible barbecue — and that things aren’t sold out?
Come in at high noon and you’re going to get the freshest, hottest, most tender meat; it’s just finishing up the cooking process. We sold out of most of our ribs and brisket today by lunch. On a Friday or Saturday, our ribs can sell out as early as 9:30 p.m. If you definitely want them, get here from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Do people get steamed when you’re sold out?
I’ve had people bite my head off to where you’re not able to serve them. They feel like it’s a personal insult to them. There’s always a story of how far people traveled to get there.

Speaking of travel, do people from different regions have different expectations?
Southerners especially: They’ll call out where they’re from and demand great barbecue. People come in and say, “Is it mostly vinegar-based? Brown-sugar-based? Tomato-based?” We have a brown-sugar sauce which is Kansas City–based, but we also have a Carolina vinegar-pepper sauce.

How do you feel about Dallas BBQ nearby?
We’re constantly getting phone calls from people looking for them. We’re like, “No, we’re the real barbecue place on 23rd Street. You’re looking for the liquid-smoke place.” I think they broil their ribs and pour in some liquid-smoke flavoring. That’s low-tier imitation barbecue.

Do people ever abuse your unlimited refills?
We’re refilling a drink that’s 10 percent tea and 90 percent sugar. The one guy who’s sucking them down has a point to prove, and his teeth or hygiene will tire him out.

Has any one person ever polished off your Taste of the Baron (“a tasting of beef, pork, ham, pastrami, turkey, chicken, sausage and topped with a quarter-rack of ribs”)?
And lived? No one!

What do you say to someone who overorders?
“I just want you to know, that’s a ton of food.” If you’re feeling more formal, you can say, “I just want you to know that can serve three hungry large men.”

Are you privy to any first dates?
The toughest thing is seeing a first date and you’ll hear something like, “Oh I didn’t know you were a vegetarian,” but they stay anyway. Some poor girl will have to watch her date eat.

Have you had any memorable slobs?
People get into the food; they’ll ask for a drink with half of a pulled-pork sandwich on their cheek. You’re always going to have those “mystery napkins.”

What do you do when people who don’t understand barbecue complain that their food is cold?
We smoke meats 180 to 220 degrees; we don’t have a hot 400-degree oven. You explain to them, “This is a slow, smoked cooking product. If the ovens were any hotter, it would dry out in four hours instead of being cooked in twelve.”

How often is Paul Kirk actually in the kitchen?
He comes into town every once in a while. He sees the operation. But RUB has kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s kind of married New York in its own way.

RUB’s Jonathan Meyer Cleans Up Your ‘Mystery Napkins’