Local chef saving brick pit from shuttered ‘old Austin’ BBQ joint

Austin

A favorite campus barbecue joint, which closed last month due to changes in the city around it, will be part of Austin’s future, thanks to a local chef who doesn’t want to see the history disappear with the business.

Longtime Austinites often lament the decline of old Austin — the restaurants, shops and venues they came to love when the city was developing the charm so many have come to embrace over the years. Ruby’s BBQ, at 29th and Guadalupe streets, is a recent victim, shutting its doors for good last month.

The restaurant smoked meats in the same brick barbecue pits for close to 30 years in that spot, developing baked-on flavor and character that chef DJ Johnson doesn’t want to lose.

“The thing is, you know, they did a lot of things to make Austin great,” Johnson said of Ruby’s owner Pat Mares and others who helped build old Austin. “I’m really honored to be able to preserve this part of Austin.”

Johnson, owner of Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen, is slowly dismantling the indoor barbecue pit at Ruby’s, bagging and tagging each individual brick that lined the inside to preserve the flavors that accumulated there over decades.

He plans to rebuild the pit brick-for-brick at a new restaurant in the coming months.

“I’m very touched by it,” Mares told KXAN. She first opened Ruby’s in 1988, serving up her recipes to people celebrating weddings, birthdays and University of Texas at Austin football wins. Recently, the endeavor became unsustainable. 

“Austin is a different city in many respects than it was 30 years ago,” she said.

Mares cited rising property taxes and the over-saturation of the restaurant market as reasons she shut down the operation. She might have been able to stay open if she’d raised prices 30 percent, she said, but decided against it.

“The cost of doing business as a small business person is getting more and more difficult in Austin,” Mares said.

She saved what she could from Ruby’s, and the restaurant is now bare except for flyers on the patio announcing concerts, plays, and fencing classes that have come and gone. But she couldn’t take everything.

“I was prepared just to leave the pits and figured they’d be destroyed,” she said.

That’s when Johnson stepped in. “Instead of letting it go to the dump, which is usually what these things do, we’re actually going to break it down,” he said.

It’s a long, laborious process, first labeling each brick with its placement in the structure, then carefully removing one brick at a time, sealing each in its own airtight bag and stacking them on pallets that will be moved to storage while he sorts out the future of the pit. “It’s quite a process,” Mares said.

“They’re intact after 30 years,” he said, gingerly pulling the flavor-coated fire bricks from the interior of the pit. “Look at that; I mean, it’s beautiful, man.”

Johnson has put much of his own restaurant work on hold while he’s working to save Ruby’s brick pit, so he set up a fundraising page to help raise money for the labor, storage and rebuilding costs associated with the mammoth task. 

But he didn’t wait for funding to come through to start the process. He’s getting his hands dirty in the meantime, ensuring a piece of old Austin makes an impact on the city’s future.

“It should not be forgotten,” he said. “It should not be forgotten.”

The indoor pit is one of two at Ruby’s. The outdoor pit, the larger of the pair, will also be disassembled. The restaurant group McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which owns several establishments in Austin, including Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, will be taking it apart, according to Mares. The group has not said publicly what it plans to do with the outdoor pit.

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