Sometimes you like food in a restaurant just for itself, its uniquely flavored qualities or presentation or the way it satisfies your actual hunger. Sometimes you like a restaurant’s food because you like the chef, because you’ve followed him from joint to joint or you dig his cooking philosophy. Sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, you get to like a restaurant’s food both because of its craveable flavor and because the chef/owner is such a nice and talented guy you can’t help but want to pull up a chair at his table, dive into a dish of his delectable barbecue, and prepare yourself to enjoy a lunch that’ll have you dreaming of your next visit to eat more and more. Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds is just such a place, and I’m so glad I got to sample Chef Tucker’s broad spectrum of a WRW menu this year.
The $15 lunch special at Rusty’s is not only chock full of savory, smoky barbecue, it’s also an incredible deal. Dive into two of his amazing smoked ribs first. They’re tender, juicy, and have a slight char and crunch that doesn’t require any barbecue sauce. But if you’re so inclined, the spicy house-made sauce is an excellent pairing. Next, dig your fork into a pile of pulled pork, also tender and expertly flavored. The house sauce, slightly sweet and thick, is a good match here. Save room for the quarter chicken, rubbed with spices and smoked expertly. Dip into the house white barbecue sauce for maximum enjoyment. Make sure you save room for the sides – crispy fried onion rings, large and classic; creamy coleslaw, a cool match for the rich barbecue; delicately fried okra; beautifully briny, vinegary, spicy collard greens, hiding thick slices of Conecuh sausage and so good my grandmother may be changing her regular recipe; and so many other choices, like mac-and-cheese, green beans, French fries, and others we didn’t have room to try. It’s at this point you’ll remember you’ve also got dessert coming from a choice of homemade pies and cookies whipped up by Chef Tucker’s wife, a pastry chef herself. Dig deep. There’s always room for dessert. We tried the thick, fudgy chocolate pie and the cool, creamy banana pudding, both excellent. Key Lime Pie, Lemon Icebox Pie, Coconut Cream Pie, cookie bars, brownies, and other offerings that change with the seasons (Peach Cobbler in the summer!) make your choice difficult, but it’s doubtful there’s a wrong selection in the case. The $30-for-2 dinner is an equally amazing deal, just make sure you go with someone who knows how to coordinate those sides and dessert orders for optimal tasting opportunities.
Chef Tucker came out to the table to chat with my grandmother and I while we enjoyed our food, and he shared a few insights that I think illustrate why his barbecue stands out in a state that’s known for great smoked meat. Though he’s classically trained, Chef Tucker says he comes by his love of food and cooking from his family. He says all the men in his family – his grandfather, father, brothers – all cook and always have. From the time he was 6 years-old, Chef Tucker says he took over the kitchen at his house and was always experimenting and cooking something for his family to enjoy. Clearly the variety of menu options and sauce pairings at his restaurant means there’s something for everyone (or everything for someone, like the WRW menu proves!), but the quality and range of the sides nudges his great pit smoked barbecue over the top. Chef Tucker says creating those recipes was a process of cooking and testing, finding the exact right balance of ingredients for each dish that satisfies his standards and his customers’, and repeat customers’, tastes. There’s something a little magic in this small joint a short drive from downtown, something a little like the magic of knowing the fried okra is done by listening to the sound it’s making in the fryer. But part of that magic is Chef Tucker and his willing smile, his easy conversation, and the undeniable fact of his good food.
A proud Birmingham, Alabama native, Emily Brown has long been in on the secret that Birmingham is an incredible food town. When she’s not writing about food, restaurants, and purveyors for Birmingham Restaurant Week, she’s out enjoying new culinary adventures, whether in one of the city’s restaurants or from her own kitchen. Raised equally on a diet of storytelling and great, Southern food, Emily is also the author of Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu, a book about the history of food and restaurants in Birmingham from The History Press.