Is it a restaurant? A sports bar? Another franchise come to town and geared to go, precariously perched at Ann Arbor’s most cursed crossroads?

My expectations for the new R.U.B. BBQ Pub at Packard and State were not high. Smoked-meat joints opened around Ann Arbor in recent years have proved darn delicious, as well as atmospheric in folksy ways. Biercamp, Satchel’s, and Ypsi’s Red Rock are already cherished as homespun local venues, and they offer convenient parking.

So when Detroit area offshoot R.U.B. arrived this winter at Ann Arbor’s most congested campus area intersection, flickering with the glow of nineteen (!) television screens over seemingly endless bar counters in a location that has changed hands every few years as long as I can remember, well, it was hard to be hopeful for rewarding food and fun. A hectic to-go pickup order early on, an underwhelming and chaotic appetizer sampler on limp lettuce, left me nervous about returning to explore the rest of the vast menu.

I am so happy to have been wrong. R.U.B.–the initials stand for “real urban barbecue”–serves its newest city with a lively lineup of rubbed, smoked, and smartly sassy entrees. Chicken, beef, and pork sizzle to perfection in a giant smoker, emerging well spiced, crusty-edged when promised, and surprisingly moist inside.

The BBQ chicken is fine, the deep-fried catfish with cornmeal interesting and not fishy-tasting. But the real standouts are Texas beef brisket, Tennessee pulled pork, and St. Louis-style ribs, which all deliver tremendous flavor to the table. Peppery but not-too-salty spice rubs permeate the meat with complex flavors, and the juices drip delectably (good thing there’s a tall canister of napkins on the table). There’s also a six-pack of cleverly labeled sauces, from garlickly Kansas to mustardy Carolina to vinegary-hot Detroit–and my favorite, traditional sweet Memphis. Take the tour if you’re inclined, but really, R.U.B.’s barbecue needs no squirts of tabletop condiments. An irresistible lineup of beer choices, heavily geared toward Michigan craft brews, handily quenches any thirst.

The barbecue also stars in sandwiches with Motor City monikers–the Kaline, the Harwell, the Yzerman, and the Slim Shady. Every bit as notable are the show-stealing side dishes, like pumpkin pie-spiced mashed sweet potatoes, thick wedge fries, lightly sauced crisp slaw, and real collard greens washed well, lightly seasoned, and stewed just to softness and not beyond. Super-rich and garlicky rotini mac and cheese will keep more than vegetarians happy.

The huge menu has other meatless entrees too, but really, meat’s the point here. As a guest at our table quipped when his wife ordered ribs: “My wife’s a flexitarian–she won’t eat meat unless it smells real good.” Those baby back ribs smelled and tasted really good. At $24.99 for a full slab, they aren’t the best value on the menu, but I’m okay with large parts of animals being priced as the indulgence they are in our society. Sandwiches start at $7.99.

A few warnings: Be careful navigating inside, because the slab-stone floor can get very slippery. The servers aren’t consistently on top of everything (ironic that they wear striped referee shirts). The choice of pies for dessert was devoid of traditional fruit favorites when we asked, and the “candy bar” slice we sampled had mottled flavors and texture. Both home and away U-M game days mean big crowds and long waits for food–even up to forty-five minutes.

With so many television sets around, even when it’s not packed, R.U.B is hardly peaceful. That can be distracting when you want to concentrate on slowly savoring your well-cooked meal. But a lot of times you do want to have an eye at least on the score of one of our area’s pro or college games–and props to R.U.B. for showing Michigan women’s sports as well as men’s.

“Buffalo Wild Wings with better food,” is how one college sophomore summed up his visit. For Michiganians, R.U.B.’s atmosphere is better, too. If you look past the flickering screens, your eye may land on some wonderful photos on the wall of Red Wings at the Joe, Matthew Stafford with arm back to pass, Calvin Johnson soaring downfield, Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park–and the Big House. With sports, beer, and aromatic meat as metaphors for what unites us, here’s hoping this Detroit-based newcomer ends this corner’s troubled history and settles in for the long haul.

R.U.B. BBQ Pub

640 Packard


Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-midnight, Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. noon-midnight.

Appetizers $4.99-$8.99, salads and sandwiches $5.99-$10.99, entrees $9.99-$37.99.

Wheelchair accessible.