Rudy's Country Store and Bar-B-Q is a fair-size chain by now, with 29 branches, mostly in Texas. The latest branch just opened in Arlington, marking Rudy's first establishment in Tarrant County.
But don't judge it by its chain status, or you'll miss out on some good barbecue.
Rudy's had humble origins, starting out in Leon Springs, north of San Antonio, as a combination gas station-grocery store that branched out into barbecue in 1989. Those roots explain the restaurant's design, with a gas station pump in front and a convenience store where you can buy Rudy's T-shirts, drinks, snacks and barbecue sauce (spelled "sause").
As for the restaurant, the dining room is huge, with community-seating picnic tables, wood paneling and license plates tacked to the wall. You wind your way through a line past the pit, where you order your meat. A massive ice bin holds bottled beers and sodas. You pay, grab your sauce and other accessories, and grab a seat.
The selection of meats is extensive: from brisket, ribs and sausage to turkey, chicken and pork loin. Sliced meats are sold by the pound or half pound; ribs are sold by the rack or half rack.
Their pits are wood fired and they use oak, which burns more slowly than the mesquite wood more commonly used by other barbecue places.
The usual benchmark for barbecue joints is brisket ($11.98 per pound). Rudy's has two versions: "moist" and lean. Both had the darkened edge and pink smoke-ring that are considered ideal for brisket, and both had a solid smoky flavor. The moist brisket still had some fat and therefore a more tender texture; it was preferred by the two male diners at my table. Those phobic about fat would appreciate the lean, which was dryer and more firm.
Sausage ($2.79 for a half-link) was a ruddy red with an appealing texture: smooth but with a bit of nubbiness for personality. We loved the snap we got when we bit into the outside. There's also a spicy jalapeño sausage. Ribs come in three varieties: baby back ribs, pork spare ribs and St. Louis center-cut ribs. Some like the meatiness of the St. Louis, but we liked the pork spare ribs for their jerkylike chew and pink, hammy flavor.
The North Texas Rudy's -- which include branches in Denton and Frisco, as well as Arlington -- have a couple of items not available at other Rudy's. That includes peppered tenderloin and prime rib, both $23.98 per pound. The prime rib had large chunks of fat that made it somewhat inedible, but the tenderloin was a winner, with its melting texture and peppery crust.
Arlington also does breakfast tacos all day with eggs, beans and house-made chorizo, for $1.85-$2 each.
House sauce came in regular and spicy versions; both were loaded with cracked black pepper for a nice kick. Sides ($1.99 for a small) including potato salad and creamed corn seemed overly sweet; next time I'd skip them. They came pre-packaged in plastic-foam containers, and the utensils were disposable, making this somewhat of an environmentally unfriendly dining experience -- except for the meat, which in old-school barbecue fashion, was piled onto sheets of wax paper, no plates needed.