Go to Rusty's
Alabama, where I grew up, is not a wealthy state in terms of money, but it is rich in barbecue. There are at least half a dozen famous pits to visit all over the state, not to mention the mini-chains and the hole-in-the-wall gas station fare and pop-ups that dole out ribs sticky with sauce, sandwiches piled high with tender pulled pork, and chicken drizzled with Alabama’s signature white barbecue sauce. They’re all worth going to. But when folks visiting Alabama ask for my advice on the subject, my guidance is very simple: Go to Rusty’s.
Rusty’s BBQ in Leeds, Alabama, is about a twenty-minute drive from where I grew up in Birmingham, on the same exit as an enormous Bass Pro Shop and the Barber Motorsports Park. It’s a small joint with a photo of Charles Barkley on the wall, to honor Leeds’ most famous former resident. The barbecue comes off an actual pit, not a smoker—no shade to smokers, it's just a different thing—and is the exact right mixture of tender on the inside and charred on the outside.
And the sauces! Oh lord, the sauces. Whereas most barbecue places offer, at best, two saucing options, depending on the region, Rusty’s acknowledges the wide range of barbecue needs with his. There’s the house sauce, a traditional-for-Alabama-barbecue thin, tomato and vinegar sauce with a zip to it that came from chef Jonathan “Rusty” Tucker’s grandfather. That, in itself, is better than anything you can find bottled in the Brooklyn supermarkets near me by a mile. But then there are further sauces to contemplate: sweet barbecue sauce, which is particularly nice with fries or onion rings, spicy barbecue sauce, perfect for adding heat to pulled pork, and Alabama white sauce, ideal for chicken.
READ MORE: The United States of Barbecue
The food is excellent, but I admit that I’m biased, because Rusty has been a friend of mine since high school. He baked me a red velvet cake for my seventeenth birthday that had my name spelled out in pecans. In the decades since then, he’s gone on to cater many of our high school friends’ weddings. Do you know how much fun it is to be friends with someone who owns a barbecue pit in Alabama? Buddy, it is the most fun.
It was at Rusty’s where my friend Michael Sansone invented the Alabama eclair, an onion ring piped full of sweet barbecue sauce “so it’s almost like a dessert,” Michael explained. I once got a call explaining a new secret menu item called “the Sansone sandwich,” which basically combines all the meats available. One iteration had the sandwich pinned closed using the handle of a corn dog. I was at Rusty’s one night when the Food Network was playing on the screen and Rusty’s wife, Beth, casually remarked, “Well, I guess you could make bread pudding just with bread.” I asked what she used. “Croissants.” Oh.
Rusty’s is a place that plays barbecue hits with panache, but it also has a spirit of experimentation that is rare in barbecue places that focus on meat and traditional methods of making it. A couple years ago, he started selling barbecue jackfruit for customers who don’t eat meat.
“Every year in October there’s a group of bikers that comes in for the Barber Motorsports Vintage Festival, and there’s one guy who always got a plain baked potato and a salad,” Rusty told me. “And I was like, aw, that’s really depressing. I gotta come up with something else. So next time he came in, I said, ‘I got your baked potato and your salad but I made this, try it out for me.’” The jackfruit stuck, and now vegetarians or vegans who come in with their families can eat well, too. “It’s such a surprise to them,” Rusty said. “Here’s a little podunk place in Leeds that’s doing something progessive like serving a meat alternative.”
Rusty’s isn’t a place you’ll hear about on the usual lists of must-see barbecue spots in the state, like Dreamland or Archibald’s. It’s a little out of the way, though they do have a drive-thru window now, to help protect the staff during COVID. Rusty started bottling his sauces a while back, and I still have about half an inch of the spicy sauce in the back of my fridge, which I break out when I’m feeling particularly homesick. It’s not the same as an Alabama eclair, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances.
My bias is clear, but I don’t think I’m wrong, either. If you go to Alabama and you’re looking for barbecue, go to Rusty’s. Say I sent you. He’ll know.