Ryan Hubbard and Mark Marshall aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The two guys behind Red Hub Food Co., a catering service that recently opened a lunch counter at its 202 10th Street NW location, are serving up classic North Carolina-style barbecue, plain and simple. For them it’s not about being on the cutting culinary edge—it’s all about flavor.
“It’s caveman stuff. Put meat over wood for a long time, and then put spices on it to make it taste better,” Hubbard said. He noted that the 10-ingredient Red Hub Rub —which is the first step in the barbecue preparation and makes an appearance in several recipes—may contain a couple unexpected ingredients, “but it’s not like we went Indiana Jones and uncovered some ancient rub recipe.”
Red Hub, located between the Corner and the Downtown Mall, used to be home to Big Jim’s BBQ catering operation, a longtime household name that closed in 2013, six years after the founders died. Hubbard and Marshall bought the spot with plans to pay homage to the 30-year Charlottesville classic. From the hand-painted old barn door and outside sign made to resemble a stagecoach to the hammered copper pans and countertops made from historical salvage yard walnut slabs, they “wanted everything to feel a certain way.” They started catering events in the summer of 2014, and quietly opened the lunch counter on Friday, January* 2.
The lunch counter’s menu is simple and straightforward—pulled pork sandwich, fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, brownies. Specials like chicken and dumplings, chili made with brisket burnt ends, and dry-rubbed wings with homemade barbecue-and-ranch dipping sauce will change daily, and there’s a cooler full of throw-back glass bottle sodas to wash it all down.
Some of the recipes have been customer favorites and created by trial-and-error, like the aforementioned rub that’s for sale by the jar, and the Tillamook cheddar macaroni and cheese that Hubbard said was tested and approved by a group of perpetually hungry teenagers. But several menu items, like the succotash, spicy pickles and pear syrup butter that’s smeared on the mini ham biscuits, came straight from Granny, Hubbard’s 87-year-old grandmother who lives in North Carolina and may or may not have ever owned a measuring spoon.
“People just assume that a lot of these folksy recipes are haphazard, and they’re not,” Hubbard said. “She’ll use phrases like ‘a handful,’ but you have to remember, these are Depression-era people, and everything was homemade, everything was on a budget. So when she says ‘a handful of flour,’ she literally means a handful of flour.”
For Hubbard, it’s the backstories and the dialogue that make soul food so culturally important. Anyone can slap together a menu and serve whatever’s trending at the time, but he’s constantly sharing his own food tales and asking for feedback and suggestions from customers.
“I want the approach to the food to be very unconventional. The question I start with is, ‘Who says that chefs know more about what you’d like to eat than you do?’” Hubbard said. “My thing is sort of like I want our recipes to be malleable and dynamic. We believe in crowdsourcing our recipes and putting things on the menu or on the specials board because someone wants it. I didn’t want to say, ‘Here’s our recipes, you decide whether or not you like it.’ Tell us what you like, and we’ll try it that way.”
On opening day, Hubbard greeted guests from behind the counter with a limited number of deviled eggs—each with a touch of homemade spicy pickled relish and topped off with smoky bits of bacon—and asked the lucky few customers whether the Southern classic should have a permanent spot on the menu. (Is that even a question? Fried chicken and deviled eggs were already made for each other, and then you throw bacon into the mix? Yes, please.)
“We’re just trying to make sure we don’t lose some of these comfort foods,” Hubbard said. “Even as different health kicks come along, we want to make sure you can still sit down and eat something that your parents ate, and your grandparents ate.”
Red Hub’s pulled pork barbecue is a classic North Carolina vinegar-based recipe, but what you top it with is entirely up to you. At the lunch counter you’ll find four bottles of sauce that you can mix and match on your sandwich, chicken strips, baked beans or whatever your heart desires.
Red Hub: The signature sweet barbecue sauce with apples and peppers.
Lexington: A mild, traditional North Carolina vinegar-based sauce.
Lowcountry: A spicy, South Carolina-inspired mustard sauce.
Bourbon Heat: A true Louisianan hot sauce with a kick.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Red Hub opened in December.