November has rushed upon us, which for Bostonians means the Red Sox championship run is complete (Boston Strong!) and the second anniverary (today) for Sweet Cheeks—the city's most anticipated barbecue joint two years ago and the most widely acclaimed since then. But since then? Boston's not so strong when it comes to emerging barbecue joints.
Maybe I'm expecting too much. Maybe it's because I look at what's happening in New York City. When PigTrip started in 2006, I used to say that there were around eight Boston area barbecue joints that if transplanted would've made a NYC top 5. Shameful, especially considering the 10-to-1 (metro versus metro) population advantage. The pendulum swung hard the other way shortly thereafter, but much of that could be attributed to the surging national popularity of barbecue and a natural correction based on population. Now? Barbecue is still exploding in New York City, and particularly in Brooklyn, where ventilation requirements are easier and rents are (theoretically) cheaper.
Let's take a look at the barbecue joints that have sprouted up in New York and Boston after Sweet Cheeks, starting with New York.
Butcher Bar (Queens)
Harley's Smoke Shack (Manhattan)
Nicky's Beer Garden (Queens) (no longer BBQ)
Little Brother BBQ (Brooklyn BBQ)
Blue Smoke (Manhattan expansion - Battery Park)
Fort Reno (Brooklyn)
Lone Star Bar & Grill (Brooklyn)
Smoke Pit (Queens expansion)
Wildwood Foods (Brooklyn)
Pork Slope (Brooklyn)
Ducks Eatery (Manhattan)
Fletcher's (Brooklyn, with a seasonal Manhattan outpost)
Mighty Quinn's (Manhattan, with seasonal Brooklyn outposts)
Strand Smokehouse (Queens)
Harley's Smokeshack (Manhattan expansion) (closed)
Smokeline (Manhattan - seasonal)
Tres Carnes (Manhattan)
Lonestar Empire (Brooklyn - seasonal)
Alchemy, Texas BBQ (Queens) (temporary) (closed)
Dinosaur (Brooklyn expansion)
Hometown BBQ (Brooklyn)
Morgan's BBQ (Brooklyn)
City Rib (Queens)
Beast of Bourbon (Brooklyn)
The Cecil (Manhattan)
AOA Bar & Grill (Manhattan)
Route 66 (Manhattan)
Not bad for two years; there are probably even a few that I missed. Rather than go through these joint by joint, and without mentioning any names, I'll just say that there are two (and another one on the way) that would definitely crack Boston's top five and another six joints that are threats on the right day. For the most part, quality is high, and even the ones that aren't so high at least have credible chefs, quirky/appealing spaces and inventive menus.
Now, let's take a look at Boston area (inside I-495) joints that have opened after Sweet Cheeks in that same time span:
Red Eyed Pig (West Roxbury)
Some inventiveness to the menu (pork belly donuts, smoked-then-fried chicken) but no bar and only three stools against a brick wall with no leg space. I'm due for a revisit, but I've found the sauces iffy and the 'cue lacking in texture and flavor.
Abigail's (Cambridge) (not a barbecue joint)
Like East Coast Grill, where many of the key players hail from, barbecue is a role player (a few items, barbecue brunch) that takes a back seat to the bigger stars on the Modern American menu. Unlike ECG, there's no J&R in the kitchen, so the barbecue items don't get the same love. I like the place—just not for barbecue.
Blue Ribbon trailer (seasonal)
Hard to argue with an expansion of one of the area's most beloved joints, especially when the level of 'cue here is arguably better than at the two restaurants. But remember, this is outdoors and this is seasonal only.
Sons of Shefanie's (Norwood)
A nice little shop in downtown Norwood has a nice little soul-meets-BBQ menu, but there's no smoker here.
SoulFire II (Boston)
Another expansion of a Boston area favorite slings superb fried chicken and respectable barbecue shuttled in from the nearby Allston SoulFire. But this small, mostly-takeout joint has limited seating and all the atmosphere of a tollbooth.
Bearded Pig (Somerville) (closed)
This overhyped dud lasted all of 15 dinners two Augusts ago. Supposedly, the owner couldn't maintain the first smoker location and couldn't find a suitable replacement (really? not in all of metro Boston?). I'm convinced he simply got stagefright, but it's probably for the best. (Would have been slotted into Tier 4 of the PigTrip rankings for Boston BBQ.)
Cask n Flagon (Boston)
Synonymous with pre-Fenway drinking for decades but never known for its food, the Cask rolled out a new menu this summer with "award winning" barbecue that didn't win any awards from me.
Marathon Burgers & BBQ (Hopkinton)
Named for the Boston Marathon that starts in the same town, this reinterpretation of the Marathon Restaurant has an outdoor smoker, indoor seating and a reasonably deep barbecue menu. A recent lunch there did not impress.
Memphis Joe's BBQ (Weymouth)
Another conversion of a longstanding restaurant, this has the feel of sportsbar first, barbecue second, but I'll find out soon enough.
And there you have it: Thirty (three of which closed or changed) for New York City and ten (one closed, one not claiming to be barbecue) for Boston. Looking at it per capita, Boston's done alright, of not better, but the openings here have simply not been anywhere near as impactful. Aside from the two expansions, which are nice but don't exactly represent anything NEW, the progress—or lack thereof—has been pitiful. Who's doing smoked lamb in Boston? Duck? Goat? How many are even doing pork belly and beef short ribs? Not enough, that's for sure.
There are some lights on the horizon. Slowbones, by the people who brought you Boston Market, is opening very soon in Burlington. The Malden expansion of Redbones has been pushed out to "early 2014" and the kosher barbecue Steinbones is slated for "summer 2014" in Cambridge.
But we need more. We can do better.
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