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The Perfect BBQ Meal Boston (Unabridged)

As some of you have noticed, I contributed to a barbecue article and had my own sidebar article (sidebarticle?) for last Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine. As part of its 10-page spread on the 10 Best BBQ Joints in Boston, the Globe asked me to select a composite "perfect BBQ meal" using various meats and sides from different barbecue joints throughout the area. I envisioned multiple rib and brisket entrants, runners up for each category and the full gamut of barbecue standards and the not-so-standard—from pulled pork to pork belly, beef brisket to beef ribs to beef chili. Unfortunately, space constraints prevailed, so the piece wound up restricted to three meats. The other constraint was a suggestion—not an iron clad rule—that I spread the wealth around.

 

So in this space I'll do an expanded version. But first, a few disclaimers before launching into the full listing.

 

First off: consistency. Boston area joints have had their moments, and some have been spectacular, but they're a rollercoaster ride of ever changing quality and freshness levels. So these picks are for right now. Had I made the selections a month ago or a month from now, they'd be different.

 

And secondly, about that Perfect Meal photo in the Globe—I can already hear some of you saying that some of that food doesn't look so perfect. It's true, but that's less related to disclaimer #1 and more related to the photography process: instead of capturing the food as served at each joint, the Globe obtained it, took it back to Boston, staged it and only then did they shoot it. From an artistic standpoint and for 90% of the public, that works just fine. For the barbecue sniffer-outers, it might not look so good.

 

But enough of the technical mumbo jumbo, let's get on with the list. I'll go appetizers first, then entree meats, then sides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wings: Firefly's, Marlborough MA

 

I may be tipping my hand somewhat, as the next PigTrip Wings List will be unveiled in just a few weeks. Firefly's has made great strides with the introduction of Crazy Roo's wings (wing pieces, smoked, flash fried, sauced) in addition to their standard wings (whole wings, smoked, sauced, grilled). The newer model features Asian flavors with a molasses backdrop, all applied with enough restraint to let the increased woody smokiness and the chicken itself shine through.

 

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Wings (runner-up):

Smokestack Urban Barbecue, Worcester MA

 

Their standard 'cue has its ups and downs, but Smokestack's wings are a repeatably magnificent achievement of crispness, tenderness, smoke and well crafted sauces. There's a choice of three; I like the honey habanero that's bold without being too heavy on either namesake ingredient.

 

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Chili: BT's Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA

 

It's a shame that more barbecue joints don't offer a barbecue chili. Sure, there are the lame ground beef versions you can get everywhere else, but where's the smoked brisket? In BT's chili, that's where. Note that their chili is not a regular item, and when it is, it goes through different renditions based on mood, season and supply. Sometimes it's chili verde, sometimes it has beans, sometimes it has rib meat, sometimes it uses sausage. It's worthwhile in almost any permutation, but when you see "Brisket Chili" on the specials board, pull the trigger without a second thought. It's smoky, hearty, beefy and just peppery enough to arouse the taste buds without killing them.

 

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Burnt Ends: Firefly's, Marlborough MA

 

Mention burnt ends to a group of barbecue aficionados and that may have very different meanings to different people within that group. The version at Firefly's is designed closest to the style I like best: rubbed-and-smoked beef brisket deckle, cut into cubes, seasoned a second time with kosher salt and smoked a second time. Flavor varies, but there's no questioning the tenderness.

 

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Burnt Ends (runner-up):

Blue Ribbon, West Newton MA

 

Blue Ribbon—a joint that did not garner any best-in-category nods for meat but was in the running for most of them—goes for a softer, saucier, finer-cut to their burnt ends.

 

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Pork Belly: Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA

 

Arguably the most important of the meat categories left on the Boston Globe's cutting room floor, pork belly is arguably also the most important thing to remember at Sweet Cheeks (don't worry, you won't forget the biscuit). Don't get hung up on the name; think of it instead as a bacon steak: thicker cut, smokier and far more tender and rich with liquid pork fat further fueling the flavor. Sometimes that fat gets a little past optimal, but on the nights when the pork gods are smiling, so will you.

 

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Ribs: SoulFire, Allston MA

 

Glorious mahogany color, a sturdy crust, guaranteed juiciness and unparallelled length are the hallmarks of these full cut pork spare ribs that bear the light, sweet smoke from fresh cut hickory. After owner Wyeth Lynch and pitmaster Jason Tremblay returned from a recent Texas pilgrimage, the rub got simpler, sticking mostly to salt and coarse black pepper to let the pork do most of the talking. Their other ribs, plump babybacks, are a steep step up from the familiar slabs served at the chains.

 

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Ribs (runner-up):

Blackstrap BBQ, Winthrop MA

 

Some of the staff at the joint near the airport did stints at East Coast Grill, so they combine a similar style—Memphis rub applied both before and after smoking—with a spare rib that may be the largest in greater Boston. Unlike most barbecue restaurant ribs, these have a toothsomeness that requires a little effort, but the flavor is completely effortless.

 

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Pulled Pork: Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA

 

Tiffani Faisson’s posh approach to Texas barbecue has reaped expected dividends with beef, but it’s the pork that often shines brightest, whether via the smoked pork belly or pulled pork. The contrast of crisp bark and soft, bouncy interior will grab you first, but it’s that undeniable porkiness elevated by oak smoke that’ll keep you coming back for more. Credit the impeccable sourcingalways hormone free and often Berkshire, but constantly changing to utilize the best product available. Where other pulled pork relies on heavy sauces or cole slaw as camouflage, this one stands tall all on its own.

 

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Pulled Pork (runner-up):

Lester's Roadside BBQ, Burlington MA

 

If you've ever wondered where the pulled pork sandwich photo that graces the background of the PigTrip Facebook page comes from, it's Lester's. There's usually a profusion of bark, there usually are dripping pork juices and the smoke is strong enough to let you know it's there while still tame enough for the kids.

 

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Brisket: BT's Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA

 

My first question upon accepting the Globe assignment was how far out I could go. Here's the reason why.

 

There’s not another brisket in New England that can claim such such consistently robust bark, wilting interiors, explosive beef juices and invigorating salt, all in one intensely smoky bite. To ensure high quality, chef-owner Brian Treitman insists on using local woods (cherry, hickory and apple) and beef from Massachusetts farms. Facebook posts often alert the fan base when fresh product is about to be pulled from the J&R smoker. You’ll have to endure lines that are growing in lockstep with BT’s reputation, but it’ll be worth the wait. Just remember to strip down to the least amount of clothing before heading in.

 

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Brisket (runner-up):

Phil's Old Fashioned BBQ, Milford NH

 

Granted, this is another long distance runaround. But for brisket lovers, it's worth the trip—summers only, in the great outdoors.

 

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Chicken: SlowBones, Burlington MA

 

The creator-owner of this "modern" (and semi fast food) approach to barbecue was also the founder of Boston Market, so it's no surprise he knows chicken. What is somewhat surprising is that his smoked version is more flavorful from a barbecue perspective than any I've had in the area.

 

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Sausage: SoulFire, Allston MA

 

They don't make their own. But these juice bombs, as I like to call them, were made somewhere better: Texas. They're shipped up from Meyer's Smokehouse (Elgin TX), one of the most heralded names in sausage. Although shorter than the breakfasty model they replaced, these sausages have better snap and explode with both flavor and porky-smoky liquid on first bite.

 

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Sausage (runner-up):

Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA

 

This one is custom made to replicate the Texas experience. The early versions were more soft and crumbly in the middle while the more recent ones have more snap and more structure. Juiciness is a little more fleeting than SoulFire's, but the flavor is strong in both the beefy and spicy components.

 

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Collard Greens: Lester's, Burlington MA

 

Although you can certainly taste the on-the-brink-of-drooping vegetable, this rendition hits home thanks to a 1-2 punch of meat: a cooked down fierceness in the salty, vinegary broth, with scraps of smoky pork interspersed among the leaves and stems.

 

 

Collard Greens (runner-up):

Mrs. Jones, Dorchester MA (closed)

 

This runner-up may have been the first choice had I not found out that the joint was closed just days before the article went to print. Mrs. Jones did collards in unique fashion, combining okra and elevating the natural vegetable flavors ever so slightly with turkey stock.

 

 

Cornbread: Blue Ribbon, W. Newton MA

 

You can't go wrong with any of Blue Ribbon's sides, but the one that comes automatically is what exemplifies what cornbread should be: coarse, dense, crumbly, crusty on top, moist—sometimes more so after an inadvertent dunk in the pork juice—and walking that tightrope between sweet and savory.

 

 

Cole Slaw: American Barbecue, Rowley MA

 

Another balancing act: whether you seek sweet, savory, tart or creamy, this crunchy cabbage packs a little of everything in a refreshingly cold respite from the smoky fare.

 

Baked Beans: Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA

 

Large, firm beans stand up beautifully to a rich condiment that’s a balanced mix of subtlely sweet and tingly heat from jalapeño and other dried spices. A generous inclusion of brisket gives it a heartiness that make it a meal within the meal. You can call it beans all you want; I call it chili and I call for it often.

 

 

Mac and Cheese: SlowBones, Burlington MA

 

Say what you will about the barbecue at this national chain in the making from the founder of Boston Market, but their mac and cheese trumps any in the area. Thick spirals of cavatappi are blanketed by a thick and luscious four cheese blend whose sharpness lends a very adult taste. Crunchy panko breadcrumbs add textural contrast.

 

 

 

Biscuits: Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA

 

You think I'd forget these? Warm, crunchy, fluffy, steaming and huge, with huge buttery flavor to match. Of course, you're going to want to butter it up even more with the soft and spreadable honey butter served on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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