Blue Ribbon's Arlington's "Sales" and "Service" signage, blackboard menu, over-the-counter ordering, stools-against-a-window-counter seating and relaxed retro vibe all echo the West Newton original that opened about a year earlier. The 17 year old Boston barbecue institution feels like a barbecue joint should feel, which starts the meal off right even before you order. Don't plan on ordering a beer, because there's no bar and no alcohol served. Street parking can be a bit of a challenge.
The menu is identical to the West Newton flagship, though the daily specials aren't always in lock step. Regular barbecue meats include pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, burnt ends, smoked chicken, pulled chicken, jerk chicken, smoked turkey and sausage. Ribs are available by the bone, by the rack, half rack, third rack and on platters. Boneless meats can be had by the pound and on sandwiches, burritos and platters, which are 1-, 2- or 3-meat combos. There's always a salad and often a salmon sandwich for those less barbecue inclined. Numerous sides also offer many vegetarian options.
I visited Blue Ribbon's Arlington location for a Saturday lunch with a Groupon-carrying barbecue bud. I wanted to get a feel for this location, which I hadn't visited in a few years, as well as Blue Ribbon as a whole, which I hadn't visited for a few months. The Arlington location choice provided a nice excuse to post this separate review, which I suppose can be viewed as a sneaky way of upping the review count, but who really cares about review count? Instead, I view it as an opportunity to end my Blue Ribbon neglect. This serves as a"quick snapshot' of a single Blue Ribbon meal for now while saving the ponderous and more analytical "big picture" review for after I've accumulated more visits.
Blue Ribbon's not really geared toward appetizers, though an occasional soup or chili special changes that somewhat.
Pulled pork sandwich: If there's anything that you could point to as Blue Ribbon's signature item, it would have to be the pulled pork sandwich ($7.99 with two sides). Unwrapping the wax paper package was a little like Christmas, and with no batteries required. Housed in a fresh and powdery Piantedosi soft roll that lived up to the soft billing, this pork came in equally soft without being mushy or steamy from being held too long. Although a little less abundant than in Blue Ribbon pulled pork sandwiches past, bark made an appearance. Smoke surfaced more plentifully, uplifting the overall flavor without taking over. Ditto the light application of sauce that was just wet enough to coat all the meat but not break it down into a swampy mess. This North Carolina treatment supplied a slightly sweetened, slightly more spicy vinegar, but the leading flavor in this ensemble was the pork itself, and that's how it should be. Pork intensity came in surprisingly high, which is probably directly related to that lack of steaminess that can strip barbecue meats of their flavor over time. At one point Blue Ribbon boasted the best pulled pork sandwich in greater Boston; today's more competitive field makes their standing more dependent upon the day, but this example was certainly in the top few.
Ribs: Ordered on the Trio (3-meat combo with 2 sides and cornbread, $16.99), the ribs had midrange size, appealing pink color throughout, a bumpy crust and decent moisture that fell short of free-running juicy. Just like the pork, the ribs had no steaminess whatsoever (sometimes an issue at the Ribbon over the years) and impressed with intensely porky flavor, higher-than-average smoke and a rub level that dazzled and with its surprising tingle. Blue Ribbon ribs have been up and down over the years (and by "down" I mean above average but closer to the pack rather than leading it) but even at their peak they never delivered so much flavorful spice. Tenderness was spot on: not the slightest bit stiff and not the slightest bit "fall off the bone" overcooked. If this is the current state of Blue Ribbon ribs, then I'm in a state of bliss.
Brisket: Sitting under the ribs on the 3-meat platter, the semi-thick sliced brisket brought a slightly crisp bark and good moisture throughout that would easily qualify as juicy from first bite to last. Flavor didn't quite keep pace: smoke and rub were both extremely light and the natural beefiness wasn't enough. Ordered unsauced, this brisket needed a dip into a few of the sauces available at the counter. Both of the bold and complex mustards did the job nicely.
Burnt ends: I don't want this to be a referendum on styles, which many debate, and by styles I'm including cut, shape, size and saucing. Blue Ribbon's interpretation of burnt ends is chopped brisket, much if not all of it from the fattier deckle, with a profusion of bark content softened by a profusion of sauce. It's on that borderline where some might scoff at its steamy, oversauced Sloppy Joe nature and others might really appreciate the tenderness with a beefy character that still shines through. I'm somewhere in the middle. I did taste—and enjoy—the richness of the beef, though only a hint of smoke, and wished the sauce would let more of it through and leave what was once a crusty surface intact.
Available in retro glass bottles and plastic jugs with pumps, the sauces at Blue Ribbon are easily among the best, if not the best, I've ever had. There are the typical but well executed tomato-based sweet and hot sauces, plus a Carolina tomato-pepper-vinegar sauce, a XXX hot vinegar sauce, habanero vinegar, chipotle mustard and a "Gold" sauce that's a sweeter mustard. All of the sauces are homemade and fresh. All of the non-vinegar sauces have good thickness that allows them to adhere to the meats.
My go-to sides are collards and cole slaw, with black-eyed corn off the bench and Creole cabbage anytime it's available, but I didn't do the ordering on this visit. Rather than second guessing, as I am so oftenh second-guessed when I do the ordering, I embraced the opportunity to explore new ground and renew some old acquaintances.
Mashed potatoes: Since I wasn't the one who placed the order, I only heard second-hand that there was no counter person inquiry about gravy, but whether gravy's available or not, these mashed potatoes didn't need any of it. I can't think of a single order of mashed potatoes I've ever had that would outdo these for that hard-to-achieve combination of softness, richness, buttery flavor and much more potatoey flavor without a single lump or any hint of artificial flavor. We're talking gold standard for mashed potatoes.
Black-eyed corn: The corn was pretty standard and probably came from a can, but the deep flavor of the black-eyed peas perked things up nicely. Good firmness.
Dirty rice: Slightly citrusy, slightly spicy, mostly ho-hum.
Baked beans: Homemade tasting, with large beans that didn't seem canned at all, with much more tomato (ketchup?) and molasses than I remembered.
Cornbread: Blue Ribbon's coarse, soft and voluminous version walks the tightrope between dessert and side dish, with enough sweet and savory to keep everybody happy.
For a counter operation, Blue Ribbon provides exceptionally good service. The people are friendly and seem to care about making customers happy.
The Bottom Line
Is Blue Ribbon the very best of greater Boston barbecue? To earn that title you've got to blow me away, and this visit would best be characterized as a solid one as opposed to a great one. But there were many things that I really liked—sides, sauces and service were exemplary—so they're always a threat and still very much among the leaders.
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