(10/27/10) (12/02/10) (12/15/10) (01/04/11) (01/08/11)
Blackstrap BBQ, named after a type of molasses that's often found in barbecue recipes, sits in a downtown area of Winthrop whose benches and wide brick sidewalks give it an old time charm. The city location has no lot, but close free parking is surprisingly easy to find. Inside, the joint is simple, with a huge blackboard menu, over-the-counter ordering, a few tables and a few stools at a window ledge. Co-owner Jim Economides and chef Chris Thompson are alums of East Coast Grill and All Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge, so bold flavors with unfussy presentations are to be expected. There's no bar and no alcohol served, but BYOB is an easy option with a package store right across the street.
Unlike most over-the-counter operations, Blackstrap offers a nice array of appetizers: chili, wings, Andouille-and-corn fritters, fries, onion rings, fried pickles and "A Perfect Storm" (mashed potatoes with bacon, goat cheese, caramelized onions and roasyed garlic).
Mainstream barbecue options include pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, burnt ends of brisket, smoked chicken, pulled chicken and sausage. Ribs can be had as half racks, full racks, as a platter, on a 2- or 3-meat combo platter, and as a single bone. Beyond barbecue, there's catfish (po' boy or plate), a soup of the day and a baby greens salad.
Weeknight specials include a brisket Reuben on Tuesdays, fried chicken on Wednesdays, beef shortribs on Thursdays and babyback ribs on Fridays.
Four visits were on weeknights, specifically timed to catch the specials; one was for a late Saturday afternoon "linner." On most of these visits I was accompanied by at least one of my usual babecue cronies, allowing a wide perusal of the menu.
Wings: The small order of six BBQ wings ($5.99) was wrapped tightly in foil on the first visit, effectively steaming away whatever crispiness might have been achieved previously. An additional textural characteristic suggested that the wings may have been smoked, then stewed in sauce, then grilled, then finished with more sauce. The sauce itself was sweet but pleasingly so, with just the right amount of heat to enhance the flavor but without scaring away anybody. The inner meat was moist, tender and exhibited all of the flavor characteristics of having been smoked without being overly smoky. A later sampling of Buffalo wings yielded better texture, with a crisp exterior. The sauce was a nice mildly spicy number that remained true to the classic. Meat was pleasantly smoky and slightly moist. Overall, some very good wings that have a good chance of cracking my Favorite Wings list if they can just come out fresher and hotter.
Onion Rings: Visit 1's onion rings ($4.99) sat a little too long in a brown paper bag, resulting in one mound of steamy onions and batter all stuck together. The batter wasn't 100% soggy, but instead very chewy. That said, they were still some of the best onion rings I've ever had, with a unique flavor: very moist (even aside from the steam) and slightly sweet onions under a batter that in addition to the aforementioned (intentional?) chewiness had its own sweetness, some spiciness (more spicy than the wings) and unabashed use of salt. Batches on later visits had perfect texture, with a lighter, crisper batter that still had good seasoning, but less in-your-face than the maiden voyage. Blackstrap's rings are among my all-time favorites, good enough to order just about every time.
Chili: "Grammy Kath's Rip Your Lips Off Chili" ($4.99 cup, $6.99 bowl) is served in a plastic tub, topped with onions and cheddar cheese and thankfully devoid of beans. The heat component is noticeable but not intimidatingly so. The star is the meat, which I'm pretty sure is all brisket chunks. I was hoping for the same flavor profile as in the chili at All Star Sandwich Bar, which wasn't the case. While I don't see Blackstrap's chili making my next Favorite Bowls of Chili list, it was at least solid.
Corn and Andouille fritters: It's hard to rate this dish ($7.99), because I was expecting the Andouille to be more involved than it wound up being. But the golden balls were hot, crisp and tasty, bearing whole corn kernels and small chunks of sausage. So aside from the technicality of minimal sausage usage, these were also a hit. The jalapeno marmalade supplied as a dip was an even bigger hit, merging sweet with heat effectively and clinging easily to the fritters.
Fried pickles: Sliced thin, these ($2.99) were battered and seasoned lightly enough to let the tartness of the pickles do most of the talking.
Sausage: Of the six different meats in two 3-meat BBQ plates ($15.95) on the first visit, this was the first I sampled, and it was a good start. I wasn't so thrilled by the fact that you don't get a whole sausage (it's one end, about the length of an iPhone), but I liked everything else. The exterior was slightly crisp. A very light glazing of sweet sauce enhanced ever so slightly without getting in the way. The inside was tender, pink, juicy and smoky. And the meat itself was of high quality, not just another off-the-shelf Italian style sausage.
Pulled pork: This has been a mixed bag over a few samplings. On visit 1 the pulled pork was served in mostly large chunks, with minimal bark and a delicate texture that struck me as being very fresh, but not much flavor. The next try on visit 3 had a similarly fresh texture, more moisture and a big improvement in flavor, with good smokiness and a more noticeable rub component. Visit 4 was equally tender but had a texture and flavor suggesting that the pork had been stewing a while. Overall, the pork has been decent (and with some added sauce to give it some oomph, it's more than doable) but it's not a strength.
Chicken: On the first try, skin was nearly crisp, heartily sauced and had what seemed like the effects of light glazing under the sauce. Similar to the wings, the meat was tender and showed all of the effects of smoking without being particularly smoky. There was a little sweetness to the meat and a really pleasing overall flavor. The second sampling a month and a half later was equally tender and flavorful, this time with a little more smoke and a little more crispness. A third try had what may have been the most rub ever applied to chicken, and all of it was crisp. This one had slightly dry white meat but moist, tender dark meat, again with that same pleasing, ever-so-slightly sweet flavor. The fourth try saw the introduction of more intense smoke while retaining all of the other characteristics. Chicken is usually an also-ran at barbecue joints, but Blackstrap's chicken is one of the few that I would go out of my way to order again and again.
Brisket: The brisket is served as a pile of small but clean slices, lightly sauced. The slightly crisp edges carry some spiciness that contrasts the mellow sweetness of the interior. Tenderness has been a little above average; smokiness is consistently light but noticeable; moistness has varied. Brisket isn't a go-to item, but it's serviceable.
Burnt ends: I was expecting the small, well lubricated bits that are the burnt ends at East Coast Grill, but Blackstrap's rendition is a little more substantial and more briskety. Saucing on two tries has been a little too heavy, but the edges were still crisp. Smoke level was most noticeable here on one vist, lacking on another. Texture was good, with moisture in the meat itself, not just the sauce.
Ribs: The only meat sampled on all five visits, the full cut spare ribs have been consistently meaty. On the first visit, saucing was very light (possibly unsauced but moistened from the adjacent sauced brisket), and under that sauce was a thin layer of basted-in glaze similar to the chicken treatment. Under the slightly crisp crust, the inner meat was lightly smoky, juicy, pink and fairly fresh tasting. This was a good rib and probably the best executed meat of the six. Visit 2 brought an abundance of rub and all of it was crisp (no small feat with such a thick shroud). Flavor was appealing, but unfortunately, they were overcooked and just too soft to handle without breaking under their own weight. Visit 3's ribs had even more rub, with a little extra used as a finishing flourish just before serving. This time, the freshness was back, moisture was high and texture was near perfect, allowing a clean bite without wilting. Visit 4's single rib ($2.99) had a little less finishing rub but an equally crisp, flavorful crust with good moisture. Visit 5 followed up with their best ribs yet, bringing perfect textures, good crusting, the brightest smoke ring and plenty of flavor outside and in.
Beef short rib: A Thursday special ($16.99), this brought two large bones. I liked the size of the cut, the thickness of the crust and the flavor of the meat. Texture again was the weak link here: not tough, but not as tender as some other joints that feature beef short ribs. I probably would ask for these unsauced next time (as I would for most of the meats; I just flaked this time), but the sauce did a nice job complementing the meat.
Rib sandwich: Probably the dish of the night I tried it, the rib sandwich was a bark lover's delight, stuffing the meat from a few ribs inside a soft bun. The slightly higher fat content and much higher surface area made this a steep upgrade—in both texture and flavor—from the typical pulled pork sandwich. Saucing was just about right, letting the meat flavor sing lead. Although clearly a reheat, it didn't seem it at all. The rib sandwich has been removed from the regular menu but is sometimes available by request.
Fried chicken: A Wednesday special impressed big time with thick, dense, crunchy batter that had most of its seasoning mixed in. The chicken itself was extremely moist, including the white meat. For $19.99 you get a bucket with two pounds of chicken, salad, biscuits (a little too airy and bland) and a tub of mashed potatoes with gravy (both very homemade tasting).
Brisket Reuben: This Tuesday night special ($9.99 with two sides) is Blackstrap's spin on the deli classic. Once again I had high hopes before trying it, because I'm a fan of the Texas Reuben at All Star Sandwich Bar, the breeding ground for some of Blackstrap's kitchen talent. This was a different creation entirely. Instead of Swiss, Blackstrap uses a jack/cheddar blend, a choice that rocks as a grilled cheese sandwich, but one that makes the Reuben a little less Reubenesque. Or maybe there was too
much cheese and
not enough brisket. Those details aside, it was still a pretty good sandwich.
The Hog: A ballpark classic fortified and porkified, "The Hog" ($6.99) is a special conceived in December and sampled in January. It's a smoked sausage that's wrapped in bacon, deep fried and served in a hotdog roll dressed with sauteed onions and peppers and topped with coarse whole grain mustard. It's everything you'd expect of such a creation and twice as heavy, which is why this is best as a shared item.
Meats summary: While the meats have been mostly good and often excellent, there's some room for improvement in the area of consistency. Flavors are fine, but smoke levels vary from visit to visit. Textures and moisture are mostly good but not reliably so. I've seen some improvement from the first couple of visits and hope to see more as business traffic becomes more predictable over time. As currently constituted, Blackstrap already has some guaranteed winners in their ribs, smoked chicken and fried chicken, with everything else definitely worth a look.
Four are offered in squeeze bottles at the condiment station and all four are good to excellent. Sweet is a typical dark brown sauce that has a lot more character than the store variety, with a little extra texture from smoked onions. Hot is a spicier, chunkier version of the sweet. On my most recent visit, these first two sauces tasted a little more tomatoey/ketchupy. Mustard is very thin, gold, slightly sweet and slightly spicy. Carolina is a typical, well executed thin tomato-vinegar concoction with some pepper and other spices to round it out.
Sides had their ups and downs, but most were good and all had personality. I really liked both the tingly regular cole slaw (made with horsradish and vinegar) and the slow heat build up of the Asian cole slaw (made with sesame oil and hot peppers). The latter, it turns out, is a tribute to the late "Uncle Pete" Cucciara, who before his death owned a barbecue joint that bore his name not too far away in Revere. Collard greens are always cooked past wilting, sometimes strong of vinegar and sometimes heavily seasoned. Baked beans are your typical molassesy rendition, competently prepared but with nothing distinguishing about it. Rice and beans has had a paella-like consistency with interesting flavors and light heat. Disappointing mac and cheese is mostly dry, with a chewy shroud of greasy baked cheese on top. Chili mac dresses the mac and cheese with a ladleful of their spicy chili. The most pleasant surprise among the sides is the sweet potato salad, a brilliant blend of sweet, tart and herbal favors.
A huge block of cornbread is included with the platters. Exact hugeness has varied from visit to visit, but it's a near guarantee to be one of the largest you've tried. In keeping with the East Coast Grill alumni tradition, it's a coarse, dense, somwehat savory style, with some sweetness for sure, but it's one of those rare cornbreads that's actually geared to be a side, not just a dessert.
It's great to see a strong appetizer menu at a joint with over-the-counter service. Who says you can order only one round at a place like this? It's also nice to see as much creativity as Blackstrap has shown from day 1.
The first visit had some logistical issues with the line, ordering, packaging and delivery, but these have all seemingly been worked out.
The Bottom Line
Blackstrap BBQ has shown a lot of promise right out of the gate, with many more hits than misses, plus some flashes of brilliance that I'm hoping will be routine as experience sets in. For now, their combination of flavor intensity, menu breadth, ambition, creativity and mostly good execution makes them a must-visit for Boston BBQ fans. They're already in my regular rotation and a joint I'll be tracking as they grow.
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