Practically on top of Fenway Park near Kenmore Square, the Cask 'n' Flagon is a nationally recognized sports bar with a huge circular bar, plenty of TVs (even in the rest rooms) and comfortable booth and banquette seating in addition to the bar stools and tables. Photographs of legendary Red Sox stars, mostly from the 1950s and earlier, grace the walls.
Known more for drink than food, in early 2013 the Cask 'n' Flagon launched a new barbecue menu, created by "award winning pitmaster" Big D. In 2014 they upped their barbecue game with the addition of a J&R smoker.
Barbecue features babyback pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket and chicken. These can be had as platters with one, two or three meats, as well as in sandwich form. The wide ranging menu also features the usual pub food suspects (wings yes; smoked, no), plus seafood, Italian, pizza and lighter fare that includes eight different salads. There's even BBQ tofu.
Upon the introduction of the barbecue menu in 2013, I deliberately waited for a weekend when the Red Sox were out of town, then mozied in solo for a Saturday lunch to find the place an oasis of calm that's just not possible on game nights. I didn't make it out to Cask and Flagon the same summer they added the J&R smoker, but I made sure to hit them for a night visit with a barbecue buddy shortly before the 2015 home opener.
I bypassed apps on both visits to focus on a three meat platter. But lo and behold, a sizeable order of pretzels appeared on the table soon after we ordered on the night visit. Soft, fresh and light, they weren't bad at all for a pre-meal amuse.
2013: Fully coated with brick red barbecue sauce, the four connected babyback ribs on the 3-meat combo ($26 with cornbread and two sides) had good size and what looked like decent crusting overall and on the end rib in particular. These cut easily and bit even more easily, taking the meat off the bone with minimal effort. What came off wasn't a single bite but the whole strip, showcasing the very moist, very gray meat with nary a smoke ring and no scent or flavor of smoke (they're billed as smoked). Aside from the generously applied sauce, flavor was lacking.
2015: Far less coated with the barbecue sauce, the rib representation from a 3-meat combo (same price two years later) brought the same thick babybacks and same sturdy crust, this time with some unpleasant gray color on the surface. The innermost meat trumped the earlier visit in terms of color (some pink), moistness (slight) and doneness (reasonably tender without being overtender), but the chalky texture and outer stiffness were bothersome. With smoke making no appearance and the prevailing flavor in the meat veering towards hammy, sauce was needed on these ribs.
For hard core aficionados looking to quench a barbecue urge, Cask 'n' Flagon's ribs probably won't get the job done, but for pub style babybacks, they're at least worth considering.
2013: A fist-sized pile of pork brought more gray to the table, with only a few spoonfuls of sauce on top. This allowed a better tasting of what was meat and what was sauce, and what was meat was what I feared: again flavorless, with no evidence of smoking via color, scent or taste. There wasn't any bark per se, but the top pieces had some crispiness to them from the reheat. Also on the plus side, at least there was some color variation and the meat was very moist and very tender without being mushy. But again, flavor was the deal breaker: this was one time I actually wanted more sauce.
2015: Tried this time as a sandwich ($10.50 with beans and another selectable side), the pulled pork came in not too different from last time. Smoke and rub ramped up their potency while tenderness and moisture took a hit. A processed component to the flavor reminded me of those pouched packets of pork available in the supermarket. Nothing special about the standard issue hamburger bun, but I found this menu description interesting: "slow smoked for seven hours."
2013: Oh, where to begin. I'll start with the cut, which was fine. A thick slice from the fatty part of the brisket had some fat down the middle, but was easily trimmed away. This hefty slab of meat should have tantalized, but instead it frightened with its pale hue. No pink, no juice and no bark, save for some toaster-oven-quality perimeter flakeage. This was the meat equivalent of one of those tabloid magazine "Stars Without Makeup" photo articles. Part of me was disgusted, but part of me simply felt bad for the brisket—and worse yet for the beast that gave its life for this abomination that looked and felt more like undercooked salmon. Flavor was a little more meatloafy, assuming you can find a meatloaf with this little flavor—which had no evidence of smokiness or any of the qualities resulting from slow smoking. To its credit, this brisket wasn't the least bit tough or dry; on the contrary, it was rather moist (note: never to be confused with juicy) in a steamy, reheated sort of way (note: better, I suppose, than just grilling the crap out of it like too many joints still do). Still, if this is award winning, gimme last place brisket instead.
2015: The inevitable improvement happened; how could it not? This time the texture was more like a well done salmon teriyaki. The crispiness of the grilled-up crusts had a plastic feel, but the meat beneath had some flavor and tenderness that many would like. If you're a fan of Jewish brisket, this comes close. In a sandwich, it might work.
2015: Tried for the first time on the recent visit, the chicken carried the most sauce of any meat and had the most tenderness. The breast was just moist enough not to call dry and the flavor of the sauce—which reminded me of duck sauce—worked well with the chicken. Again, not much if any smoke.
Meats summary: Textures have improved, but only slightly. Flavors still lack smoke and depend almost entirely on the sauce.
2013: There's no sauce on the tables (not a big deal, since they're not technically a barbecue joint) and there's no choice of sauces. Usually at places like this I say that the meats that came sauced hardly needed extra, but here the ribs were drowning in sauce while the pork had but a dainty dollop on top. I requested the brisket unsauced. My server brought an extra ramekin of sauce "just in case," which was a nice touch, and it was warm, which was even nicer. At first glance it looked ketchupy or store-bought, and the thickness and consistency were exactly what you'd expect from a blend of the two, but this had some originality to it. Some extra heat and tanginess aroused interest; a refreshing fruity component stepped it up even further. If the ribs were truly award winning, this would hit the spot.
2015: Again a highlight, sauces are now in bottles on the tables with two varieties available, both brown. The Texas Style is actually more of a Kansas City style, with a molassesy sweetness and a consistency that's thick enough to cling but runny enough not to need too much. The Spicy Sweet Vinegar seems like the same sauce, but more tangy and with more heat. I like the complexity and would enjoy it more on grilled meats than barbecue.
Fries: More like potato wedges, these got ordered because I asked if they were fresh as opposed to frozen and got a "yes." I'm pretty sure they're frozen, and I'm opposed to frozen.
Mac and cheese: This was another story. A bowl full of bouncy corkscrew pasta in a rich and creamy sharp cheese sauce had breadcrumbs aplenty and flavor aplentier. Easily the best thing on the table on both visits and one of the best mac and cheese renditions I've had. If only their barbecue were half as good.
Baked beans: The photo makes them look darker and sweeter than they actually were. These were somewhat soggy, but more than somewhat flavorful in an understated way. Some unusual ingredients, whatever they were, made me keep coming back to them. Big D put some thought in here.
Cole slaw: This one is different, with a mustardy backbone to the creamy, mayoey condiment that's also enhanced with some interesting herbs.
Cornbread: Another interesting side, this cornbread from 2013 had cakey flavor with a strong corn presence but more of a cookie density. A little dry, but I still liked it. The cornbread from 2015 never appeared, but I didn't realize that until I got home.
Any mention of Fenway barbecue needs to also make mention of nearby Sweet Cheeks, which is a bit further away but also within walking distance of the ballpark. A 3-meat combo at both joints is the same $26, but Sweet Cheeks has more meats to choose from, more sauces to choose from and isn't reliant on them for flavor. I'd make the extra walk 100 times out of 100, but it really depends on what you're looking for. If you're focusing only on ribs and like an extra saucy, extra tender product, there's a chance you'd prefer the Cask.
For a sports bar, the Cask 'n' Flagon is a little light on TVs. Say what you want about the food (and I say for a very brief early period it used to be good), but for game viewing on screens both numerous and expansive, Jerry Remy's blew the Cask away.
Service was very pleasant on both visits.
The Bottom Line
If good sauce (and admittedly some very good mac and cheese) can take a nothing meat and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile, then call me Mary Tyler Moore. Just don't call me if you're headed to the Cask 'n' Flagon.
Thrillist preview of the Cask 'n' Flagon's barbecue menu
Yelp reviews of the Cask 'n' Flagon
Urbanspoon reviews of the Cask 'n' Flagon
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