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.
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.
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 bypassed apps to focus on a three meat platter.
Ribs: 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.
For 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 better than most.
Pulled pork: 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.
Brisket: 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.
Meats summary: If these meats were smoked, they didn't taste it. Tenderness was good, though steamy. Flavors depended almost entirely on the sauce.
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.
Cole slaw: This one was different: creamy, crunchy and looking like cabbage but tasting like broccoli. Was it good? Hard to say (read: no), but it was interesting for sure.
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 and one of the best mac and cheese renditions I've had. If only their barbecue were half as good.
Cornbread: Another interesting one, this cornbread had cakey flavor with a strong corn presence but more of a cookie density. A little dry, but I still liked it.
Any mention of Fenway barbecue needs to also make mention of nearby Sweet Cheeks, which is a bit further away also within walking distance of the ballpark. A 3-meat combo at both 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.
While it's possible that the caliber of Cask 'n' Flagon's 'cue was influenced by the holiday weekend visit date—pitmaster out of town, using up leftovers, cooking without smoke just this one time among the explainable but inexcuseable theories—I'm not holding out much hope that another day would be much different. I mentioned to some staff before the meal that I was a barbecue fan and asked whether they used a smoker and was told yes.
It was one of the hottest days of the year. The air conditioning was about as noticeable as the smoke.
For a sports bar, the Cask 'n' Flagon is a little light on TVs. Say what you want about the food (and I say it used to be good), but for game viewing on screens both numerous and expansive, Jerry Remy's blows the Cask away.
The Bottom Line
If good sauce (and admittedly 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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