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East Coast Grill in Cambridge’s Inman Square is owned by Chris Schlesinger, one of the Boston area’s first celebrity chefs and author of more than a half dozen cookbooks, most of them on grilling. Though you’re not as likely to see Chris in the restaurant as much as in years past, you’ll find a staff that serves barbecue and seafood in his tradition of fun food that’s upscale in taste but without any upscale pretension. The hip, casual restaurant is divided into three sections: one right off the bar area, another with a great view into the open kitchen, and the Lava Lounge. The Lava Lounge was once Jake and Earl’s, a separate entry counter-service and takeout joint also owned by Schlesinger before he expanded ECG. It has intentionally-kitsch tiki décor, including a mural with a volcano that lights up a few times an hour. Here you can get a special pupu platter (highly recommended) and unique tropical drinks not available in the other rooms.
The seafood, raw bar, bartending, pan-tropical dishes and “Hotter Than Hell” (spicy food) nights have all received so much attention, and deservedly so, that Boston BBQ fans sometimes forget that East Coast Grill is one of the area’s oldest and best barbecue restaurants.
Ribs are available several ways: by the platter ($15.50) with sides, by the whole rack ($22.50), and as single bones ($2.50). The last option is the best way to deal with the dilemma of whether to order seafood or barbecue. They also usually have a “wet bone” special with a spicy Asian sauce that’s fantastic. East Coast Grill’s standard barbecue ribs are Memphis style spare ribs, with a lot of flavorful rub applied before smoking and also sprinkled on right before serving. These come unsauced, with a sweet-tangy sauce served on the side. These are among my all-time favorite ribs: bright pink, juicy, tender and flavorful, with a firm full bark outside and a good spice to its crust that provides both texture and flavor. The ribs seem to be at their best when ordered as whole racks, especially later in the evening.
Pulled pork, available on a sandwich ($8.50) or as a platter ($13.50), is always tender and smoky, with big chunks, long strings and plenty of bark. The sauce tends to vary, though: sometimes mostly natural juices with vinegar added, sometimes more vinegary than some people like. I think it’s excellent either way, but I like vinegar.
Brisket is also available as a platter ($14.50). Sliced fairly thick and lightly sauced, it’s fork tender inside, crisp outside, and very flavorful. East Coast Grill’s burnt ends of brisket sandwich ($9.50) is like a brisket version of a Sloppy Joe, with a mound of soft, crumbly pieces covered in sauce. It’s good, but I prefer their sliced variety, which ranks among my favorites.
BBQ platters, including the Uncle Bud’s trio that has all three meats, come with baked beans, cole slaw, corn bread and watermelon. The slaw is creamy and peppery. The beans are fairly small and wet, with a sauce equally sweet and spicy. The cornbread is huge, coarse and chewy— the anti-twinkie.
Although there is the occasional night when it seems like an afterthought, the barbecue at East Coast Grill is usually top notch. The service is nothing short of excellent. Cocktails are excellent; beer selection is so-so. The lively atmosphere is equally suited to a night out with the guys/girls or a date. Prices aren’t outrageous, but have gone up noticeably in recent years, particularly among the appetizers. But I think the quality of the food here is well worth the price.
I have a confession to make: except for my last half dozen visits, I generally order the seafood here about twice as often as the barbecue. The fish is fresh, locally caught and as good as anything I've had in Hawaii. The roll-your-own tuna taco ($9.50) is outstanding. So is the grilled mahi mahi ($22.50), which I call "the pork of the sea" for its juicy sweetness. The raw bar is first rate. The cocktail shrimp are huge. Half of the East Coast Grill menu consists of specials, which are sometimes a hit, sometimes a miss, but quite often a home run. Check out their Sunday Latin Brunch, which features a Puerto Rican style pork shoulder, a Cuban Reuben and a good assortment of creative egg dishes.
The bottom line: East Coast Grill is a legend that has some of the best barbecue in the region, in a fun setting. It's among the best of Boston barbecue, but its creative menu goes far beyond barbecue. I recommend having an unusual beer or two at Bukowski’s Tavern next door (largest selection in Cambridge), a dinner at East Coast Grill that combines barbecue and seafood, and then some fantastic ice cream two doors down (on the other side) at Christina’s. And if you’re still hungry, you can try a sandwich from the roster of classics at Schlesinger’s All Star Sandwich Bar two doors further down at the end of the block.