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East Coast Grill in Cambridge’s Inman Square is the brainchild of former owner 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 Schlesinger has moved on, you’ll find a staff that serves barbecue and seafood in his tradition of fun food that’s upscale in taste but without too much 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 could once get a creative spin on the classic pupu platter (think quail legs, hoisin ribs, duck "cigars") and unique tropical drinks not available in the other rooms. Now, it's simply dated.
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 practitioners of the barbecue craft. They even roast whole pigs for special events using an outside-the-box (actually, inside-the-box) roasting box that brings out the flavor of the pork.
The lively atmosphere is equally suited to a night out with the guys/girls or a date.
Ribs are available several ways: spare ribs by the platter ($22) with sides, spare ribs or babybacks by the whole rack ($32), and as single bones ($5) done in a variety of styles and sauces. Try as you may, you cannot get a half rack at dinner, and you also cannot get a split rack of half babybacks, half spares (I've tried twice, failed twice). Pulled pork can be had as a sandwich ($10) only on Saturday lunches or as a platter ($20) at dinner. Similarly, brisket can be had as a sandwich ($10) only on Saturday lunches or as a platter ($21) at dinner. Both platters are also available at Saturday lunch at a reduced price. Uncle Bud's trio ($20 at Saturday lunch, $24 at dinner) combines a rib (lunch) or two (dinner) with pulled pork and brisket. All platters come with cornbread and cole slaw.
Beyond barbecue, there are several raw bar and seafood selections, including many specials.
Bones: The single bone rib option is the best way to deal with the dilemma of whether to order seafood or barbecue. At $5 apiece, they provide deceptive value, if for no other reason than that it's a good way to gauge the ribs without commiting to a full rack ($32) on a bad night.
The "Xiao Jianming" (aka “wet bone”) with a spicy Asian sauce at its best is fantastic, combining the natural smokiness of the rib with citrus, bright herbality, sticky sweetness and sriracha heat. A recent try lost most of the citrus and bright flavors from earlier renditions, instead coming in with a complex melding of sweet, faintly spicy and earthy, like a mash-up of hoisin and a Mexican mole. And it was just as delicious. The rib itself was gigantic, crusty, tender, fairly juicy and very bacony. Pricey per volume, yes, but I'll take it every time.
Spare Ribs: East Coast Grill’s standard barbecue ribs for years had been Memphis style spare ribs, with generous and flavorful rub applied before smoking and also sprinkled on right before serving. These came unsauced, with a sweet-tangy sauce served on the side. They had always been among my all-time favorites: bright pink, juicy, tender and flavorful, with a firm full bark outside and good spice to a crust that provides both texture and flavor. The ribs seemed to be at their best when ordered as whole racks.
Two recent tries changed that. They're still presented unsauced, but now served without the finishing rub, though strongly rubbed before smoking. A full rack brought good crustage over most of the slab, with a few ribs bearing a thick layer of unrendered surface fat. The short end of the rack came in drier than jerky and difficult to chew. The flabby larger ribs had token moisture but a very hammy quality, more in texture than flavor. That rub flavor, by the way, never penetrated beyond the top eighth of an inch. Whether the firmness was due to undercooking or a too-brief reheat was debated for most of the ride to the next stop. I suspect both, but either way, the ribs disappointed in rub flavor (not enough), smoke flavor (ditto), tenderness (ditto) and moistness (ditto).
Babyback Ribs: Introduced after the restaurant was sold, these are more tame, less meaty and less smoky than the spares, but exhibit decent enough texture and pleasant porky flavor. About the texture: it's significantly firmer than your typical babybacks, but based on two tries there's still just enough tenderness and moistness to squeak by. If that fails, they arrive sauced by default, providing more than adequate cover up. The sauce is actually quite tasty, delivering sweetness, spice, heat and tang in bold fashion. It's more memorable than what's under it.
Pulled pork sandwich: Freshness can sometimes vary, but the pork is usually tender and smoky, with big chunks, long strings and plenty of bark. The sauce also tends to vary: sometimes mostly natural juices with vinegar added, sometimes more vinegary than some people like. I think it’s good either way, but I like vinegar. A recent sandwich ($10 at Saturday lunch) brought a substantial pile of juicy pork with delicate strands that were moist even aside from the saucing, which was a cross between North Carolina vinegar and Tabasco. Smoke was lighter than in ECG's glory days, but texture and flavor were both in play that day.
Brisket sandwich: Sliced fairly thin and lightly sauced, ECG's brisket over the years had been fork tender inside, crisp outside, and sometimes very flavorful. Not the case with a recent sandwich ($10 at Saturday lunch), which suceeded in overall construction thanks to the buttery grilled bun and the addition of onions and pickles. The brisket itself was less successful. It looked, felt and tasted like reheated pot roast, with none of the smokiness, rub penetration, tenderness or juiciness that was reliably present in the past. Individual samples plucked from the sandwich were dry and chalky.
Burnt ends sandwich: East Coast Grill’s burnt ends of brisket sandwich (discontinued) was like a brisket version of a Sloppy Joe, with a mound of soft, crumbly pieces covered in sauce. Given the amount of critical and public acceptance it's gotten over the years, I'm surprised it was stricken from the menu.
Chicken: Offered spit roasted throughout most of the previous two decades, the poultry is now Latin rubbed smoked chicken with papaya and avocado salad ($21). The half bird arrived lightly rubbed, plump and oddly yellow, with a skin so thick and rubbery that I'm shocked nobody thought it might be underdone. It was, bringing a slushy texture from the inner thigh meat similar to that of the flabby skin. I sent back my portion (I was sharing) and received the same piece back, incisions and all, now so scorching hot that it could not even be touched, much less eaten, for several minutes. It didn't get much more than a picking, revealing meat that had a pleasant but very light smoky-rubby flavor overshadowed by the high heat grill finish. Hard to get behind this again. The server noticed the high percentage of uneaten chicken and took it off the bill without prompting.
About that papaya and avocado salad: unlike in days past, when that third item on the plate would often befascinating and the surprise star of the meal, this was no more than the sum of its parts.
Uncle Bud's Trio: Rather than list the included ribs, pulled pork and brisket twice, I'll do the rundown of this combo ($24.00) from a recent night visit right here.
The two ribs were fairly meaty, though not as meaty as the wet bones tried a little earlier on the same night. They bore a bumpy maroon crust beneath (very promising) and an overload of sauce (not so promising). But sometimes the visual can deceive: the sauce turned out to be quite delicious—thick and sweet with enough kick and complexity to be quite compelling—but the texture turned out to be a deal breaker. Even after tugging like something out of a Three Stooges scene, these tough, dry, rubbery ribs just would not allow a clean bite. Smoke and rub did make their way into the flavor profile, which was appreciated, but the prohibitive texture left much of my allotment on the plate.
Brisket looked fatty at first, suggesting moist meat, but again, that wasn't the case. It took great effort to cut it with a fork and greater effort to chew. We're talking very dry, even with the abundant saucing possibly made even more abundant (swimmingly so) to cover it up.
Pulled pork was the best of the bunch, contributing a mix of moist and dry shreds, many with bark and some with good flavor. The saucing here again was a faint North Carolina style vinegar closer to a thinned-down Tabasco. Smoke was again light, but overall flavor satisfied.
BBQ platters, including the Uncle Bud’s trio that has all three red meats, come cole slaw and cornbread; sandwiches skip the cornbread. The good news on the Saturday lunch sandwiches is that they come with two sides; the bad news is that the cups they're served in are only slightly larger than thimbles.
Baked Beans: Fairly small and wet, with a sauce equally sweet and spicy. Probably the best thing on a recent visit.
Cole slaw: Once an appealing mix of creamy and peppery, it's now mostly just creamy.
Mac and cheese: A thick, creamy rendition that strikes a happy medium between kids' and adult versions.
Cornbread: Huge, coarse, dense and chewy, with more of a sweet profile of late—I'm tasting vanilla—than in days past.
Prices have gone up dramatically in recent years, particularly among the appetizers and the barbecue. The quality of the food here over the years generally made it worth the price, but there's now a growing disconnect.
There was a time when it was impossible to hit East Coast Grill during the sweet spot of dinner service or weekend lunch service and find more than a couple of empty tables—if that . On recent such visits the place was barely at half capacity.
In my first East Coast Grill review I said, "Although there is the occasional night when it seems like an afterthought, the barbecue at East Coast Grill is usually very good." It seems a little more like an afterthought now.
Returning now to what was once my favorite restaurant on the planet, I feel a little like this guy.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps the recent quality lapses can be chalked up to catching them on a bad night and the Saturday lunch factor, but I strongly suspect they're in a major tailspin and simply coasting on reputation. East Coast Grill is a legend—albeit a fading one—that is still capable of some of the best barbecue in the region, but you can no longer go in expecting it as a given. Bear in mind that its creative menu goes beyond barbecue, so take advantage, if for no other reason than to hedge your bet.
My 2007 East Coast Grill review
Yelp reviews of East Coast Grill
Urbanspoon reviews of East Coast Grill
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