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Firebox BBQ on Bedford's Great Road (a little hidden but directly across from McDonald's) originally looked like a Panera that had been hijacked and converted into a barbecue joint.
The clean, simple over-the-counter joint with an open kitchen changed in two phases spaced at least a year apart. In 2011, a new wood wall seemed to serve no other purpose than blocking the kitchen activity—a questionable move from an aesthetic standpoint at the very least, but the Southern Pride smoker (named "Vince") is still on display. In late 2012 Firebox added a bar and upgraded the overall look a bit, adding the option of table service (while still allowing over-the-counter) along the way. Decor consists of beer signs and a small smattering of surfing photos. The overall look is a clash of several different styles, but for a local hang, it works.
The barbecue menu includes St Louis cut pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, grilled brisket, smoked chicken, pulled chicken and smoked wings. Along with the bar that's improved the food and beverage pairing, the menu has been subjected to a paring of its own: gone are the burnt ends (although the grilled brisket is pretty much what they were before), the smoked turkey, the bacon as appetizer (at least as a featured item), the beef ribs and the bargain lettuce wraps. They must have realized how much of a bargain the lettuce wraps were, because they doubled the price before removing them altogether.
Remaining appetizers include brisket chili, nachos, jalapeno poppers, chicken tenders, four different salads, chips and salsa. Sandwiches include the usual smoked fare plus grilled chicken, fried chicken and catfish, a Cuban with pulled pork, quesadillas, a half pound burger and a vegetarian burger and falafel.
After a denser concentration of visits that spawned my first review, more scattered visits were mostly weeknights with reinforcements. Note that I'm basing my commentary below on visits after the initial review, with references to earlier iterations as appropriate.
Wings: Once a grilled item overcharred thanks to a high flame, the "pit smoked" chicken wings at Firebox ($6.99 for 6, $12.99 for 12) have received a renovation even more dramatic than the space itself. They're still fairly big, and now they truly taste smoked (and by that I mean woody and pleasant, not sooty). Both the sauced (mango chipotle) and unsauced were solid. There's a well formed crust from cooking and aggressive use of rub, though the flavor in the rub isn't so aggressive. The meat is tender, moist and lightly smoky.
Chili: Available in two sizes ($3.79 and $6.89), the Firebox chili has gone through a few different iterations, with back-to-back samplings often made with completely different recipes. It started out as a tomatoey, (thick) brothy variety with two kinds of beans, which succeeded in providing boatloads of flavor but only a kayakload of meat (seemingly the small leftover scraps of brisket rather than larger chunks). I really enjoyed the complexity and tingling heat that complemented the other flavors without overwhelming them, but the meat was lacking. Later versions of the chili packed much more meat but much less heat and complexity. The most recent version was very tomatoey (think stewed tomatoes), a little beany (still two kinds), not very meaty and not that spicy, though it did at least have a unique char flavor with somewhat rejuvenated complexity. Not one of my favorites but decent enough.
Beef ribs: Available in the early days and one of the weaker items, the beef back ribs (sometimes called Dinosaur bones) have been scratched from the menu since at least early 2012.
Pulled pork: Once one of the shining lights of the Firebox menu and a shoo-in for a top 10 list, the pulled pork has been disappointing in the last few visits. Promising but old (even at night), barky but pale, soggy but chalky with muted flavor. A friend's recent email description had a similar reaction: "While not pot roast like, clearly flavor had dulled a bit—smoke was minimal and flavor a bit muted."
Pulled pork sandwich: My most recent visit was for a pulled pork sandwich to go, and I liked that the grilled burger bun was packed separately from the packed tub of pork, to allow assembly right before eating with a possible reheat in between. I didn't like that the pork felt like it had already gone through one reheat already. The small pool of juices above the surface was somewhat redeeming, but under the liquid the pork was dry and lacking the lusciousness that made Firebox's pork one of the area's best just a few years earlier. Smoke and rub were very light.
Pork ribs: The iffy ribs of the old days (often not tender and hard to cut apart) got worse shortly after my first review. On one visit, the ribs were cut 99% of the way through between each bone and I still had to wrestle with them to tear them apart. Each bite was an adventure ("chewier than a doggie chew toy" was how I described them at the time), but flavor was good. I liked the smokiness and I liked the rub flavor, even if it arrived a little soggy on the firm surface.
The ribs have improved on the more recent visits to tender, individually cut St Louis bones. This latest incarnation typically has a nice snap, good crust, some flavor to the meat but also a little grilly/gassy in that same way that a stick of teriaki beef from a pupu platter is. On the most recent visit they were only luke warm, and had the feel and flavor of an obvious reheat, but I did like the ramped up smokiness and bright pink color.
Brisket: This meat was also an adventure in the early days, but has improved somewhat. On the two most recent visits it's been semi moist but also grilly/gassy in that teriaki vein. Tasty perhaps, but not what I have in mind when I'm seeking smoked brisket. Smoke levels have been unknown, as the grill flavor dominates so much it's impossible to tell.
Grilled brisket: No longer called burnt ends, this is essentially the same brisket, cut a little differently and grilled a little longer. If you like it saucier and like that burgerkingesque grilled fat flavor, this one's for you.
Chicken: Another Firebox classic that hit lofty heights in the past— arguably the best smoked chicken I have ever had and a guaranteed top 3—this chicken has devolved in two stages. Around 2010 it was a close approximation but not the same. By 2011 it morphed into something that no longer bears any resemblance to the original model. There's a nice amount of rub on the surface, but it's a placebo. The meat beneath was juicy on one recent visit and dry—no, make that painfully dry—on another.
Sauces are mostly good. The standard barbecue sauce is a dark brown Kansas City variety that somehow manages to be very thick of texture but a little watered down in flavor. A hotter version is also available. The remaining sauces are all homemade tasting and all good to very good: a thin but pungent North Carolina vinegar, a very "yellow" but complex (and spicier) South Carolina mustard and a robust Chipotle Mango (my clear favorite). I like that it's a chipotle sauce that actually tastes like chipotle. They now have a mustard-based (less yellow) extra spicy barbecue sauce called afterburner.
Baked beans: More of a mellow sweet these days, down from a more intense molasses kick. Extra creamy cole slaw had hints of sour cream and an herbal kick from parsley or chives.
Collard greens: This leafy, al dente treatment lets the verdant vegetable do the talking on its own, without any overly sweet or tart flavors.
Mac and cheese: Once tight like at a soul food joint, this has loosened up and become more creamy, bringing a mild cheesy silkiness.
Fried sweet potato: Presented as sea salt dusted cubes in the early days, these have now become skin-on slices about a quarter of an inch thick, with more traditional salt and a slight cinnamon flavor. They weren't crisp but they weren't bad.
Cornbread: Once Twinkielike at best, this now has none of the Twinkielike moistness or freshness. The most recent sample was chalky dry.
Miscellany, Baggage and Soapboxes
I probably beat Firebox up pretty hard, but I don't consider them anything close to a disaster; we're still talking roughly-average barbecue, though with some visits rougher than others. The real disappointment and frustration lie in the disconnect between where they are now and where they were headed a few years ago. Out of the gate Firebox had a lot of potential, some lofty ideals and two world class meats in their pulled pork and chicken, but they come across now as tired, complacent and satisfied with a half assed effort. The newly installed bar has only furthered that descent toward decent. Some have said that with the new bar, the barbecue is an afterthought, but that dropoff had been evident to me long before that.
On a January 2010 visit, I mentioned to an owner/pitmaster that the turkey from my 3-meat was very cold, so he took my plate back to the kitchen and grilled the slices. That's good reaction and seemingly good intentions, but I'd much rather have him simply replace the turkey with a new batch, without taking my plate away. Or replace the entire plate, including the luke warm ribs and brisket that were getting colder by the minute while the turkey reheat was in progress.
A few weeks before the May 2012 visit, I stopped into Firebox for a Saturday barbecue lunch—or at least that was my intention. They were still in over-the-counter mode at the time, and the one person behind the counter was one of the owners, who was on the phone. He continued the phonecall—which was not to receive or place an order or conduct actual business—as I waited to order, and even after I began slowly pacing as if to let him know that I was ready to order, I never received the slightest acknowledgement. After three minutes of this stalemate, I left. Does that impact my perception, however consciously, of Firebox? I'd be lying if I said it didn't. But I'd be lying if I said that chicken and pork were anything close to what they were in their heyday. I'll say this: I can rattle off a few barbecue joints whose owners have dissed me on some level but who get nothing but raves here—because in spite of what they think of me or my site, I think their food is very good, so I say so. No longer the case with Firebox.
The Bottom Line
Once a contender and now a pretender, Firebox BBQ now serves up typical middle of the road suburban barbecue. Their pork once fully embraced the smoke and now just gives it a half-hearted Nomar man-hug. And much like Nomar, they were on track for greatness and got lost along the way.
My 2009 review of Firebox BBQ
Yelp reviews of Firebox BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of Firebox BBQ