(11/10/09) (11/23/09) (12/04/09) (12/06/09) (12/15/09)
Firebox BBQ on Bedford's Great Road looks like a Panera that's been hijacked and converted into a barbecue joint: there's a little slickness to the ambience but just as many homey touches (not the least of which is the fact that the Southern Pride smoker has been named "Vince"). Service is over-the-counter; seating includes mostly tables scattered around a wide open room, some high tops in the front and a few reconfigurable couches that look like they're straight from IKEA. There's no bar, but Firebox offers an interesting selection of beer and wine.
The wide ranging barbecue menu includes St Louis cut pork ribs and dinosaur style beef ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burnt ends, smoked chicken, pulled chicken, smoked turkey, smoked wings and a house made bacon appetizer. Other appetizers include chili, fries with cheese or chili, four different salads, lettuce wraps with smoked meats or seafood, shrimp skewers, tacos and homemade tortilla chips and salsa. Sandwiches include the usual smoked fare plus chicken salad, fish, a Cuban with pulled pork, a hot dog and a half pound burger.
I stopped in for three early weeknight visits, a Friday night visit and a Sunday night visit, joined by four different guests. The crowds seemed to grow more dense with each successive visit, which is a good sign.
Lettuce wraps ($2.25) are an outright steal, providing enough iceberg lettuce to make about four vessels for a fistful of meat (pulled pork or chicken), seafood (shrimp or fish) or vegetables, plus a good supply of sliced tomato, chopped cucumber, minced onions, shredded carrots, cheese and dill ranch dressing. I tried pulled pork and pulled chicken on the first visit, and both were moist without the slightest hint of sauce, instead relying on a bath of natural juices. Both were also noticeably smoky without being oversmoked and cooked to the perfect doneness, though the pork did border on overtender. A high bark content, along with the aforementioned smokiness and moistness, more than compensated for this. I'm not a pulled chicken fan, but this one sold me. On the third visit I tried the fish lettuce wrap (haddock that day) and was impressed by the contrast between the fish's crisp, crunchy batter and its moist, delicate interior. Another pulled pork wrap on the fifth visit provided all of the good points of the previous batch while steering clear of borderline overtender.
Tacos ($2.25 for two, available with chicken, pork, beef, fish or vegetarian) are possibly an even greater steal than the lettuce pockets. These are soft tacos with two shells per taco, stuffed with mostly meat atop a thin layer of onion and cilantro; one lime wedge per taco completes the package. There's easily as much meat in those two tacos as in a typical pulled pork sandwich, at a fraction of the price and with some creativity. The chicken in my tacos was moist enough and smoky enough to stand on its own, but I found myself craving some tomato-based accompaniment to kick this up just a little. A little hot sauce did the trick.
Chili is available in two sizes ($5.00 and $7.25), so on both of my first two visits I shared the small bowl. This started out as a tomatoey, (thick) brothy variety with two kinds of beans. It succeeded in providing boatloads of flavor but there was 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. More recent versions of the chili present the classic case of good-news, bad-news. The good news is that it's now a meatfest with much more brisket than broth; the bad news is that the broth itself is tamer and less complex now than in its early days. It's still good, but give me a hybrid that combines both versions and you'd have the best of the three.
Grilled shrimp ($7.95 for 6) got some serious char into the lightly cooked seafood served on a giant bed of lettuce with a smoked garlic mayo. I liked the flavor of the shrimp as well as the dip, but would put this item deep into the rotation behind the lettuce pockets, tacos, chili and burgers.
The Firebox burger ($6.95) is exemplary. The high quality sourdough bun's size and density allow it to wrestle for center stage with the half pound of locally raised hormone- and antibiotic-free beef. But in the end the meat emerges clearly victorious. Cooked over high heat (the flames rise several inches off the grill), the burger presents some good crust definition, a pink interior that emits juices freely and a bold, hauntingly appealing flavor that results from the 100% shoulder composition of the beef. A few strips of thick-cut, house-smoked slab bacon (additional charge) add another dimension. On a recent visit I tried the burger again and the roll was simpler. Regardless of the roll, I'm calling the Firebox burger one of the best to be had not only at a barbecue joint but anywhere in the greater Boston area.
Pit smoked wings ($5.95 for 6, $10.95 for 12) are finished over high heat with a choice of barbecue sauce. I opted for unsauced and found them to be somewhat pleasing but more representative of a grilled wing than a smoked wing.
Beef ribs ($4.50) are cut to leave plenty of meat on their large dinosaur bones. I liked the moistness of the meat and the overall flavor, and the smoke ring added some visual appeal. On two occasions they were one of the smokier offerings of the night and on both occasions the lightness/lack of crust arguably held them back to merely good instead of very good to great. But the cut and the flavor are well worth another look.
Pork ribs ($12.50 half rack, $14.05 with 2 sides) on three visits were neatly trimmed St Louis spares that offered less smoke than the beef ribs but at least twice the flavor, with the intensity not just on the lightly crusted, rub-speckled surface but all the way down to the bone (I'm guessing these might have been brined). If you like the smoked-sauced-grilled approach to ribs as is done at Tennessee's and Firefly's, you'll like these. Meatiness was high, fat was low and saucing was light. All three times the pork ribs were cooked to near-perfect doneness, leaving a little snap to them instead of the less desireable fall-off-the-bone tenderness. As with the beef ribs, I'd like to see more crispness to the exterior.
Pulled pork may be the the best thing on the menu at Firebox BBQ. It's as delicate as you can get without being mushy, with some firmer pieces and plenty of bark thrown in. The smoke level is high, as is porkiness, and so is the moistness that comes not from any added sauce but rather a generous ladling of natural pork juices. I tried it on four different visits and all four times it was good to excellent (though if you look carefully at the photos from the fifth visit, you'll notice that the pork in the lettuce wrap is superior to the pork on the combo). The amber colored North Carolina style vinegar sauce available for adding makes a good accompaniment. All things considered, I rank Firebox's pork right up there with Blue Ribbon, SoulFire and nearby Lester's.
Brisket, tried only twice among my five visits, was feast or famine (in reverse order). The batch from the first visit was pale, dry and rubbery, with not much flavor. The slices from the fifth visit had a nice outer crust hugged by a bright smoke ring, with good tenderness, just-okay moistness and a very pleasing flavor.
Brisket burnt ends, ordered on both of the first two visits, were grill-enhanced slices of smoked beef that were only slightly moist the first time, extremely moist the second time and lightly charred both times. Flavor was pleasant, with a light smokiness and just a trace of sweetness to elevate the fat-fueled beef. Beyond basic execution, much of your enjoyment will depend on how you define burnt ends (are crisped brisket slices burnt ends?) and whether the grilled aspect is a turn-on or a turn-off. If you're only ordering one meat, go for the pork or chicken (read on), but if you're sampling a good chunk of the menu, I recommend giving the burnt ends a try.
Smoked chicken ($5.45 quarter, $7.95 half) eluded me until my third visit, and when I finally tasted it I chastised myself for not ordering this outstanding bird sooner. My dark meat quarter chicken was as moist, juicy and smoky as I've had anywhere, with an unforgettably sweet/savory flavor from a coarse, dense rub that I think featured cloves as one of its leading ingredients. I give bonus points for the skin that's crisp without being overgrilled. It's rare that I leave a barbecue restaurant thinking about the chicken, but I'd been thinking about this one for days.
On visit five for my third tasting of the chicken, I noticed less of that aromatic presence from what I'm guessing was cloves. There's still plenty of rub (more rub volume per chicken volume than anywhere I've been), still plenty of crispness to the skin while avoiding unwanted char, and still succulent, perfectly tender meat within. But the flavor, while still superb, dropped from "chicken so good you can't stop thinking about it" to just "really good chicken." Unless something changes drastically, Firebox's chicken would easily make my top 10 list for the category, probably earning one of the top few spots. But if they can duplicate those first two birds I tasted, they're unquestionably number one.
Sauces were a mixed bag, but mostly pretty 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 were 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 Jamaican Jerk style mango chipotle (my clear favorite).
Baked beans supplied some meat and a very intense molasses kick. Extra creamy cole slaw had hints of sour cream and an herbal kick from parsley or chives. Collard greens offered a good amount of bacon, but otherwise let the cooked-just-past-wilting vegetable do the talking on its own, without any overly sweet or tart flavors. Cornbread appeared to be the typical Twinkie variety but showed restraint in the sweetness department. Mac and cheese was tight like at a soul food joint, with a mild cheese. Sweet potato fries were the standout: crispy fried "home fries" style cubes with a buttery interior liberally accented with coarse sea salt and rosemary.
The bottom line: Firebox BBQ is a welcome addition to the Boston BBQ scene, offering a diverse barbecue menu with some healthy options and a killer burger. Overall, the barbecue is more than solid, even though it's still a work in progress and even though the beef lags a little behind the other meats. But with unforced comfort, bargain lettuce wraps, pretty good pork ribs, a destination burger and excellent pulled pork and chicken, I see myself returning here regularly.
Urbanspoon reviews of Firebox BBQ