Named for the Boston Marathon that starts in the same town, Marathon Burgers and Barbeque is "MetroWest's newest BBQ joint." The parking and entrance are around the back, where you'll also catch a glimpse (and hopefully a whiff) of the custom built smoker on wheels. From the outside, you can head straight into the bar or the dining room via separate walkways. Inside, the 2-sided bar runs the length of the narrow bar room. TVs are there, but energetic conversation—mostly among employees of the nearby EMC letting off steam—seems to be the main attraction. The dining room has a "been there forever" vibe, along with multiple fireplaces and seating in booths and tables.
Appetizers are an interesting mix of classic pub food with some barbecue influences: calamari, potato skins, smoked wings, pulled pork quesadillas, BBQ chicken spring rolls, fried mac and cheese bites, fried pickles, nachos with and without pulled pork.
The barbecue menu is a wider-than-expected roster including the smoked wings, babyback pork ribs, beef ribs, brisket, pulled pork, half chickens and smoked meatloaf. Combos allow two and three meats. Sandwiches offer the brisket and pork (though surprisingly not the meatloaf), plus smoked turkey, a portobello sandwich, several different chicken variations and bread variations that include wraps and minis.
Burgers come in 5-oz and 8-oz sizes, plus a veggie option; rather than presenting a bunch of prefab, silly-named variants, they let you pick the toppings you want at 75 cents to $2 per item.
I visited Marathon for a Saturday lunch with a barbecue buddy, then returned a few weeks later for a weeknight dinner with two different friends who'd also been around the barbecue block. On both visits the bar was hoppin' and the dining room was more subdued. The dormant smoker from the first visit came alive on the second.
Wings: Tried on both visits with spicy Asian BBQ sauce, the wings ($10 for 10 pieces) exhibited good smokiness both times. On the first visit, they were an obvious reheat that could have been more moist and more crisp, but they still presented very well, with flavor coming from the outer saucing and inner smoke. The second visit upped the game significantly, introducing a more finished surface, very moist and extremely tender inner meat, and enjoyable woodiness to the smoke. That second batch, which was clearly NOT a reheat, would be a sure fire candidate for the next Wings List.
Chili: I like when barbecue restaurant chili is made with brisket. It uses up the leftovers, keeps the source meat fresher and makes for a smokier, heartier chili. For the chili here ($5 cup, $8 bowl), brisket is used but the texture is so broken down that it feels blended, whipped and airy. Bean minimalization was appreciated, but the chili flavor was too mild and that off-putting airy texture was a deal breaker. I couldn't finish it.
Fried green tomatoes: These are a side ($3) that makes a nice makeshift appetizer. The breadcrumb crust had good crunch but minimal seasoning. I liked the zip in thick remoulade that approached a paste. The tomatoes themselves? Whether they weren't tart enough or weren't thick enough, they got a little lost in the coating. But in the same way that Ipswich style fried clam strips (which don't compare to full bellies) get lost in the breading but are still tasty, so were these—to a point.
Cornbread: A complimentary basket kicks things off at the beginning of the meal. It's plentiful, soft and fresh, and the soft cinnamon butter is a plus.
Brisket: Two large, thick slices from the flat on the first visit's
3-meat combo ($22) had nice color, light smokiness and a mildly pleasant
flavor combining hints of spice and sweetness. Moisture (or rather,
lack thereof) brought up the rear, with tenderness not an issue but
hardly a strength. A thinner slice might have showcased this brisket
better but the probable reheat was going to be dry—as this one was—regardless.
On the follow-up visit's 3-meat combo, the brisket came from the fattier point cut. These slices had the same thickness but were much improved moisturewise thanks to the increased marbling that wasn't fully rendered, leaving some sliminess to the bite. Flavor took a step back: not much smoke, not much rub, not much beefiness. So: decent flavor one time, decent texture the other. If they can get both in the same bite they'd have decent brisket.
Beef ribs: These are beef back ribs as opposed to the larger shortribs, but they're a very large version of them that equate to about two pork spare ribs (which are sadly not on the menu). You get two per plate on a small entree, three on a large entree and one on a combo. On the lunch visit this rib had good crusting and coloring, but only token moisture and flavor, as if the fat were rendered out so well it took the beefiness and succulence along with it. None of the coarse salt and pepper rub that's a staple of Texas style beef ribs was present either.
Baby back ribs: Tried on a 3-meat combo on the first visit, the babybacks showed good size for that cut and had a formidable crust presented unsauced (not counting the light cooked-in glaze) as standard practice. Unfortunately, that crust was a little soggy thanks to steamy consistency overall, but the rub flavor was very noticeable and fairly pleasant. Smoke was light, and once you penetrated the surface, overall flavor was too. Doneness was a little over. Moistness was good, though more steamy than juicy. Basically, these were just-decent-enough baby backs that were obviously reheated, but that had the potential to be better on a night visit.
So on a follow-up night visit our group of three tried them as a full rack, which arrived as two half racks. Both showed significantly less rub on the crust compared to the first visit. The first half rack's meat was firm yet still moist without bring steamy. Doneness was just to the point where you could take an easy bite out and leave an outline that could be used as dental records. While the juices were hardly gushing, they made themselves known upon bite. And while freshness and doneness improved, flavor took a step back. Rub was less present, and deeper down there was more of a moist pork chop feel combined with a little grilliness. The other half rack came from a different pig. Same characteristics, only much drier.
Pulled pork: Tried on the second visit's 3-meat platter, the pulled pork showed good bark and good tenderness. Flavor had some mild porkiness and milder smoke. Moisture was decent. Nothing I can get excited about, but not bad.
Meatloaf: Tried on the second visit's 3-meat platter, the smoked meatloaf did indeed taste slightly smoky, with other spices (and perhaps a smidgeon of sauce) in the mix—though without much pizzaz. Texture was soft and tender, just like a meatball, and as moist as you can get without being wet. Again, not super exciting, but a nice item to have on the menu for regulars looking to diversify.
Burger: The first visit's burger (8-ounce, cheddar, bacon, caramelized onions, $12 with the added toppings and included fries) was decent. Thick and cooked to the requested temperature (medium this time, since I was sharing), it bore noticeable crusting and merely subtle seasoning. Inside, the meat was semi-moist and reasonably beefy, at least by MetroWest standards. Bacon was overdone but tasty, with a smokier-than-usual flavor. Once again, solid enough execution and one I'd get again; just nothing out of the ordinary here.
Five sauces in plastic squeeze bottles are available on the table.
Carolina BBQ: Very tart vinegar without much counterpoint.
Mustard BBQ: More mustard than barbecue, with that "yellow" feel.
Spicy Asian: Heat meets sweet with a touch of (I think) sesame oil.
BBQ: Standard brown sweet Kansas City style.
Peach habanero: Only faint hints of the two flavors peeking through the basic barbecue base.
Cole slaw: You get one side plus cole slaw (and a small serving at that) with each barbecue platter. Here, the slaw is light on the crispness, heavy on the mayo and short on the oomph.
Collard greens: Slightly sweet with steeped in flavor and a texture similar to figs.
Mac and cheese: An adult rendition mixed thick, creamy, near-liquid cheese of mid-range sharpness with crunchy breadcrumbs. One of the highlights of both meals.
Fries: Included with the burger, the hand cut fries had skins, good crispness outside and a saturated quality that never made them soggy.
Service was excellent both times. Ashley in particular was a great ambassador for the restaurant, with friendliness and inside-out knowledge of the menu. Other servers were equally hospitable and showed good teamwork.
The Bottom Line
A mixed bag: wings and mac very impressive; burger and some sides better than average; chili way below average; other smoked meats mostly competently done but a little dull, a little dry or both. While I wouldn't start my day planning to return here, the wings were good enough, the service friendly enough and the space close enough to the highway that I wouldn't mind stopping in for a snack on the way back from somewhere.
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