Poppa B's is almost hidden on Dorchester's Blue Hill Avenue, with no flashy signage or other gimmickry to lure you in. The ribs and pulled pork on the menu are billed as smoked, but this is a soul food establishment first and foremost (I'd hesitate to use the word "joint" because there's a noticeable level of sophistication here, with somewhat of a Manhattan vibe). Poppa B's offers full service, with elegantly plated meals brought on real China instead of the disposable containers common to the neighborhood's nearby rib shacks.
When you walk in, you're greeted by a display case of desserts and the main counter, which has seating for takeout customers while they wait. There's one dining area downstairs and another more spacious dining room upstairs that overlooks the proceedings.
Poppa B's opens at 7:00 AM (9:00 AM Sunday), so their breakfast items are a main attraction: served with the usual eggs, pancakes and waffles are atypical hot sausage, biscuits and sausage gravy, grits, steak, fried pork chops and fried fish. Lunch and dinner items lean more to soul than barbecue, with smothered pork chops, fried whiting, fried catfish and fried chicken leading the way. The ribs (both beef and pork) are billed as dry rubbed and hickory smoked. Chicken is available smoked, smothered or fried (various piece options). Pulled pork is available on a sandwich.
I visited Poppa B's on a busy Saturday afternoon as the second leg of a Mattapan/Dorchester barbecue/soul crawl. I was joined by two friends who between them have experience in cooking competition barbecue, judging competition barbecue and running barbecue restaurants. We tried to order as many items as possible in a few different waves, but we ran out of time before we ran out of waves. Although our server and the rest of the staff could not have been friendlier, the ratio of servers to customers was alarmingly low, causing long waits for every aspect of the service experience.
Since fried chicken is a soul food essential and we had three wing fans, the fried chicken wings were a must. The batter was borderline crisp and very light, with the inner meat just barely done, allowing the juices to flow freely. The seasoning in the batter was also very light. Overall, these wings were very good. With just a little more seasoning and crispness, they'd be superb.
Fried catfish was cooked perfectly, with the batter edging further into the crispness spectrum than the wings. The tender, flaky fish was also juicier than the wings, carrying an unexpected bold flavor exceeding what was in the batter. This was probably the highlight of the meal.
Ribs are always a gamble in the hands of a soul food chef, but the menu's promise of smoked ribs had us optimistic. They arrived as a huge plate of spare ribs, very meaty but oddly shaped, with minimal crust. These were generously coated with a ruby red sauce that seemed to provide much if not most of the flavor. The ribs didn't look or taste smoked, and the meat had a steamy quality, pulling from the bone a little too easily for us. If you like a braised rib with a stewed texture and the sauce is the star of the show, these might please.
In what seemed like something out of an Abbott and Costello routine, we ordered the pulled pork sandwich, and each time our server read back the order, she said "whole pork sandwich." And each time we said, "No, pulled pork sandwich," following with hand gestures to indicate the chopping of the meat. To which she replied, "Yes, that's whole pork." And we said, "No, it can't be whole if it's pulled or chopped." After several more iterations of this exchange and nearly an hour's wait, what we finally received was a smothered pork chop laid out on two slices of white bread. Unless we wanted to pull the chop and use our imagination, there was no way we were going to get a pulled pork sandwich, because the place by this time was full, with all of the tables clearly backed up. The pork chop was pretty good, with more seasoning than all of the previous dishes combined and a tender consistency despite being dry. The gravy helped in that regard, supplying flavor along with the much needed moisture.
There's no sauce on the table, but it's not really needed. The pork ribs were swimming in what I'd call more of a sweet, tangy gravy than a sauce.
Sides were mostly good. Mac and cheese was tight, with just enough cheese to make it work and a little egg for contrast. Potato salad had even more egg and an almost liquid consistency. Collard greens were meaty (chicken, we think) and lively, with a little mustard going a long way. Cabbage, served in large slices with a few other vegetables mixed in, had a distinctly buttery flavor. Rice and beans were fairly bland. Fries never arrived. Moist cornbread was as sweet as a Twinkie and bore small kernels of corn.
The bottom line: It's hard to offer an assessment of the barbecue based on just one dish (though we ordered two), but I'd give a half-hearted thumbs up to the soul food dishes. To paraphrase an old beer jingle, if you've got the time, they've got the soul. Just plan on more time than you think you need.
Boston Globe profile on Poppa B's
Urban Spoon reviews of Poppa B's