Review Date: 11/27/15
Visit dates for this review:
(10/28/15) (11/05/15) (11/08/15)
Visit Dates for Previous Reviews:
(01/09/06) (08/09/06) (08/23/06) (04/05/07) (08/30/08) (02/28/09) (08/13/09) (12/11/11) (05/09/12) (06/20/12)
Down a side street from the heart of Somerville’s Davis Square, Redbones is one of the legends of Boston barbecue and one of the first joints in the area to do barbecue right (read: smoked, not oven baked). The accessible menu, ahead-of-the-curve craft beer selection, unique look and prime location between Harvard and Tufts have all helped garner thousands of fans with a lifelong fondness for the Redbones experience. It’s a popular place where you’re likely to wait in line to get in and just as likely to make some new friends while you wait.
On the main floor is a separate large bar area with its legendary “wheel of beer” that lets fate determine your brew (don't worry, the choices are mostly good).
The main dining room has an open kitchen where you can see the lively pit crew plating barbecue meals. This brightly lit area looks like a Southern diner and is the tamest one in the joint. Downstairs is the louder, rowdier Underbones, a windowless, dimly-lit basement with its own large bar and funky artwork—now an integral part of the Redbones brand—on every wall.
The J&R smoker once located in the kitchen has been moved out, as an offsite commissary closer to Somerville Avenue now houses the multiple smokers required to handle the booming volume.
The menu is extensive by normal barbecue standards but much pared down from what it offered just a few years ago. The options aren't as myriad—gone are the Memphis spare ribs, the "one perfect rib," the Arkansas rib, the beef chili, the pit beef, the jerk beef, the fried oysters, the scallops—but with narrower choices comes sharper focus. Gone too is the complimentary cornbread, now offered as a side. With sharper focus and changing times comes higher prices.
About two dozen appetizers, sides and daily specials are scattered across different parts of the menu to let you order what you want, when you want, with what you want, including biscuits, cornbread, hushpuppies, a couple of wings options, a bunch of fried stuff, a bunch of green stuff, a bunch of veggie stuff and a bunch of fishy stuff. Ribs include babybacks, St Louis cut spare ribs and Texas beef back ribs. Sliced brisket, pulled pork, BBQ hash, smoked chicken, pulled chicken, grilled chicken and a sausage of the day round out the barbecue menu. Non-barbecue options include fried chicken and waffles, steak frites, fried catfish, grilled or fried shrimp, grilled salmon, steamed mussels and both regular and veggie burgers.
The barbecue combo permutations are virtually endless, with different options for multiple ribs, one type of ribs with one other meat, no ribs but two or three meats, or the "Barbecue Belt" combo with three types of ribs plus brisket and sausage. For even more flexibility, there's a section of barbecue add-ons by the quarter pound and quarter rack.
There are plenty of vegetarian options for easy menu navigation for the whole crowd. Substitutions are welcome but may cost a little more.
There was a time not that long ago when just about anyone in greater Boston with a hankering for barbecue sated that urge at Redbones, and even today many Bostonians think of Redbones as the quintessential Boston barbecue joint. Eventually, other joints popped up, and the boom we enjoy today spread the barbecue wealth around. With that growth came the inevitable comparisons, and Redbones—though still beloved by most—took somewhat of a hit when stacked up against some of the new breed.
Many of my 2005 workplace watercooler discussions and group emails that eventually led to this site revolved around Redbones. There were arguments among my coworkers pro and con, with the sticking point being not whether Redbones had gone downhill but how far. For my first "official" research, I had two very solid meals at Redbones that convinced me they were turning it around, and I said as much in my 2006 review. My return visits during the rest of that decade were scattered and less impressive, with none of them approaching the quality of those first two (and none approaching disastrous). By 2012 there came a point when I knew the review was not just old but inaccurate. With that as my trigger, I hit Redbones a few times and did a reassessment that was essentially a downgrade.
The next two years went by without a visit, but by the end of 2014 I received an email from Redbones ownership mentioning some changes ahead that might be worth another look. I waited a good half year to let them get their act together, then hit Redbones three times over an 11-day period to gauge progress. Not everything was aces, but for the most part, I liked what I saw.
Visits considered for this review include only the most recent three, all in 2015. I visited Redbones with two different friends for late-week weeknight dinners, then took Young Bride for a Sunday dinner. All of the visits were around 6:00PM. All three times the dining rooms were only about half full, but the takeout business was quite steady, requiring nearly a handful of coordinators for that alone.
Biscuits and Jam: This side ($2.99) is perhaps a better starter, delivering a pair of plump biscuits with exteriors quite crusty and interiors quite firm. Too firm. They're served at room temperature (for shame) with a small tub of peach jam that has the texture and flavor intensity of marmalade. They're half the price of Sweet Cheeks biscuits, but not nearly half as good. Ribs have a way of evening things out, though.
Chili: Redbones narrowed the chili options to a single selection, and they kept the one I'd have kept: the chili verde ($8.99) that immerses large caramelized chunks of smoked pork into a thick broth of tomatillos, jalapeños and a bouquet of herbs light on heat but big on flavor. It's served with a very large plate of tortilla chips. My one try yielded chips straight out of the bag and chili barely warmer than room temperature.
Sausage: You can get it on a combo, but the appetizer route is the sausage of the day ($6.99), made in house and served with crackers (a nod to Texas tradition) and mustard (German tradition that begat Texas tradition). The night I tried it, the sausage was a red pepper variety arriving as a plate of pre-cut 3/4" link segments. This made it easier to share but probably sapped the sausage of much of its moisture, which didn't erupt juices but still had something left—think moist brownie texture, a surprising plus. Flavor was very pleasant, mingling smoke with the spices and keeping the red pepper out front. In the quibble department, the slicing took a back seat to pricing: you don't get that much for what you pay. The hot mustard dipping sauce was a capable complement but not a requirement.
Fried okra: This Southern classic ($6.99) carries a thin layer of crisp, lightly seasoned cornmeal batter that lets the natural vegetable flavor shine. I like the contrast of the outer crunch and inner stickiness that feels fresh.
Pulled Pork: Tried twice on Ribs and Meat combos ($23.99), this was the only meat with duplicate results. Both times the long, loose shreds had a mostly brown tint, not much bark and a nominal moistness. It bordered on steamy, but there was still a nice residual crispness on the exterior. You could tell it was smoked, but it wasn't that smoky—or porky or rubby for that matter. Not the most exciting pork, but the textural attributes made it a serviceable base for sauces that would have more upside in a sandwich.
Brisket: On the first of the 2015 revisits, the brisket, also tried on a Ribs and Meat combo, didn't really do anything to distinguish itself. The color was okay. The moisture was okay, though slightly steamy. Flavor had a little of that pot roasty feel but was still moderately beefy.
The second visit saw a huge leap upward. Neatly cut slices, all from the flat (leaner than the point cut), showed livelier color, substantial bark, a slight wobble and more moisture—legit juiciness—than on any Northeast brisket flat I've had that wasn't cooked by Robbie Richter. More importantly, flavor and texture both lived up to the visual. An easy glide through the bark met salt and pepper crunch, then a fully moist inner slice that was also fully tender without being mushy.
The third 2015 visit's brisket try was every bit as flavorful, moist (more so, actually), crunchy of surface (ditto) and tender within (ditto), though this time I believe they cut from the fattier point, which always helps. Fat itself was never an issue, as it was melted into the meat such that no trimming was necessary. Another solid effort and now—if this small sample size is representative—one of the best briskets inside Route 128.
Beef Ribs: Tried on the first two visits of 2015, the meaty back ribs were just the right size for picking up and digging right in. The exteriors had a nice crust and a simple salt and pepper dry rub that was balanced on the first visit and too salty on the second. The inner meat both times was tender, easy to bite and sufficiently moist without crossing over into juicy. I'm guessing these were reheats but reasonably well executed ones. Overall, some satisfying if not dazzling beef ribs.
St Louis Ribs: With the full cut spares phased out, this is the cut of choice for pork ribs taken closest to the belly. They got a tasting on all three 2015 visits, presenting four individually cut ribs on a Ribs and Meat combo each time.
The first 2015 visit delivered ribs that appeared darker and crustier than optimal, but the pink meat further down was still moist and even borderline juicy. Rub was applied much more aggressively than in years past, now also leaning a little more heavily on pepper along with the salt and sugar. Smoke was recognizable and natural porkiness was a major player. Overall, a noticeable upgrade from what I was expecting.
The second visit's ribs made an even greater leap. This time the crust had the right amount of crunch without overdoing it. But what lay under it was what impressed even more. Arranged croissant-like in thin layers with canals of melted pork fat in between, the attractively pink inner meat brought a caramelly textural quality that was an absolute pleasure. Flavor held up its end of the bargain as well, maintaining the previous visit's smokiness while elevating the porkiness even higher. These ribs were fresh, juicy and delicious.
The third 2015 visit's ribs brought the same flavor qualities with
texture close, but juiciness got downgraded to mere moistness.
So: three visits, three tries, two solid, one great. I'll take it.
Babyback Ribs: Tried only on the first visit on a two-meat combo, these supplied an uncut half rack that separated very easily into individual bones. Just like the St Louis cut, they bore an impressive crust with a mahogany tint. Though not as juicy as the St Louies, they exuded moistness from crust all the way down to the bone while exhibiting slight firmness that never detracted from tenderness. Flavor again brought a balanced blend of salt, pepper and sugar in the rub along with some midrange smoke. I found these very enjoyable but prefer the St Louis cut for a richer experience.
In the past the sauces were delivered in paper cups familiar to New Englanders as tartar sauce cups. Some of the plates still bring them that way for plating appearance, but for the most part they've given way to the two bottled sauces on the table: both tomato-based, one sweet, one a little hotter. You can still get vinegar sauce upon request. Other than the vinegar, which brings a tart counterpoint to the pork, I didn't make much use of the sauces.
Sides have mostly made a noticeable improvement from the old days. The biggest improvement might just be the serving method: instead of sharing plate space with the meats and leaking all over them, the sides now arrive in their own bowls.
Potato Salad: A subtle but effective concoction is more mashed than most and with less condiment than most, but the light herbal additions along with black pepper keep the fork coming back.
Baked Beans: A little sweet, a little heat, a lot of sauce.
Collard Greens: Another simple approach works fairly well here, with large leaves cooked just to the point of wilting and dressed with a light, meat-infused broth seemingly free of usual suspects sugar, vinegar and salt. There's a light heat, but the vegetable is mostly unfussed with. A vegetarian version is also available.
Cole Slaw: Here the simple approach isn't as effective. If Donald Trump were debating this cole slaw, he'd call it a "low energy" side. The cabbage is sliced into thin ribbons and very lightly dressed with a faintly creamy condiment and a sparse sprinkling of seeds.
Mac and Cheese: There are no hipster aspirations here. An old-school style blends classic elbows and vast quantities of thick, creamy, mostly mild cheese that still has a little bite. Enjoyable flavor and very enjoyable texture.
Dirty Rice: There's not much going on here, so much so—or so little so— that even calling this rice slightly unkempt is a bit of a stretch. The additions are few, the color is light and the flavor is lighter. The vegetarian version seemed to have a little more flavor.
Roasted Vegetables: Here we have the unlikely hero of the sides. Broccoli and root vegetables such as turnips get lightly brushed with a sweet sauce (possibly barbecue), then get slow roasted in large batches. The high heat blackens and solidifies the sauce with tasty effects.
If the stools lining the counter at the rear of the main dining room have some open spots, grab them. You'll be treated to a free show as you watch the meat crew handle every order that leaves the kitchen. And just like with ringside seats, there's a chance you may get splattered along the way, but that's half the fun.
It's been from this perch where I've gotten the greatest sense of Redbones simply by watching nearly a hundred orders being prepped and dispatched. Some of the plates looked so fantastic that I wished they were mine. Some plates made me glad they weren't mine. Most looked somewhere between good and just okay. So on the same night, quality varies significantly from plate to plate. Maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe you won't.
Pricing is a little higher, especially for the portion you receive, than most comparable barbecue joints.
As always, Redbones is a fun place. The beer selection is arguably the best among barbecue joints in greater Boston. The atmosphere is lively and loud. The management and staff, through seemingly laid-back, are very customer oriented (you can substitute sides, get extra sauces, etc.). And the barbecue is real, which isn't always the case for a joint of this vintage.
The Bottom Line
With brisket and ribs excelling on multiple visits and most of the rest respectable, Redbones has made significant improvements. Even when the texture is a little off, the bolstered flavor is undeniable.
Where a decade ago the discussion was not whether Redbones had gone downhill but how far, the question today is not whether Redbones has come roaring back but how far. If they can repeat the ribs and brisket heights with consistency and extend that level of performance to the other meats, Redbones could once again be a contender for one of the best in Boston. I'm pleasantly surprised to say that as of late 2015, they're at least in the discussion.
My 2006 PigTrip review of Redbones
My 2012 PigTrip review of Redbones
Wicked Bites 2015 video profile of Redbones
Man Fuel 2012 video profile of Redbones
Yelp reviews of Redbones
Zomato reviews of Redbones
Tabelog reviews of Redbones