(09/17/14) (09/24/14) (09/28/14) (10/01/14) (10/08/14)
Despite its humble beginnings eight decades ago, Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar is hardly a "joint," much less a "barbecue joint." Sure, the first things you see from the exterior and entry are the historic diner car and pie stand, respectively. But further inside it's a hip and spacious environment—reborn under the same ownership as neighbors Painted Burro and Posto—with the now-requisite reclaimed wood and modern lighting to go with plush retro leather seating in roomy booths and less than roomy wall bench seating. Candles at every table add an air of elegance. The bar is long, with a few TVs installed after the opening. A deck to the left of the building encourages outdoor dining in warmer months. The smoker is a J&R Little Red Smokehouse.
In keeping with the restaurant's past, the very deep Rosebud menu leans heavily on elevated comfort food, with some barbecue and barbecue-influenced dishes calling on the chef John Delpha's barbecue past—he's a key member of one of New England's most successful competition teams and has multiple Jack Daniels BBQ trophies.
Closest to typical barbecue joint fare are the St Louis pork ribs and smoked chicken wings, but while smoke is used in numerous dishes, this isn't your Daddy's barbecue menu. There are no 2- or 3-meat combos. Instead of in a predictable sandwich, pork shoulder accompanies Sichuan style string beans. Brisket is in a sandwich, and only in a sandwich, but it's hardly predictable. Smoked chicken also gets an Asian treatment. Atomic BTs and a meatloaf fatty (read on for details) bring some favorites from the competition circuit and backyard barbecue hobbyists to a restaurant setting at last. There are boneless smoked pork chops. Smoked shortrib hides within ravioli. And then there's the Hog's Head, prepared barbecue style and served Asian style.
Most of the rest of the menu is pure Americana, or as pure as it can be with some ethnic twists. There's grilled steak, grilled swordfish and grilled cauliflower. And fried chicken and fish and chips. There's a burger, a catfish sandwich and a falafel sub (okay, maybe not so American). Appetizers include shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, black pepper noodles with ham, a duck confit flatbread, a pork noodle soup and a few different salads.
For this review I made five stops to Rosebud over a five week span, hitting them on weeknights with three different barbecue savvy friends and on a weekend night with my young bride. That's a lot of visits for a first review, but I wanted to survey as much of the widespread menu as possible and try the key barbecue items (wings, ribs, brisket) multiple times.
Fried Green Tomatoes: This dish ($11.95) yields two slices of fried green tomatoes and a larger portion of Crab Louie for dipping. I'm not going to lie: I've never had Crab Louie before and I'll probably never have it again; I liken it to egg salad made with crab rather than egg—which is fine for this application and certainly seemed okay. The tomatoes were on the thin side, especially compared to the thickness of the breadcrumb shell, and didn't exude the fresh tartness that the best examples do. I liked the seasoning and the crunch, but not enough to reprise them with so many better choices on the menu.
Atomic BTs: Also known as ABTs or "Atomic Buffalo Turds," this ($9.95) is a favorite among barbecue enthusiasts and competition folk. Traditionally, they're smoked, bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed jalapenos, but Rosebud adds a few bonuses: they're really big, there's also smoked pork in the filling and they're lightly sauced. I like how the bacon is crisp under the sauce while the fillings are moist, and I love the explosion of intense and myriad flavors in a single bite. You get a trio of them and one is enough of a taste for one person, but I can very easily see downing a whole order myself with a glass of beer. This versus the fried green tomatoes? An easy choice.
Smoked Chicken Wings: I'll cut right to the chase; these are probably my favorite thing on the menu, and not just because I love wings. If Rosebud had opened a month earlier, these wings ($9.95 for 9) would not only have made my 2014 Wings List but easily made the top 5. The very first item I tried at Rosebud got things off to a very good start with gorgeous color, crisp skins, noticeable rub, chickeny flavor, light smoke and a tender interior that oozed flavorful juices. Then there's the sauce, which is lightly applied to each piece but additionally pooled beneath for extra dipping: made with agave nectar, it's unabashedly sweet and undeniably delicious. If there was one fault with that first batch, it's that the size was just a tad on the small side. If there were other improveables, it might be that rub and smoke could be a little more potent. On the next try came jumbo wings with skin-splitting plumpness, more aggressive rub, a higher smoke level and even a more intense chickeniness, all wrapped up in that syrupy sweetness that keeps calling for additional dunking. There's enough flavor going on even without the sauce, but even if you're not someone who normally goes for sweet, give these a try as designed. They're a game changer.
Romaine Wedge: The big draw on this salad ($9.95), at least from the menu description, is the "Pig Candy" that's one of the complementary players, along with tomato, red onion, blue cheese dressing and ciabatta croutons. All things considered, it's a perfectly fine salad—and one I'd gladly get again—but the Pig Candy, or candied bacon, just seemed to be smaller crumbles of bacon with a little extra sweetness.
Duck Confit Flatbread: This creation ($13.95) is the classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, which is somewhat of a recurring theme here. The dough was light and relatively plain. The duck (confit) was fine without being a standout. The figs impressed. The balsamic drizzle was arguably redundant on top of the figs, but very nice. The blue cheese was more on the mild side without the typical jolt to the bite. But put it all together and it's a very effective ensemble, and additionally very easy to share.
Dry Fried Green Beans: This one ($9.95) is straight off the pages of a Sichuan menu, only with smoked pork filling in for the usual ground pork. Without a pulled pork sandwich on the menu, this is as close as you're going to get to sampling the chef's pork shoulder. Pickled sour mustard greens round things out, with peppers adding heat if needed. This was a mixed bag porkwise, as my plate had an assortment of long, succulent strips and dry, hardened bark. But perhaps irrelevant, as the real star of the dish is the flavor in those beans. It replicated the Chinese classic while adding a few twists along the way.
Biscuits: Served three to a plate ($7.00), these prompt the inevitable comparisons to Sweet Cheeks, where biscuitry reigns supreme. Rosebud's are less expensive, but you need to commit to three. They're saltier, squarer, slightly smaller, firmer, denser and less buttery, with a firmer, less sweet honey butter. They're okay, but there are more exciting apps and sides to be had here, and more exciting biscuits to be had across town.
Fried Pickle Wedges: Very warm, very crisp and enjoyably tart, these ($5.00) come with a kimchee mayo dipping sauce that's both creamy and spicy.
Ribs: Offered as a half rack ($17.95) or whole rack ($33.95), the ribs are unapologetically saucy, sweet and soft. Not what the barbecue purist wants to hear, but most barbecue purists equate those qualities with their being used as a crutch to get past inadequate meat quality or meat flavor. Not the case here, based on three tries. On two of those tries the ribs were fresh from the smoker; the third (and most recent, unfortunately) looked and felt like an obvious reheat. Bold, appealing flavor from deep reaching rub was in play all three times. Moistness was there each time too, but juiciness was at its best on the first visit, when the rib separation was like an oven fresh chocolate chip cookie or brownie being tugged in half. The rib meat is sweet and meltingly so, all the way to the bone, but there's porkiness in there too. Smoke is there but light. The saucing is dark and a complex fusion of sweet with heat. For me, it's all about the execution: if the first batch can be reliably duplicated and that concerning third batch is the aberration, we're talking some of the best ribs in the region, regardless of style. Sure, that's a big "if," but I'm pledging further research to find out. The ribs are served with cole slaw (big nay) and macaroni salad (big yay).
Texas Rachel in A Skirt: This reimaginaton ($13.95) of the delicatessen classic is a triumph of texture and flavor: meaty and faintly smoky (brisket); crisp, buttery and savory (griddled rye bread); tangy, cool and crunchy (slaw). The "skirt" surrounding the bottom slice of bread is a pliable sheet of griddled cheese that crisps up during cooking—very similar to the cheese treatment of the legendary Shady Glen cheeseburger (Manchester CT). Someone simply looking for brisket might hate this; someone looking for a good sandwich should love it. The smoked brisket itself has varied on three visits: thin one time, a noticeable reheat another and very fresh and juicy most recently. The smoke is light and it's a little pricy not to come with some semblance of a side, but it's more than a sandwich—it's an experience.
Smoked Chicken: This is one of a few dishes ($16.95) that have changed names as the menu evolves—sometimes called "Soy" and sometimes called "Smoked"—but I believe it's been smoked all along, with soy sauce a big part of the flavoring. Tried just once, this half bird brought good volume, good moistness throughout (even the breast, but without explosive juiciness), light smoke, an understated chickeniness, a little soy to bring out that chickeniness and impressively crackily crispness that had to have come from a quick dip in the fryer as ordered. It all worked well, and the addictive orange tablespoon or two of spicy, garlicky condiment proved a highlight. Warm cucumbers made a nice supporting player.
Smoked Pork Chops: It's not often you see smoked pork chops, so these ($18.95) demanded a test drive even if behind the wings and ribs in the pecking order. A pair of boneless chops had that "other white meat" look, like a healthy frozen dinner, only elevated with superior execution. Crust was surprisingly minimal, but there was a pleasing pattern indicating a grill finish. Smoke? Also minimal, but flavor still came through via a sly blending of brine, juiciness and "BBQ jus" that presented as a single entity. Tenderness was excellent despite the thin cut. With minimal Maillard magic, the pork chops are ultimately still behind the wings and ribs in the pecking order, but I liked them a lot more than I expected based on the visual. But what I liked more was underneath. Bright green broccolini cooked to a tenderness just at the brink of wilting had a light and subtle sauce that let the vegetable do its own talking. Even more noteworthy, and make that on a personal note, were the lusciously smooth, sharply cheesy, almost potatoey grits—the only preparation that ever had me going back for more.
Fried Chicken Thigh Platter: One of the finest versions I've tried ($15.95) provides two or three hefty boneless thighs (depending on size) (unfortunately you can't specify, making sharing a gamble), coated with a crackly, aggressively salted batter that remained crunchy throughout the course. The chicken meat leaked ample juices, along with strong chickeny flavor that suggested brining. This will draw repeat orders.
Burger: You can get this brisket and shortrib blend as a single smallish patty ($8.95) or add an extra patty for $4.00. The sesame seed packed (and I mean packed) bun may look low rent, but its flavor struck me as a brioche-potato hybrid, with much more (welcome) flakiness than the familiar Martin's model. It's griddled (I think) with a little butter, adding richness and crispness. I wanted to love but only liked the beef: slight overdoneness, trickle-level juiciness, mild crust, milder seasoning and half-pleasant beefiness that didn't scream brisket and shortrib. My one patty got a little lost in the bun and ruffage, so you'd need to go with two patties to get the right meat ratio. Cheese engulfed the entire patty admirably. Superb bacon (crunchy, slightly bendable, strong cure flavor) made for a nice visual, outreaching the bun by half its diameter on each side (if only Radius did that).
BBQ Baconator Meatloaf Fatty: Here we have another delicacy ($15.95) pulled from the pages of the backyard barbecue community, deriving its name not from its high fat content but from the girth of ground sausage meat that's rolled into a cylinder, smoked and sliced. It's not a requirement, but this one is wrapped in bacon, as is often done with the more traditional meatloaf. Smoke penetration wasn't as obvious here as with other dishes, but smoke helps with the tenderness and juiciness of the meat. The bacon is somewhat crisp but more of an accent than a major player. The sweetness that's so appealing in other dishes (wings, ribs, Atomic BTs) is dimmed here and doesn't have anything to contrast, so I found that aspect less successful and would prefer the meat unadorned. But worth a look for sure, especially if you're a meatloaf lover looking for something a little different. The mashed potatoes are a distinguished accompaniment.
Asian BBQ Hog's Head: Once again, I'll cut right to the chase; this one ($29.95 at outset, now possibly higher) is best for groups, spectacle and curiosity, but it's not something I'd ever order on my own. Technically—at least on visit 1, on their third night of operation—you only get half of a hog's head, and untechnically, the flavors are delicious, artfully blending Asian with traditional barbecue. The textures are another story: I won't go into detail, but all are interesting; only some are both interesting and good. All of the accoutrements—kimchee, biscuits (different from the app), spicy Asian condiment—registered as both interesting and good, and for both flavor and texture. So try the hog's head, keeping my "best for groups" advice in mind, and decide for yourself whether there's enough good with the interesting. There's a very limited supply (two per night the last time I checked), so if you're interested, commit early.
Potato Salad: This homestyle rendition has skins aplenty, just enough mayo to lubricate the whole thing and very little else, but it works, especially if you're in the simpler-is-better camp.
Cole slaw: Crunchy but flavorless and very dull, this one doesn't work even if you're in the simpler-is-better camp.
Mashed Potatoes: Also with a profusion of skins, these are billed as "Buttery Mashed Potatoes," and that they are. They're just buttery enough to enhance the potato fully without overwhelming it. The taste is very fresh, like a baked potato mashed to order. One of the best renditions I've had.
Mac and cheese: I've had sharper, but I've never had a creamier or silkier cheese sauce than Rosebud's, making this mac and cheese one of my all time favorites. Shells act like buckets to transport that melted splendor.
Fries: Thin, crisp, warm, well seasoned.
Onion Rings: Ditto, plus bonus points for being homemade and the flaky kind, not the puffy kind.
Pickled Vegetables: Tried twice with two completely different sets of vegetables (mostly carrot the first time; mostly cauliflower the second). Tart and crunchy both times, and a nice foil for smoked meats, but it's vegetable roulette.
Macaroni Salad: Not available as a side in its own right (if so, I'd order it often) but served alongside the ribs, this is a lively rendition with a three-punch combination of seasoning, tang and spice.
Pies: I'm not a desserts guy, but with the pie counter front and center, and pies a big part of the promotional chatter, they're a must-try. Cool chocolate cream and warm apple-cherry-ginger a la mode both presented adequate fillings (even with minimal ginger representation), but disappointing crusts were were thin, overly crisp and lacking in richness. I say they're just okay, no more. If you bought a dozen pies from a dozen different bakeries, added these and started comparing, Rosebud's would be lucky to rank in the lower middle class.
Each server I've encountered has been upbeat and either very knowledgable about the content and preparation of the dishes or very eager to track that information down. And that even includes the bartenders, one of whom was extremely helpful in suggesting vegetarian dishes for vegetarian YB.
Even more eager are the bussers, who descend on the table looking to reclaim near-completed plates like they're fumbled footballs in a Super Bowl sudden death overtime. It's time to buy some more plates.
Rosebud is located about a block away from Redbones, one of Boston's most popular barbecue joints. This has the potential to make for some interesting turf wars, but I see little overlap in their target audiences and expect both to play nice.
The Bottom Line
Rosebud has its share of ups and downs, but more of the former. And while the valleys are mostly shallow, the peaks can run quite high. Whether you want to call it barbecue or not, Rosebud is the most exciting thing to happen to Boston barbecue in a while. I'm already a fan and can;t wait to head back.
Somerville Beat Feature on Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar
Yelp reviews of Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar
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