NOTE: This is an older review, kept on the site for historical purposes only. For my current review of Sweet Cheeks, click here.
(11/10/11) (11/15/11) (11/20/11) (12/01/11)
No Boston barbecue joint has ever been more anticipated than Sweet Cheeks. Combine the news power of the super restaurant blogs (no, not PigTrip; I'm talking Eater and Grub Street) with the star power of chef/owner Tiffani Faison (immensely popular at Rocca and a repeat finalist on Top Chef) and the PR juggernaut that landed several big time previews (Boston Globe, Urban Daddy and Thrillist) and you've got the perfect recipe for over-the-top interest. Things got so hectic on the first Saturday that lines went around the block. When all of the meat for the entire weekend sold out a day ahead of schedule, they closed Sunday and regrouped.
As for the physical space, it's an urban, upscale twist on the classic barbecue joint, with wood paneling everywhere, well worn table surfaces (some made from wood taken from bowling alleys) and modern lighting. Bookending the room are large antique scales that might have weighed barbecue meats decades ago in Texas. Many of the tables are communal, fitting up to ten diners, not necessarily all from the same party. There are a few groups of stools around the perimeter and more at the midsized bar. Televisions are there if you need them but are tastefully understated. The cranked-up music is anything but understated, daring you to scream sweet nothings into your loved one's ear. A patio deck looks ready for outdoor dining in warmer months.
The kitchen is open, presenting as much of a visual as the televisions. Every now and then you'll whiff the blast of wood smoke when the doors of the J&R smoker open.
By star chef standards, the Sweet Cheeks menu is surprisingly small: four apps, eight barbecue meats, five hot sides, four cold sides, biscuits and four desserts.
Berkshire pork ribs are available as a "onesie" single rib ($3), a la carte racks ($31), a la carte half racks ($16), a half rack on a tray ($19) or in multiple meat combos on a tray. All trays come with two slices of white bread, one hot side, one cold side, a pile of thin sliced onions and a pile of homemade pickles. The 2-meat Big Cheeks tray ($23) and the 3-meat Fat Cheeks tray ($26) include any combination of ribs, pulled chicken, pulled pork, pork belly and brisket.
Smoked chicken can be had a la carte as a whole or half bird ($20/$14), or as a half brid on a tray ($17). Turkey legs are only available on trays ($15). Beef short ribs are available as a onesie ($22) or on its own tray ($25).
Appetizers are all $7 and mostly fried: hush puppies, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, salted potatoes.
This is supposedly a Texas style joint, but the beef is a bit player on this menu. Hot links—another staple of Texas 'cue—are still planned for the future. The Delmonico steak featured in the Boston Globe preview is not on the menu, at least not yet.
I hit Sweet Cheeks early (second night of operation) and as often as the quality and my wallet allowed in their first month, aiming for early and late weeknights along with weekend lunches. Chef Faison was present on every visit, admirably choosing the trenches of the kitchen over merely hobnobbing with guests.
Hush Puppies: Five golfball-sized spheres of deep fried cornmeal batter ($7) on visit 2 supplied a lot of crunch and a nice sprinkling of salt on the surface, but these were very dry and not all that flavorful. The accompanying honey sour cream served in a glass jar is intended to remedy both, but I didn't care for the pups or the dip.
Fried Green Tomatoes: Crisp, warm, sliced thick and full of tartness, the FGTs ($7) on visit 2 were superior to the hush puppies. A smoked jalapeño ranch dipping sauce supplied creaminess (though a little thin) and a strong punch.
Fried okra: A surprisingly huge bowl of fried okra ($7) on visit 3 supplied a crisp batter and nearly twice the volume of the previous appetizers combined, but needed some salt, a dipping sauce or both.
Biscuits: Large, dense, crisp on the outside, flaky on the inside and just greasy enough to make them moist, the biscuits ($2.50 each) are a must-try. You can get them plain (I made a sandwich with pulled pork by the pound) or glazed with honey butter (more of a dessert). For an upcharge of $1.50 you can get one with a platter instead of the white bread. Since this biscuit is the size of a bulkie roll, it's well worth it.
Pulled pork sandwich: The first thing I tried at Sweet Cheeks was the pulled pork sandwich ($12), split as a makeshift appetizer and ordered on toasted whitebread, sans cole slaw to get straight to the meat. The pork had noticeable bark and a hint of a smoke ring, but the corresponding crispness and smokiness didn't come through. Nevertheless, the meat was very satisfying with its natural porkiness elevated by a fairly salty rub. Moisture was impressive, seemingly coming as much from the meat itself as a faint application of saucing evidenced by stray bits of pepper. Overall, this was a solid sandwich, and I liked that the white bread was more robust than the standard airy kind. With a little more crispness, a little more smokiness and a lot more meat (for $12, the meat should at least cover the bottom slice), I wondered whether this might work its way into one of my favorites.
Pulled pork: Ordered as a half pound ($9) on the second visit, the pork this time had more of a smoke ring and more surface crispness than on the debut, but at the cost of corresponding smoke and rub flavor. Overall flavor was decent, mostly thanks to the natural porkiness of the higher quality Berkshire pork, but this pork needed some bolstering in the smoke and rub departments. Moistness was also a bit of a rampdown, but the sins were at least mitigated if not absolved by a quick hit of the vinegar barbecue sauce.
Opting for another half pound of pork with a biscuit as a "dessert" on the fourth visit, I was rewarded with a product that had eveything come together nicely: about as much bark per volume as you could ever expect, about as much natural juice as you could ever expect, good tenderness without any steaminess, some good "bounce-back" to the texture, decent smokiness and another strong rub showing with saltiness leading the way. Sweet Cheeks can call itself Texas barbecue all it wants, but their beef is outshined by pork, which at its best has been stellar. And yes, it's worked its way into one of my favorites.
Pork ribs: Ordered on every visit, the smallish ribs have been almost universally photogenic with their thin shiny glaze, bright pink hue on the cross section and easily visible moisture throughout. Also consistent has been the crisp exterior and unfailingly tender (bordering on fall-off-the-bone tender) inner meat. Smoke, rub and all-around flavor were all much more noticeable on the first and third visits than on the second and fourth, where the texture was near perfect but flavor left a gaping void. Even on the low flavor nights, the porkiness of the meat itself has been impressive. The rub is salty (in a good way), sometimes hinting of tingly chiles but more often just a little too restrained.
Onesie pork rib: On one of the visits I ordered a single rib ($3) to accompany pork by the pound. Though diminutive to near extreme, it was one of the tastier ribs, with porkfat and salty rub combining to produce enjoyable flavor.
Beef short rib: A popular cut in Sturbridge, New York City and points south, the beef shortrib has eluded Boston barbecue menus until now. The Sweet Cheeks version is a meaty slab about the size of a chalkboard eraser, arriving with a blackened crust and a bright smoke ring in the well marbled cross section. The thick and crusty black surface gave way to more tender meat beneath, bringing a well-lubed characteristic that fell short of gushingly juicy. Like the pork ribs on their off days, flavor here was muted, relying on the natural beefiness to not only sing lead but essentially sing acapella. Rub and smoke were both noticeable but ratcheted way down.
Pork belly: This was a must-try on the first visit, attempted on the second visit (sold out), repeated on the third visit and will be a probable staple on all future visits. Under the crisp crust with rib-like surface sheen, four slices of perfectly cooked belly brought bright pink color, good tenderness, moderate juiciness, only a light smoke but fully porky flavor intensity. Fat content was just about perfect: the thin bisecting layer was maximal enough to lubricate and add welcome flavor to each slice, but minimal enough to avoid overstaying its welcome. A triumph of texture and flavor even with unassertive smoke, the pork belly is arguably the best thing on the Sweet Cheeks menu.
Turkey leg: The first visit's mammoth leg ($15 with two sides) was a rare example of the smoke in full play. The club of mahogany with another sturdy crust allowed cutting rodizio style, yielding more pink meat. Moisture was only along the lines of turkey moist instead of full-on slurpy, but the flavor this time left no void.
Brisket: Cut from the luxuriantly fatty brisket deckle, the piece (that's right, just one piece on a two-meat platter, about the size of a deck of cards) represented with the requisite fat on visit 1. The texture was mildly smoky, only lightly rubbed, quite moist and not in needed of any trimming. The follow-up on the next visit was ordered by the pound to ramp up the quantity. Also ramped up this time were the rub potency (that's good, but it still needs much more, so let's keep the ramping rampant) and fat (not so bad, just needed a little trimming). Ramped down was the smoke (not so good), with the texture a push (that's good, because it was already good). Later visits offered the leaner brisket flat, piled in multiple thin slices with decent bark and a noticeable smoke ring. Texture has been solid every time, presenting unquestionable succulence and an almost caramelly mouthfeel. Generally speaking (read: aside from the minimal flavor), I'm happy with the brisket as currently constituted. There's no problem with the Texas style simplicity of the rub (probably salt, pepper and cayenne, in that order) but to truly emulate Texas style they need to use much, much more of it.
Half Chicken: I was initially taken aback when the pale half bird hit the
table, half wishing they'd take the half bird aback to the smoker. In a
rare PigTrip moment, I was unable to eat, instead trying to rework the
F-Troop theme lyrics in my head to turn "when paleface and redskin both turn chicken" into a description of this poultry. Then I dug in, finding the skin borderline crisp and refreshingly thin, as if a trusty competition technique was in play. The tinted meat was not only tender, it was downright juicy. Flavor came through as well: the meat was surprisingly smoky and very mapley, whether from the maplewood it's cooked over or an infusion of marinade. This ugly chicken has potential.
Pulled Chicken: I'm not generally a pulled chicken guy, but I wanted to give it a shot, including it on visit 4's Fat Cheeks tray. I'm glad I did, because the meat was crispy, tender, juicy and smoky all at the same time. There may have been a very light addition of vinegar sauce, but it was the natural chicken juices that kept things moist. And though there was less of a maple feel here, there was no lack of flavor, as the chicken was very chickeny and the rub really made itself known. This tasted and felt like chicken that just minutes earlier was still on the bone, and that's a good thing.
Three old school pharmacy bottles grace each table with sauces. The largest bottle features the house sauce that seems to be a complex vegetable puree number with a little tomato, mustard and sugar to round things out. It's naturally sweet, but less sweet than your typical house sauce, which makes it just as usable on brisket as on ribs. A vinegar/pepper sauce is closer to the consistency of a salad dressing than the classic Carolina red. A "911" hot sauce (now simply identified with a star sticker on the bottle cap) has a balance of mild heat (a little hotter now than in the first week) with natural pepper sweetness as opposed to sugar. The roster could use some deepening, but I like the originality and usability of the sauces so far.
Sides have been generally good to very good.
Pickles and onions: This complimentary tandem on every tray is well prepared, with super thin, super crisp sweet onions and homemade sweet-tart pickles.
Cornbread: Don't look for cornbread here. For authenticity purposes, the biscuits are offered instead.
Mac and cheese: Smooth and sharp cheese, small elbows and a sandstorm of rich and crispy cracker crumbs add up to a hearty and very satisfying rendition.
Baked beans: The antithesis of New England style beans, these are more tomatoey than molassesy, with a thick broth, faint sweetness, a little heat and a lot of meat. These are among my all-time favorite beans, and would easily make my list if I did another beans rankings.
Collard greens: A surprisingly generous serving nearly fills the ceramic mug it's served in, and on the second try was even generous with the porky accoutrements. This is a rendition that's heavy on the vinegar (which I liked, but thought a bit much, and I like vinegar) and equally heavy on the butter (which I didn't like).
Black-eyed peas: Served hot in the mug rather than cold in a salad, the BEPs came through on flavor intensity without the soupy sludge factor that sometimes takes down this dish.
Cole slaw: Large chunks of cabbage looked more like lettuce, felt more like salad and didn't have the crispness to stand up to the havy dressing. Either it's outside my preference zone, one of the few duds or both.
Potato salad: An interesting version brings skins, a creamy dressing and what I think are bacon crumbs on top.
Carrot-raisin salad: More sweet (and more oily) than tart, this dish impressed with its sharp creamy blue cheese. Although liked it, this would work better as an actual salad than a side dish.
Farm salad: A crossover from Tiffani Faison's menu at Rocca, this one combines grilled Brussels sprouts with farro, halved red grapes and Parmesan in a light and zesty vinaigrette. It's one of the better salads I've tasted for sure, though I'm not sure how well it goes with barbecue. In a full size format it would make a fantastic meal for the person in the group who's more along for the ride than for the 'cue.
I rarely order dessert at barbecue restaurants but had to make an exception for the house made giant nutter butter peanut butter sandwich cookie ($8). The invigorating combination of the sweet cookies, silky peanut butter cream filling and densely scattered sea salt crystals along the base made this creation a winner.
Other Thoughts and Observations
Sweet Cheeks is probably the most New York of all the Boston barbecue restaurants—in decor (the wood pile), feel, menu breadth (short rib, pork belly), plating and price.
Pricing is the biggest elephant in a mostly happy room. A "Big Cheeks" tray with two meats is a whopping $23 (compared to $16 at Blue Ribbon and SoulFire). I appreciate that the meats are hormone-free, and I'm willing to pay for higher quality, but while the results have been evident and worth the premium on some nights, for $23 you gotta deliver more consistency. And give me more than one slice of brisket. The single blocky slice on the first visit has gradually morphed to three or four thinner slices on later visits, upping the quantity noticeably. Hormone-free Diet Coke is still $3.50.
The beer list is extensive. The cocktails are creative. The servers appear well trained.
Parking is surprisingly easy to obtain, but be aware that the meters are in effect until 8:00PM. I found out the hard way.
Much was made about Sweet Cheeks not using plates, opting for paper-lined trays instead, with hot sides in mugs. By day 6, plates were in full force for appetizers.
Back to the pricing and quantity: I can see the Sweet Cheeks website's defiant "If you leave here hungry, it's nobody's fault but your own" statement rubbing people the wrong way, especially because you can spend $30 and still leave hungry. Maybe it is nobody's fault but my own if I lack the ambition and drive to land the six-figure salary needed to afford the steep menu prices.
There are expensive barbecue joints in New York City, many of them with similar meat sourcing, but at least the most expensive of the bunch is only slightly more expensive than the next. In New York City, everything's expensive. For Boston barbecue, Sweet Cheeks isn't just a little more expensive than whoever's #2. It's a lot more expensive. That said, when the 'cue is as good as it's been on their best nights, it's well worth every penny.
The Bottom Line
Apps have mostly disappointed; sides have mostly excelled. Meats have had generally good texture; flavor runs up and down. On the nights when everything clicks, Sweet Cheeks is very, very good.
There are the naysayers and doubters (some just because they're in the industry) who hate the place, and there are the sophisticates and suck-ups (some just because they're in the industry) who love the place. I'm somewhere in the middle, probably a little closer to the latter group (though short of love and suckupage). I like the menu and I like the higher quality meat sourcing. The flavor outages can be annoying, but more often than not, I've liked the 'cue there—and some of it has been outstanding.
After four visits I consider myself a fan and plan on keeping Sweet Cheeks in the rotation, but pricing will surely impact the frequency of the visits.
Other Opinion and Info
my first look at Sweet Cheeks
Urban Daddy preview of Sweet Cheeks
Thrillist preview of Sweet Cheeks
Boston Globe preview of Sweet Cheeks
Yelp reviews of Sweet Cheeks
Urbanspoon reviews of Sweet Cheeks
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