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No Boston barbecue joint has ever been more anticipated than Sweet Cheeks in Fenway. 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.
The physical space is an urban, upscale twist on the classic barbecue joint, with wood paneling everywhere, modern lighting and well worn table surfaces (some made from wood taken from bowling alleys and church doors). 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 for counter dining around the perimeter and more stools at the midsized bar. Televisions are there if you need them but are tastefully understated. The music is modern, upbeat and as loud as you can get while still allowing conversation. In warmer months, picnic tables grace the sidewalk. A fenced-in patio deck with its own minibar allows outdoor dining and drinking.
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 swing open.
The Sweet Cheeks menu is small by star chef standards but deep by barbecue standards: four fried shareables, ten barbecue meats (up from eight at opening), 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), on a tray ($22) or in multiple meat combo trays. All trays come with two slices of white bread (automatic at first, now by request), one hot side, one cold side, a pile of thin sliced onions and a pile of homemade pickles. The 2-meat Big Cheeks tray ($24) and the 3-meat Fat Cheeks tray ($26) include any combination of ribs, pulled chicken, pulled pork, pork belly, brisket, burnt ends and sausage.
Smoked chicken can be had a la carte as a half bird ($14) or as a half bird on a tray ($18). Turkey legs are only available on trays ($16). Beef short ribs are available as a onesie ($23) or on its own tray ($28).
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 downplayed on this menu. Hot links—another staple of Texas 'cue—were added toward the end of 2012 and are pork, not beef. 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 soft opening) 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 all of those visits, admirably choosing the trenches of the kitchen over merely hobnobbing with guests. Her appearances were less regular after that, but mine continued as I saw the quality, consistency and value all continue to evolve. A constant figure in the kitchen has been tireless chef de cuisine Daniel Raia.
The Appetizers and Fried Stuff
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. On two summer 2012 visits, everything improved: about twice as many tomatoes, better salting, and creamier sauce with even more punch. They're my go-to app and the only deep-fried one I'd recommend strongly.
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.
Salt and pepper potatoes: About three or four potatoes, cut mostly into halves and quarterd ($7) brought nice crispness, a tender baked potatoey feel beneath and substantial salting without overdoing it. Again, I'd like a dipping sauce, but only for amplification; these needed no rescue in the flavor department.
Biscuits: Large, dense, piping hot, crisp on the outside, flaky on the inside and just buttery enough to make them moist throughout, the biscuits (3.00 each or a tin can of four for $10.00) completely live up to the yum-happy blogger raves, making them an absolute must-order every time. You can get them plain (I once made a sandwich with pulled pork by the pound) or served with honey butter (think of it a dessert that you can enjoy as an appetizer). This biscuit is the size of a bulkie roll, so don't be put off by the price, and don't get too filled up on them before the meal arrives. These are now available at lunch and available for takeout. They're good enough that you'll want to take advantage of both.
Pulled pork sandwich: The very first thing I tried at Sweet Cheeks was the Berkshire 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.
Fast forward to early 2012 and a few different things happened: more pink, more bark, more meat and more flavor. More so here than with any of the other meats, you can taste the wood in the smoke. And the "Berkshire Pork" billing isn't just to make the menu read better; you can also taste the difference in the sourcing. Texture has been just about perfect, with a little "bite-back" rather than just wilting.
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 everything 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, more 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 often outshined by pork, which at its best has been stellar. And yes, it's worked its way into one of my favorites. Without a doubt, Sweet Cheeks now serves my favorite pulled pork in Boston.
Pork ribs: Ordered more regularly on the early visits and more sparingly (no pun intended) on the later ones, the smallish ribs have been almost universally photogenic with their thin shiny glaze and easily visible moisture throughout. Also consistent has unfailingly tender (bordering on fall-off-the-bone tender) inner meat. Smoke, rub, crusty exterior, pink interior and all-around flavor have all been less consistent. Sometimes the flavor leaves a gaping void, but 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.
I've noticed no difference in rib quality when had as a half rack, as one of the meats on a 2- or 3-meat combo, or ordered individually. After several tries, I'm not a huge fan of Sweet Cheeks' pork ribs, which I consider a slightly-above-average item among its menu of well-above-average ones. Someone who considers barbecue synomymous with ribs might be disappointed here.
Onesie pork rib: On an early visit 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. This is probably the way to go here, as the onesie makes an easy add-on to a tray or by-the-pound meats. If it's good that night, you can always get more. I still keep ordering them, one per visit, waiting for that smoky slot machine to pay out.
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 single bone-in meat slab about the size of a chalkboard eraser (on a typical night) or two (on a good night). It arrives with a blackened crust and a bright smoke ring in the well marbled cross sections. Or (on a good night) the end bone with no cross sections but extra bark.
The thick and crusty black surface gives way to fully tender meat beneath, bringing a well-lubed characteristic that fell short of juicy on an early visit, unquestionably juicy on an intermediate visit and gushingly juicy on a recent visit. There's a captivatingly caramelly texture in play, especially at the crust. The fat content (that is, the fat that's not already melted in) is so surprisingly low that you can eat this with little to no discard. Rub and smoke have both been noticeable but sometimes ratcheted down, relying on the natural splendor of the pristine beef to not only sing lead but essentially sing acapella. Fortunately, the spot-on doneness and texture supply the right harmony to make it a hit. When the rub and smoke are in play, as they were on my second of three tries at this cut, the meat had a beefy-rubby-salty-smoky intensity usually only found in burnt ends.
Be aware that this is a lot of meat, meant to be eaten with a fork and knife, not picked up by the bone. It's a great item for sharing among the table when everyone has their own meats as well.
Pork belly: This was a must-try on the first visit, attempted on the second visit (sold out), repeated on the third visit and has been a trusty staple on most subsequent visits. Under the crisp crust with rib-like surface sheen, thick cut slices of perfectly cooked belly bring bright pink color, good tenderness, moderate juiciness, only a light smoke but fully porky flavor intensity. In the earliest days, 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. Fattier renditions crept in here and there, but the latest examples are back to the minimal fat standard that allows eating the whole slice with no discard. A triumph of texture and flavor even with unassertive smoke, the pork belly is a steal at $19 per pound and arguably the most compelling item on the Sweet Cheeks menu. Yes, even more compelling than the biscuits.
Turkey leg: The first visit's mammoth leg ($16 with two sides) was a rare early 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. I really should try this again.
Brisket: Cut from the luxuriantly fatty brisket deckle, a single piece (yes, just one) about the size of a deck of cards represented with the requisite fat on the first visit's 2-meat Sweet Cheeks tray. The texture was mildly smoky, only lightly rubbed, quite moist and not in need 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) 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).
Ordered about every third visit after that, the brisket has been deckle every time and increasingly generous. Presenting undeniable succulence and more of that caramelly mouthfeel, texture has been solid every time and occasionally spectacular, achieving near-buttery consistency. Crispy edges are more prevalent. Smoke is there but still light.
Generally speaking (read: aside from the often timid flavor), I'm happy with the brisket as currently constituted—even with its flaws, Sweet Cheeks brisket is the best in the city. 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.
A brisket epiphany hit me on a night when I didn't even order it. A diner at an adjacent table had it as a platter unto itself, and it was some of the best looking brisket I ever saw but did not try. On my next few visits I did the same and was rewarded with the best examples I've had at Sweet Cheeks. So if brisket's your thing, go all in.
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 but downright juicy as well. Flavor came through equally 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 had potential.
Fast forward a half year or so to spring 2012 and I'm ordering this chicken with greater frequency. One example was borderline crisp and golden brown on the outside, borderline underdone on the inside and juicier than any chicken I have ever had in my life. Tearing the sections apart made it leak chicken juice in a steady stream for about 30 seconds. Flavor lost the early version's maple but brought a little more smoke and a lot more brine. Someone who's not a fan of salt might have balked, but I enjoyed it. By summer 2012, the chicken hit its stride (or waddle, or whatever it is chickens do), delivering the crispiest, darkest skin yet, nice smokiness, a flavorful but less salty brine and a moist interior that didn't drizzle chicken juices as steadily but never came close to being anything but fully moist.
Pulled Chicken: I'm not generally a pulled chicken guy, but I wanted to give it a shot, including it on an early visit'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.
Visit 13 in summer 2012 was less lucky with the pulled chicken. No real issues here, but several components were just a little toned down: less color, less bark, less crispiness, less smoke. On the plus side, moistness was never in question, the chickeny flavor was still there, the volume was extremely high compared to the early days and the chicken was in large, appetizing chunks rather than the overmashed version so familiar at other joints.
Burnt ends: Tried on a Fat Cheeks tray toward the end of summer 2012, this was a must-order as soon as it graced the menu. Lightly sauced brisket scraps (done in a style similar to East Coast Grill and Blue Ribbon) had a nice richness and good beef flavor, but wound up a little too soft, steamy and saucy for my taste. Someone who likes a saucy sammy should give this a try, but if you're a fan of brisket, the superior sliced version is the wayto go here.
Sausage: A staple of Texas barbecue and as prevalent as brisket, the hot links were supposed to be one of the hallmark items on the menu from the earliest days. Unfortunately, apparatus issues delayed the rollout until 10 months into the operation. Fortunately, it was worth the wait. House made using pork shoulder—a departure from traditional Texas beef—the tray ($18) of sausage on my first try delivered long segments equaling about three standard links. Despite being cut on the bias rather than left intact to safeguard the juices, the sausage exhibited respectable moisture. No snap, but that was quickly forgotten when the first bite unleashed a loose, crumbly and dare I say juicy procession of well-lubed, pinhead sized pork pearls. The flavor was equally impressive, with accents of salt (maybe too much for some, but just right for me), chile pepper and seeds (I think mustard's the main one).
The second sausage try on the next visit was a little less spicy, a little less free-flowing, bringing steamy instead of juicy, but it still satisfied with all around flavor.
My most recent visit was a takeout order consisting of nothing but sausage, specifically to break the tie. This was still a little pale, but back to the explosive juiciness and distinct heat of the first batch, with some welcome crispness and snap to the casing. If they can duplicate that third effort and lose the cut, we're talking about one of the best sausages in the area—as long as you embrace the loose texture that's intended, not an accident.
Fried chicken: A novelty slotted for Sunday and Monday nights about halfway through the first year became a full time entree ($19 tray with two sides) by the end of the year. As the tray hit the table, my first reaction: "Whoa, those are big chicken parts." And four pieces, too, which might have been unexpected during Sweet Cheeks' stingier earliest days. This fried chicken hit all the marks with batter that's thick and light and crisp and seasoned, with explosively juicy meat within. I could quibble and say that the compelling briny flavor of nearby competitor SoulFire's fried chicken isn't as compelling here, but it's close. Then again, SoulFire's sides can't match Sweet Cheeks', so it's a wash.
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 spiked with molasses 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 hot sauce (sometimes identified with a star sticker on the bottle cap) is a constantly rotating creation whose pepper, fruit and heat level all vary. Sometimes you'll see two different versions of the hot sauce on different tables. 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. Whitebread was originally included on every tray; now, it's still available gratis upon request. For boneless meats, the idea is to create your own sandwich using these ingredients and perhaps a tableside sauce.
Cornbread: Don't look for cornbread here. For authenticity purposes, the much-discussed 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 started out more cuminy than molassesy, with a thick broth, faint sweetness, a little heat and a lot of meat. Over time it has evolved into a version that's ramped up the molasses but without losing its savory edge. The equally ramped-up chile pepper component works really well with the sweetness, giving this dish the feel of a hearty chili. They're my favorite side here and are among my all-time favorite beans, easily making my list if I do 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 masterfully on flavor intensity without the soupy sludge factor that sometimes takes down this dish. Perfect on a cold night.
Cole slaw: Large chunks of cabbage and creamy, tame dressing make it feel more like a salad. Go with one of the real salads instead.
Potato salad: An interesting version brings skins, a creamy dressing and what bacon crumbs on top.
Carrot-raisin salad: More sweet and more oily than tart, this dish impressed with its sharp creamy blue cheese and overall balance of bold flavors. Although I like it, this would make a better first couse 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 grated Parmesan in a light and zesty vinaigrette. In the summer, sliced plums made a cameo; the nuts have varied. Yes, it's a little more fussy than you'd ordinarily expect with barbecue, but it works. Regardless of the seasonal permutation, this salad is one of the better examples I've tasted in a barbecue restaurant or any restaurant, and I actually find myself craving it at times. 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. It's big enough for four to share.
Sweet Cheeks is probably the most New York of all the Boston barbecue restaurants—in decor (the wood pile near the open kitchen), 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 $24 (compared to $16 at Blue Ribbon and $17 at SoulFire). That said, I appreciate that the exceptionally sourced meats are "never ever" injected with hormones, and I'm willing to pay for the noticeable higher quality.
Also noticeable are the portion sizes which have progressed from laughably small during the first few weeks to today's standard of somewhat generous on meats and very generous on sides. When the stakes are high, consistency must be equally high, and that's improved too, so even at the higher prices, I still believe there's value.
That value—along with steady improvement on the meats—explains why, even after I forecasted after one month that "pricing will surely impact the frequency of the visits," no other barbecue restaurant has seen me more often since then.
Despite the praiseworthy portion improvements (more volume on the 2- and 3-meat trays, bigger sandwiches, hot sides filled to the brim of the mug), Sweet Cheeks' pricey perception persists. Perhaps that's why the restaurant's website recently removed the defiant "If you leave here hungry, it's nobody's fault but your own" statement that could easily rub people the wrong way, especially since it was quite possible to drop $30 in the early days and not get full.
But it's very possible to get your fill and not break the bank. As ridiculous as it may seem given how good they are, you can get by with a single biscuit for one couple. You can get by with one tray for two, augmenting that with another half pound or so of meats but sharing the tray's two sides. When ordering this way and everything goes according to plan, you get close to the same volume as at the seemingly more affordable competitors, for about the same price, with less variety for sides (since you're splitting two, not four), but better quality on the meats.
The beer list is extensive. The cocktails are creative. The servers are enthusiastic and well trained.
Parking spaces are surprisingly easy to obtain, but be aware that the meters are in effect until 8:00PM. I found out the hard way on my first visit. Don't even think about parking at the supermarket across the street.
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, now a lot closer to the latter group, though short of suckuppage. I like the menu and I like the higher quality meat sourcing. The occasional flavor outages can be annoying, but more often than not, I've really liked the 'cue at Sweet Cheeks—and much of it has been outstanding.
The Bottom Line
Meat texture is now consistently exemplary; flavor runs up and down but is improving. Quantity has already improved.
While no barbecue joint is a sure thing for greatness, Sweet Cheeks is guaranteed good, very often very good and often enough spectacular. There's still room for further improvement on the flavor front, but Sweet Cheeks does more things well and does more things really well more often than any other Boston barbecue joint. The prices may raise an eyebrow, but the food will lift your spirits.
So I can now answer the unanswered question from opening night: Is Sweet Cheeks the best barbecue joint in Boston? Yes.
Other Opinion and Info
My first look at Sweet Cheeks
My first review of Sweet Cheeks
Urban Daddy preview of Sweet Cheeks
Thrillist preview of Sweet Cheeks
Boston Globe preview of Sweet Cheeks
Tiffani Faison "One Year In" Interview on Eater
Yelp reviews of Sweet Cheeks
Urbanspoon reviews of Sweet Cheeks
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