In Pursuit of the Best Barbecue in Boston
Of course they had sweet tea. It was a barbecue joint. They also had collards, mac and cheese, and biscuits with peach jam. But when I ordered one of those glasses of tea, I knew for sure I wasn’t in the South.
“Would you like sweet or regular?” the waiter asked.
I asked for regular. When in Rome . . . or in Boston, as the case may be.
For a while now I’ve been watching barbecue pop up in places where it was virtually unknown just a few decades ago—Oregon, the Dakotas, Ohio. I even heard that you can get good barbecue these days in New England, which sounded about as likely to me as finding proper bouillabaisse in my hometown of Greer, South Carolina.
I happened to be up in Boston last week, so I decided to check in on the state of Yankee ‘cue. Which is how I found myself ordering a regular iced tea at Redbones Barbecue in Somerville’s Davis Square, not far from Tufts University.
Redbones is the OG of Boston barbecue. They started serving slow-smoked meats in 1987 inside an old dive bar called Barnaby’s. At the time, many of the neighboring buildings were boarded up and aging third-shifters filled the barstools at 8:00 am. (Look closely at the sign out front and you can still make out “Barnaby’s” in pale blue letters underneath the Redbones logo.)
Fast forward three decades, and Davis Square is now a thriving hub of upscale dining, but Redbones is still going strong. The decor is great—half barbecue joint, half music club—with colorful, funky paintings on the walls and green-and-white checkered cloths on the tables.
I went for the Barbecue Belt, a hefty sampler that delivers three different types of ribs—two St. Louis-style spares, two baby backs, and one Texas beef rib—along with sliced brisket and smoked sausage.
I will give you this: the folks at Redbones aren’t afraid of smoke. The baby backs are sticky with a sweet, heavily-caramelized glaze, while the dry rub St. Louis ribs have the overly-smoky punch of a forest fire. A Texan would probably look askance at the thin-sliced brisket, which is decidedly lean and rather dry.
The beef ribs are another story. These are the long, thinner back ribs, not the big honkin’ plate ribs that have become so trendy lately. The smoke is more subtle than on the pork ribs, and each bite gets better as you work your way down to the meaty end of the bone. Equally enjoyable is the house-smoked sausage, with a taut casing that offers a nice snap to the teeth and a juicy, peppery filling.
The barbecue beans are quite tasty, too—sweet and tangy and laced with smoky bits of pork. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise. I was in Beantown, after all.
Later that day, I headed over to Assembly Row, a still-under-construction shopping and dining development on the banks of the Mystic River, to check out one of the newest arrivals on the Boston barbecue scene.
You quickly detect a theme inside Smoke Shop BBQ: winning. Rows of trophies stretch along the top of the side wall. The sauces are named Sweet Victory, Hot Streak, and Gold Medal. The motif is a nod to founder/pitmaster Andy Husbands’s career on the barbecue competition circuit.
A classically trained chef who took up barbecuing as passion project, Husbands and his IQUE team in 2009 became the first New Englanders to win the overall title at the Jack Daniels World Championship in Tennessee. He now operates three Smoke Shop restaurants around Boston.
That competition heritage is evident with the humbly-named 1st Place Ribs, whose long spareribs have the sleek, precise trim of a rack ready for a judge’s box. The brisket is the proper Texas salt-and-pepper style, thickly cut with a half inch fat cap and a nice grain to the meat.
The texture of the ribs is spot on, though the thin glaze on top is rather sweet and an awful lot of spices compete for your palate’s attention. There’s a fair amount of what I call “onemoreism” at play—the cheffy tendency to add one more accent or flavor than needed.
The Gold Medal sauce, to my surprise, turned out to be a sweet, tangy mustard-based version that might have come straight from South Carolina, except for the extra little nubs of something—spices? fruit?—tucked away inside. The fat elbow noodles in the Pimento Mac & Cheese are enrobed in a white sauce that’s so splendidly creamy and rich that the little bits of sweet red pimento mixed in seem a distraction.
But still, it’s a solid platter of ‘cue. For those who like a little whiskey with their smoked meats, the Smoke Shop has an impressive bourbons selection, too. There’s even a slate of beer-and-a-bump combos, including the $40 “Pabby Meal,” a low-meets-high duo of a PBR tallboy with a shot of 10-year Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon.
WATCH: Classic BBQ Sauces You Should Know
My network of tipsters endorsed Redbones and the Smoke Shop as the cream of the crop in Boston, though I’m sure there are some other worthy contenders out there. I’ve heard particularly good things about B.T.’s Smokehouse an hour and a half west in Sturbridge and plan to check it out . . . well, some day.
As much as I enjoyed my Boston barbecue detour, I must admit that New England ‘cue still strikes me as something akin to an American-style burger joint in London or a fish and chips shop in Atlanta. It’s nice that the locals get to enjoy exotic fare from far off without having to get on a plane, and I’m sure that expats from the South find comfort in a taste of home every now and then. But it’s not in any danger of supplanting the native cuisine.
That night I started off dinner with a proper cup of clam chowder followed by a lobster roll—the lobster cool and sweet, the buttered bun soft and slightly crisp around the edges. It was delicious.