Visit Dates: (10/27/10)
Tuesday night's Boston Celtics opener also happened to be opening night for new Boston BBQ joint Blackstrap BBQ, named after a type of molasses that's often used in barbecue sauces. In deference to the Celtics and to the friend who joined me, I waited until night #2 to give Blackstrap BBQ a test drive. It's staffed and owned by some alums from East Coast Grill in Cambridge, so I was confident going in that it would at least be good. The questions I had were how good, how different from ECG and how smooth they'd be at the outset. I already know I'm going back, so I'll hold off on a formal review for a while. But here's my take on that first visit.
Wings: The small order of six pieces for six bucks was wrapped tightly in foil, effectively steaming away whatever crispiness might have been achieved previously. Another disappointment was that one of the six pieces was neither a wingette nor a drummette, but rather that tiny, inedible flap piece at the end of the wingette. Ordinarily I would have gone back to the counter and said something, but the line was long and the scene behind the counter was a little chaotic. That chaos was also a second contributing factor to the sogginess of the wings: the bag sat at the counter unclaimed for a few minutes because they either a) didn't call my ticket number at all, b) didn't call it loudly enough for me to hear it above the noise, or c) failed to call it a second time after it sat unclaimed initially. Since I was only the third person in the ordering line when they opened and it took nearly 20 minutes to finally get my order in, I was hungry, eager and listening more than intently, so I'm going to guess A, but none of the three possibilities is a good one. Okay, back to the food: beyond the sogginess due to handling, an additional textural characteristic suggested that the wings may have been smoked, then stewed in sauce, then grilled, then finished with more sauce. The sauce itself was sweet but pleasingly so, with just the right amount of heat to enhance the flavor but without scaring away anybody. The inner meat was moist, tender and exhibited all of the flavor characteristics of having been smoked without being overly smoky.
Onion Rings: These suffered the same fate as the wings, but the assailant this time was a tightly wrapped brown paper bag. The result was one mound of steamy onions and batter all stuck together. The batter wasn't 100% soggy, but instead very chewy. That said, they were still some of the best onion rings I've ever had, with a unique flavor: very moist (even aside from the steam) and slightly sweet onions under a batter that in addition to the aforementioned (intentional?) chewiness had its own sweetness, some spiciness (more spicy than the wings) and unabashed use of salt. Of the three apps, six meats and five sides I tasted that night, the onion rings are the item I'm most interested in revisiting.
Chili: "Grammy Kath's Rip Your Lips Off Chili" is served in a plastic tub, topped with onions and cheddar cheese and thankfully devoid of beans. The heat component is noticeable but not intimidatingly so. The star is the meat, which I'm pretty sure is all brisket chunks. I was hoping for the same flavor profile as in the chili at All Star Sandwich Bar (where an owner previously worked), which wasn't the case, but this is a pretty good chili that I'll try again.
Sausage: Of the six different meats in two 3-meat BBQ plates, this was the first I sampled, and it was a good start. I wasn't so thrilled by the fact that you don't get a whole sausage (it's one end, about the length of an iPhone), but I liked everything else. The exterior was slightly crisp. A very light glazing of sweet sauce enhanced ever so slightly without getting in the way. The inside was tender, pink, juicy and smoky. And the meat itself was of high quality, not just another off-the-shelf Italian style sausage.
Chicken: The 3-meat BBQ plate had a leg and a thigh, and I gave away first pick and still got the thigh. Skin was nearly crisp, slightly oversauced and had what seemed like the effects of light glazing under the sauce. Similar to the wings, the meat was tender and showed all of the effects of smoking without being particularly smoky. There was a little sweetness to the meat.
Burnt ends: I was expecting the small, well lubricated bits that are the burnt ends at East Coast Grill, but these were a little more substantial and more briskety. Saucing was too heavy, but the edges were still crisp. Smoke level was most noticeable here.
Ribs: Two full cut spare ribs were included in the 3-meat BBQ plate, and mine was meaty. Saucing was very light (possibly unsauced but moistened from the adjacent sauced brisket), and under that sauce was a thin layer of basted-in glaze similar to the chicken treatment. Under the slightly crisp crust, the inner meat was lightly smoky, juicy, pink and fairly fresh tasting. This was a good rib and probably the best executed meat of the six.
Pulled pork: This was probably the worst executed meat of the six, mostly due to lack of flavor (the only one of the six for which that was the case). Served in mostly large chunks, the pulled pork had minimal bark but a delicate texture that also struck me as being very fresh. Moisture was okay, but this bland meat was the only one that needed sauce to give it some oomph.
Brisket: The brisket was served as a pile of small but clean slices, lightly sauced. The slightly crisp edges carried some spiciness. Tenderness was about average. Smokiness was light but noticeable.
Sides: Rice and beans had too soupy a consistency. Collard greens were cooked past wilting and heavily seasoned. Baked beans were your typical molassesy rendition with nothing distinguishing about it. At the other end of the spectrum, interesting Asian cole slaw was very finely chopped, slightly spicy and hit with some sesame oil. Cornbread was a beast, providing a 6"x6"x4" slab of fluffy goodness. Flavor was very similar to the Blue Ribbon and East Coast Grill renditions, with a smoother, airier texture.
Sauces: Four are offered in squeeze bottles at the condiment station and all four are good to excellent. Sweet is a typical dark brown sauce that has a lot more character than the store variety, with a little extra texture (minced herbs or vegetable, possibly onion). Hot is a spicier, chunkier version of the sweet. Mustard is very thin, gold, slightly sweet and slightly spicy. Carolina is a typical, well executed thin tomato-vinegar concoction with some pepper and other spices to round it out.
Other Observations: Iced tea and lemonade are available in dispensers with free refills allowed not just during your stay but all day long. Two sizes of plastic plates are stacked near the sauces, which I find a real plus for sharing. House pickles are a side but not included on the plates. Portions are small—not blatant gouging, but enough to notice (especially the wings and rings). Some of the meats are selling out very early into the dinner hour, so if you're only heading in for one thing, it might be a good idea to call ahead. The weekly specials are not available yet. On my visit, the much anticipated rib ends sandwich was also not available.
Outlook: It was only day #2 of operation, so there are still many kinks to be ironed out on Blackstrap's end and enough hindsight on my end to improve the ordering next time. I now know to request the meats unsauced, to order in smaller batches and to be more involved in tracking the progress of my order so that it doesn't sit unattended. But foodwise, the signs so far are mostly good: the meats are smoked, relatively fresh and well seasoned, with some good sauces if needed. The main problems have less to do with how the food is created and more to do with logistics: taking the orders and managing the line more efficiently; timing the orders and packaging the food so that everything is served at optimal conditions.