The 8 Best BBQ Joints in "Boston"
A few weeks ago, Phantom Gourmet announced its annual Great 8 for barbecue; last week Eater Boston posted their list of the 8 Boston barbecue joints to try (scroll further down to see their lists). So, even though I'm still working on an updated Boston rankings list in which I slot a few dozen joints into tiers, I'll halt that research to quickly submit an unranked Top 8 for comparison with those other lists.
Like my counterparts, I'm stretching the definition of "Boston" to include anything within an hour's drive of Boston proper.
This list is in alphabetical order with no ranking implied.
Blackstrap BBQ, Winthrop MA
This recently expanded joint is one of many in the area with East Coast Grill in its DNA. (If only East Coast Grill still had East Coast Grill in its DNA, but that's another story for another day.) What that means, aside from the principals being ECG alums, is reckless abandon with the strong flavors and unusual recipes. It also means an unmistakable swagger—sometimes the walk matches the talk; other times it doesn't. As someone who's willing to endure an off night knowing a spectacular one is around the corner, I keep hitting Blackstrap like a slot machine, and the payoffs are huge when they happen. They've been happening lately. Their rub-dusted Memphis style pork spareribs are currently the largest in greater Boston, their skin-burstingly plump smoked wings have made the PigTrip Wings List every year they've been eligible, and both have been top notch on my two most recent visits.
BT's Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA
No other joint in greater Boston does a better job of exemplifying the Southern barbecue ideal of "serve it when it's fresh" than BT's. Owner Brian Treitman staffs the pits and staggers the cooking times to ensure a very good chance you'll be eating 'cue that came out of the smoker very recently. The full-bodied meats don't hold back on portion, smoke, rampant juices or seasoning, and most of the product comes from local farms. My longtime go-to for brisket in New England has ramped up its rib game and is now also one of my favorites for the dry rubbed style in both St Louis cut and mammoth spares. If saucy is what you like, try their sticky rib tips.
You can't visit BT's without smelling like wood smoke the rest of the day, so bring an extra set of clothes if you plan on returning to work or visiting the in-laws after the meal. Or better yet, do what I do and forget work and the in-laws entirely; just stay longer and order more.
Firefly's, Marlborough MA
Some may find this one a little hard to swallow, but this isn't 2006 or 2008 or 2010. In the last year or two, Firefly's has shown great improvement in both their barbecue recipes (their pork and brisket look very different now) and a refocused attention to quality. The result is fresher, juicier, crispier and more reliably flavorful 'cue that's back in the game again after somewhat of a hibernation. With burnt ends, candy lacquered bacon and two kinds of smoked wings (they're the defending PigTrip Wings List winner), Firefly's has a barbecue appetizer roster that rivals more heralded joints within city limits. Standards like the St Louis cut ribs, pulled pork and brisket stand up quite nicely too.
Goody Cole's Smokehouse, Brentwood NH
It's almost unfathomable that a three meat combo is still $14.99 here, and it's not because they skimp. If you choose chicken as one of the meats, it's a half chicken, not a quarter, and served in a separate boat so your main plate has room for the other two meats. If one of them is ribs, you get five. But Goody Cole's is not just about big portions. The 'cue is usually fresh, moist and smoky, with brisket a specialty. While you may not see the textbook smoke ring on that brisket, you'll taste one of the better examples: smoky, beefy, ever so slightly salty and more than slightly lubricated from the melted fat. Ordering is over-the-counter and seating is as informal as it gets, with indoor tables and outdoor picnic tables.
Phil's Old Fashion BBQ, Milford NH
This seasonal barbecue trailer parked near an abandoned police station is not on most people's radar, but it should be. While the sides may be forgettable, you'll be raving about the brisket (among the top handful in the Northeast) and the huge, delectable spareribs all the way back to the Boston area, which can be done in under an hour with no traffic. Not just an afterthought, the smoke-darkened chicken is an item that belongs in a regular rotation. Sausage is dependably snappy and quick with the juices, even long after being sliced. There's not a more flexible menu anywhere, and a few picnic tables are all you need to settle in.
Rosebud, Somerville MA
This spiffed up reinvention of a decades-old Davis Square classic now features the barbecue of competition champion John Delpha, but don't think of Rosebud as a barbecue joint. It's more of an upscale diner with traditional barbecue (ribs, smoked wings, pulled pork sandwich), unusual riffs on barbecue (smoked pork shoulder with Sichuan style string beans, "Brisket Rachel in a Skirt"), way out there barbecue (pig's head, atomic buffalo turds), and a host of comfort food dishes with many influences and twists. Be forewarned that the sauces are very sweet—but they're also very nuanced, very compelling and not just used as a cover-up.
SoulFire, Allston MA
Not gonna lie: the last year has not been SoulFire's brightest, as I've both had and heard about some off nights here. But SoulFire's more-than-occasional success in general and ongoing ribs prowess in particular keep them comfortably in my top eight. I'm a fan of SoulFire's ultra juicy Meyer's sausage shipped up from Texas, their ever-solid and ever-underrated fried chicken (great brine-and-batter flavor) and their smoked wings (best on Monday nights for optimal freshness and value). It's the ribs, though, that get top billing, with the meaty babybacks—in a rare departure from conventional wisdom—often eclipsing the spares for flavor and texture.
Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA
At Boston's most-talked-about barbecue joint, you can trust that the apps, sides and legendary biscuits—and the legend is deserved—will carry the day even on nights when the barbecue isn't at its best. I'll take their chili-like beans over anyone's; ditto the warm black-eyed peas, and their salads get high frequency among my sides selections. The meats? They're more up and down. Although there's been noticeable coasting lately in terms of barbecue freshness, texture and flavor intensity, there are still high voltage bursts—and juice bursts—like the Saturday before the Red Sox opener that still ranks among my best barbecue meals of 2015. Brisket, pork belly and pulled pork all dazzled that day, and just like with David Ortiz's power, I have faith that the surges will return. Here's an extra note for the fellas: the demographic here is unlike any barbecue joint around town, with an unusually high percentage of women.
Phantom Gourmet Great 8 for Barbecue
-Bison County, Waltham MA
-BT's Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA
-East Coast Grill, Cambridge MA
-Firefly's, Marlborough MA
-Little Red Smokehouse, Carver MA
-Lobster Q, Hampstead NH
-Red Eyed Pig, W. Roxbury MA
-SoulFire, Allston MA
Some interesting inclusions and exclusions, and some that you knew would be there no matter what.
Eater Boston's 8 Boston Barbecue Joints to Try
-BT's Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA
-Blackstrap BBQ, Winthrop MA
-Blue Ribbon, Arlington MA
-M&M Ribs, Dorchester MA
-Redbones, Somerville MA
-Rosebud, Somerville MA
-SoulFire, Allston MA
-Sweet Cheeks, Boston MA