Tier 1: (listed in alphabetical order)
Hit them on the right night and their ribs are the best in all of New England, thanks to size, tenderness, juiciness, smokiness and crust. Hit them on the wrong night and they're still in the top 5. The pulled pork has the right bounce, the brisket dazzles periodically and the sauces are pumped hot. The secret weapons here are the fried chicken (superior crunch, inside-out flavor after a 48-hour brine), the Monday night all-you-can-eat wings, the smoky baked beans and the best Boston cornbread among the cakey division.
Sweet Cheeks Q, Boston
Forget the ribs (too small, too bland) and stick with the crispy, succulent pork belly (as good as it gets and not as fatty as most), the moist deckle brisket and the full flavored pulled pork. The sides are excellent and the biscuits are every bit as phenomenal as all the female bloggers say they are (yum!).
Lester's Roadside BBQ , Burlington
Inconsistent, yes, but stay with them and you'll hit paydirt on ribs, pulled pork and brisket, which taken as a troika just might outshine their counterparts at any other joint within I-495 when comparing bestagainst best. Smoke and rub levels are high. Sides and sauces are well above average.
Tier 3: (listed in alphabetical order)
Blackstrap BBQ, Winthrop
Very inconsistent but very good at their best (yes, that's a common theme here). Smoky/rubby ribs and chicken are your best bets; anything else is rolling the dice. Sides run the gamut; sauces are good.
Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Que, W. Newton and Arlington
One of the most consistent joints in greater Boston, they sling a brand of 'cue that's more about the tenderness and less about the spice. Good value; sides and sauces are probably the best on the list; some of the specials are stellar. Word from an insider: the new Blue Ribbon mobile unit in Needham is the best one to hit. Blue Ribbon is the most likely of this group to vault up a level.
Firefly's, Marlborough and Framingham
Look past the chain restaurant vibe and the owner's frequent infomercialesque appearances on Phantom Gourmet and you might wind up with some of the best ribs in the area. Wings are good too, as is the fried chicken, and the candied bacon appetizer is worth a try. This is another very inconsistent one that's in this tier more for home run power than batting average, so be advised and also stick only with the aforementioned.
Mrs. Jones, Dorchester
Funny that many soul food joints call themselves barbecue joints, but here's one that smokes the competition, along with its ribs and chicken. Their collard greens are among my favorites.
Tier 4: (listed in alphabetical order)
American BBQ, Rowley and Beverly
Solid execution all around with a wide menu and some nice touches. Free peanuts, homemade chips and good, innovative collards. Has the potential to move up a level.
Bison County, Waltham
Bison County? Seriously? I wouldn't have believed it either, but seriously. Don't get too excited, we're already down to tier 4, and when you take a look at tier 5, it makes more sense. After a few mediocre meals here several years ago, I had some half decent ones over the past few years. Do not miss the spicy mustard sauce on the Carolina wings. Remember, we're going in alphabetical order.
Chili Head Barbeque, W. Bridgewater
This one's gone downhill a little since my review, but still worth a look for its humongous, sometimes bacony Carolina ribs. The secret must-hits here are the wings and the burgers.
Commonwealth BBQ, Wrentham
This outdoor joint has shown flashes of promise with some decent wings, photogenic ribs and interesting sauces.
East Coast Grill, Cambridge
This is another review that needs an update, as ownership has changed (no longer Chris Schlesinger) and barbecue has been pushed even further to the background, but it's still good.
Firebox BBQ, Bedford
Another outdated review, as the once-stellar chicken and pulled pork have slid to merely good, but the less impressive ribs have picked up some. My amateur psychoanalysis is that they were once trying their hardest to get noticed and are coasting now that they have, but they're worth a look and have the potential to turn it back around. Good chili, good sauces.
Po's Ribs, Acton
It's run by the former owners of a Chinese restaurant, so don't expect your typical barbecue profiles. The meats are still smoked and the flavors are subtle but very aromatic. The wings are not smoked, but they're killer.
Speaking of coasting, here's another joint where that shoe fits, but Redbones probably gets beat up among the cognoscenti a little more than it deserves. Its greatest strengths are its vibe, its beer list and its breadth of dishes within and outside the barbecue spectrum, including seafood and vegetarian. That doesn't equate barbecue excellence, but it counts for a lot in my book. No, I really don't have a book. Okay, okay, I do.
Red-eyed Pig, West Roxbury
Based on the Thrillist preview, you'd think they were the second coming of barbecue. Until I see a better smoker coming through the door, I'm not coming to any conclusion other than that they're a creative crew with better potential than execution. Good sausage, good sides, not-so-good sauces.
Silk Road BBQ, Boston/Belmont (truck)
Another outside-the-box outfit (Central Asian fusion), they've got good bedside manner, great command of non-barbecue flavors, and a chile-pomegranate sauce that's fantastic. The non-traditional flavors are fine, but I want to see more smoke and more rub under the hood.
Scratch Kitchen, Salem
This sandwich joint that makes no barbecue pretense claimed the top slot of my most recent Favorite Wings list, and the onion rings and bacon are damn good too. I'm not a fan of their pulled pork, but I'm high on their smoked pastrami that goes under the name of brisket. While other joints are inconsistent from visit to visit, this one's inconsistent from menu item to menu item, so don't stray too far from the recs above.
For what it is (a quick over-the-counter joint), it's not so bad, but hardly a destination. Pork ribs and chicken are surer bets than the beef ribs and pulled meats. Sides are generous, fresh and mostly good. The secret weapon here is the burrito.
Tier 5: (listed in alphabetical order)
The barbecue brunch and barbecue-related dinner offerings are too light on smoke (possibly not smoked) and all around flavor. Perhaps the management agrees, as the brisket and pulled pork sandwiches have both been pulled from the menu. Seafood's the way to go here.
BBQSmith, Boston/JP (food truck)
Call it a sandwich and I call it good. Call it barbecue and I call it so-so.
BBQ Town, Cambridge
It's not memorable, but it's a lot more legit than some others getting a lot more press and cred.
Farm Bar and Grille, Essex
This one looks the part and then some, with one of the most impressive spaces (inside and out). The barbecue has promise but hasn't hit on all cylinders on my multiple visits. If they can put it together, Farm Bar could jump two levels.
Frankie D's, Kingston
Respectable execution all around; just not noteworthy.
Hen House, Boston
If you're looking for affordable and looking for late night hours, look no further; just remember that you get what you pay for. The ribs aren't my style, but more than serviceable for the super tender fall-off-the-bone category.
Horseshoe Grille, N. Reading
About as bad-ass as Red Coach Grill, it's a family friendly spot with decent but unlegendary 'cue. Fun factoid: they were trained by the unquestionably legendary competition veteran John Willingham.
Larry J's House of Q, Boston
The former Chelsea joint is now open in Boston on the waterfront. I love the ambitious menu and am hoping for tenderness and flavor to do better at keeping pace.
Not horrible, but nothing to hang its hat on. With East Coast Grill, Tupelo and Coast Cafe all nearby, this one gets lost, perhaps justifiably.
Smoken Joe's, Brighton
I like the look, the menu and the sauces. The 'cue needs more flavor and more tenderness. Yes, it's been a while since my last visit, and I'd go back if there were a good reason. Their Facebook page promotes nothing but the music, so can you blame me for thinking there's no reason yet?
Village Smokehouse, Brookline
This is 1980's sauce-driven barbecue, be it smoked or not.
Tier 6: (listed in alphabetical order)
Casey's Pub, Holliston
Here's one where I did go back (but with good reason) after an underwhelming first impression, and they were no better the second time around.
Not really a barbecue joint.
Coast Cafe, Cambridge
Also not really a barbecue joint, but very good soul food and excellent fried chicken that's different from the norm. This slotting is more reflective of their stewy ribs than their all-around competence that would place them two tiers higher.
Jerry Remy's, Boston
Another in the outdated review sweepstakes (I admit, I used to like them even though I wasn't planning to). They've sold their smoker and now prepare the ribs differently (no cure, no smoke, no bite, no flavor, reliant on sauce). Kind of like how I thought they would before I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit. Oh well, it was good for a while.
M&M Ribs, Dorchester/Boston
The review might seem dated, but repeat tastings at the food truck confirm my initial findings. Mediocre at best, inedible at worst. Call me what you want, but I call them overrated.
Midtown Smokehouse, Needham