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I first discovered Blue Ribbon in Newton on New Year's Day 1996, and I've been going back ever since. It's a tiny storefront with counter-service only on route 16, right near the Mass Pike exit/entrance (eastbound entrance only, westbound exit only). The wonderful smell of barbecue hits you as soon as you walk in the door, if not sooner. After savoring the heavenly aromas upon entry, there are a few things you need to do fairly quickly: gauge the length of the line and the number of empty stools (there are only a dozen) to determine whether you can eat in or have to take the order to go; check the specials board to see what unusual creations there might be (sandwiches, barbecue, Latin or Asian riffs on a barbecue); check the side dish specials to see whether to order your usual favorites or the daily side specials (like homemade sauerkraut or Creole cabbage with bacon). The décor here is mostly corrugated aluminum and antique signs and bottles, giving it an authentic look. There is a wall of hot sauces, but these are for display only.
Unless you request otherwise, the pork spareribs at Blue Ribbon get a quick drizzle of sauce just before being served. I always get mine without sauce (or as they say here, without "dip"). I do this partly because the ribs really don't need it, and partly because the sauces are so good here that I like to try different sauces on different bites. The size of each rib and the number of ribs you get can vary, depending on which end of the rack they come from. They're generally very meaty, pink and very juicy, with a natural, slightly bacony flavor unaffected by additives. A few years back, the ribs had less bark, but now there's usually a nice, thick crust from slow smoking. The flavor is good, but subtle, so if you prefer ribs that taste like fruit flavored syrup, this might not be your kind of place. But if you like ribs that taste like pork, you’ll be happy here. For texture, these are some of the best ribs around. I particularly like the contrast in textures between the tenderness of the large ribs and the chewiness of the smaller end ribs.
Blue Ribbon's pulled pork is superb. There's great variety in the sizes and textures of the meat, and you get a lot of bark. Technically, it's really chopped pork; they use a pair of cleavers and their North Carolina style vinegar sauce to convert a smoked shoulder into the final product. The sauce also winds up with a lot of the natural meat juices, which contribute much of the flavor. Be warned that the explosion of pork succulence may make it from the bun to your shirt if you're not careful, but you'll probably be enjoying the sandwich too much to even care. The smokiness of the pork can vary from visit to visit, but the flavors and texture are always right on.
Brisket is sliced fairly thick and is always tender, almost always juicy, with good flavor. It's definitely among the top handful of briskets I’ve tasted in New England. The burnt ends here are the crispy scraps from the brisket that are made into a meat pile with a similar texture to the pulled pork. The barbecued chicken is good, but nothing special. The sausages are crisp on the outside, bursting with juices on the inside, and pack some serious pepper heat.
The pulled/chopped meats are available as a platter with two sides ($9.50) or on a sandwich with beans and cole slaw ($6.29). Two-meat and three-meat combos are also available ($13-$14). Other sandwiches and rollups are available as specials and are often very interesting and very good (if you see the pork rollup with Hellfire cabbage, get it immediately and thank me later). They also have overstuffed burritos with smoked meats and fresh vegetables. These are pretty good too, but not in the same league as their standard BBQ fare.
The sauces at Blue Ribbon are easily among the best, if not the best, I've ever had. This is a little surprising, because their meats usually don't need the sauce, at least as far as moistness goes. For flavor, they sometimes need just a tiny tweak and these do the trick. There are the typical but well executed tomato-based sweet and hot sauces, plus a tomato-vinegar sauce, a XXX hot vinegar sauce, habanero vinegar, chipotle mustard and a "Gold" sauce that's a sweeter mustard. All of the sauces are homemade and fresh, not manufactured off site. I typically use a mixture of the regular and hot vinegar on pulled pork and a mixture of hot or sweet with vinegar on ribs.
Sides are solid. Cole slaw is creamy and crisp. Collard greens are cooked just past the point of wilting, with a little pepper for heat and a little pork for depth. Smashed potatoes are creamy and have pieces of skins. Baked beans are more savory than sweet. None of their regular sides ever totally wows me, but they never let me down. Their side specials are always worth a try and often provide ample wow factor. Their cornbread is among the best around. It's large, dense, floury, a little crumbly and not too sweet.
For a counter operation, Blue Ribbon provides exceptionally good service. The people are friendly and seem to care about making customers happy. In the kitchen, there's a lot of skill and versatility, with one of the owners on hand almost all of the time. The Newton branch also has a classically trained chef and a Chinese husband and wife team that create a lot of the specials.
I go to Blue Ribbon a lot and take people there a lot. Some are blown away; some say it's merely good. But anyone who's been there repeatedly knows that Blue Ribbon does a LOT of things really well and that consistency is their greatest strength. They are just as good at lunchtime as they are at night. After nearly 200 meals there over the years, I've been totally blown away about 30 times and had 1 minor disappointment, with the rest of the meals routinely excellent. Even though they're consistent, I find noontime Sunday is when Blue Ribbon is at its best.
Blue Ribbon has its drawbacks, though none are related to the quality of the barbecue or the service. Parking can be tough, especially at lunchtime on weekdays. There's very limited seating, all of it on stools with a counter that runs the perimeter of the room. There's no beer or alcoholic beverages. And that barbecue aroma that wooed you when you first entered will stalk you all the way back to work or home.
There's something about Blue Ribbon that takes you back to a different place and time. Whether it's the retro sign out front, owner Geoff Janowski's diner style paper hat, the familiar faces who've been here since the beginning, or simply the food, you'll feel as though you've been transported to a lost version of America when you eat here.
The bottom line: for lunch, takeout or a quick BBQ meal, Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q is one of the best, if not the best, in not just the Boston area but in the entire Northeast.