(07/31/14) (08/02/14) (08/05/14) (09/10/14)
Located down the street from North Station and across the street from the Bobby Orr statue at Boston Garden, Causeway provides two floors of dining and drinking in the former Penalty Box space. It has brick walls, high ceilings, bars on both levels, plush leather banquettes and booths and four tops along the first floor windows facing the street. There's also plenty of open floor space to gather with a drink before the game.
In the kitchen, a J&R smoker pumps out barbecue meats that form a fairly lengthy menu. The pitmaster is Ruben Garza, who previously manned the pits at Blue Ribbon. On an early visit, he mentioned that he was deliberately avoiding making barbecue too similar to what he cooked previously—"both to carve out a new identity and out of respect."
As of my last visit, the upstairs was still not available to the public. You can chalk that one up to the city, not Causeway.
This is a deep menu, with barbecue leading the way. Ribs are spares, available as half rack platters and on combo platters of two and three meats. Pulled pork, brisket, half chicken, pulled chicken and sausage round out the entrees, with smoked wings, rib tips, brisket chili and pork belly sliders offered as appetizers. Other appetizers merge barbecue and Mexican with nachos, quesadillas, fried tortilla chips and soft tortillas stuffed with smoked meats. Sandwiches include the aforementioned boneless meats plus Ruben's Reuben, a smoked hotdog, smoked chicken salad, a Cuban and a Buffalo chicken sandwich.
Beyond barbecue, there are a half dozen burgers, four different salads, three different soups and four different burritos.
A late night menu pares things down but adds a rib sandwich (two bones on white bread).
I stopped in for weekday and weekend lunches, followed by a pair of weeknight dinners. On three of the visits, well travelled barbecue aficionados shared the eating duties.
Wings: On visits 1 and 3 we split the bone-in variety ($9.99 for a dozen), going with Korean the first time and a honey pepper Buffalo the next (sweet mustard is also available). These wings are smoked and then fried to attain crispness, and they were good in that regard. Size was above average. The first order had some pieces that were borderline dry and some that were downright succulent, with most registering at moist. Their Korean sauce topping was an effective mix of Sriracha with some sweet elements and scallion for both garnish and flavor. The second order brought a sturdier smoking session surface while also upping the rub and the juiciness. Smoke both times was light but noticeable, with overall flavor coming from myriad sources.
The fourth visit's third try of the wings tried them again with the Buffalo, a more nuanced version of the classic. The wings were again large, coated with just the right amount of sauce, and tender-juicy inside, though just shy of crisp outside. Overall, a solid showing and probably the best meat of that visit, and probably every visit. Certainly worthy of a coveted spot in my 2014 Wings List.
Pork Belly Sliders: A trio of mini smoked, sliced pork belly sandwiches ($10.99) arrived open faced and pretty, with the color of the bright red grape tomatoes more noticeable than the shredded lettuce and mayo. Kudos for bypassing the ubiquitous Martin’s potato roll and instead going with a more serious mini baguette. Though the pork belly wasn’t technically dry, it wasn’t as moist as pork belly can be, and not very voluminous relative to the supporting players (or at all). Smoke was in there but overall flavor was light, like pork loin.
Tried again on the fourth visit, the sliders had even less meat than on the first. We're talking thin slivers here (maybe "sliders" is just a typo), each not much bigger than an anchovy. One slider had two such pieces. Another had two, but one was all fat. The third had only one sliver. I know these aren't intended to be full fledged sandwiches, but for $11, you should get at least two ounces of total meat. I appreciate quality tomatoes as much as anyone, but the amount of pork included here is an insult.
Rib Tips: On visit 3, we ordered a bucket of these ($9.99) with sweet mustard sauce (choices are the same as for the wings), expecting about a dozen of the meaty, sometimes fatty, sometimes knuckly piece at the end of the rib that gets trimmed when converting a full rack of spare ribs to a St Louis cut. Talk about a misnomer: although thin, these were entire full cut ribs, and about a dozen of them in the bucket. I wondered if we got an “enhanced” serving by virtue of being recognized on the way in—two of the kitchen principals know me from my visits to previous joints they’ve worked at. So I asked the server: is this how the rib tips always look? And she said yes. I bumped into the pitmaster between courses and learned that the full ribs as “rib tips” is their standard practice, at least for now, done as a way of using up older product and a way of ensuring that the regular ribs are of higher quality.
As for this batch: not as meaty as the regular ribs but smokier flavor, decent bark, tender, moist without being juicy. The sweet and tangy mustard tasted less “yellow” than it looked—it reminded me more of Chris Schlesinger’s Sweet Papaya Mustard from back in the day—and was applied such that it added a layer of flavor without obscuring the basic rib flavor.
On the next visit, the rib tips had about the same volume, this time spread over a combination of full ribs and actual rib tips. And this time the reheat was more obvious.
If you view the ribs instead of ribs tips as an upgrade, this is the best way to get them at a bargain. If not, get the wings instead and focus your rib funding to the entree version.
Ruben’s Reuben: Taking its first name from the pitmaster, this sandwich ($10.99 with two sides) is Causeway’s take on the popular deli classic that’s been equally popular as a brisket interpretation around the barbecue joint circuit. Tried on the first day of the expanded barbecue menu, it delivered brisket sliced as thin as the deli version—reminding me of Steak-Um—between grilled rye and topped with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. The meat was moist and lightly smoky. The sandwich worked, though more subdued than other versions, particularly in the tame, low-on-smoke brisket.
Ribs: Tried as a half rack ($18.99 with two sides) on visit 1, on a 2-meat combo ($19.99 with two sides) on visit 3 and on a 3-meat combo ($23.99 with two sides) on visit 4, the massive spares each time brought thick bark drizzled with house barbecue sauce. Texture was good throughout, with proper doneness, though closer to moist than full-on juicy. Flavorwise, simplicity has ruled the day, with recognizable but much understated rub and smoke. Freshness didn't seem to be a strong suit on the first couple of tries, but the fourth visit brought a fresher pair of ribs with the same impressive size and the same modest flavor. These are decent ribs with the potential to be great ones, but so far they've brought girth but lacked oomph.
Pulled Pork: I tried this as a sandwich ($9.99 with two sides) on visit 2, on a 2-meat combo ($19.99 with two sides) on visit 3 and on a 3-meat combo ($23.99 with two sides) on visit 4. Looking back at the photos, I would guess that the second visit was the better of the first, but it was the other way around. The sandwich, on a crackly artisan roll from Iggy's, packed a hefty serving of pork with ample bark in tow. The texture was tender and bouncy with good moisture that wasn't done justice by the photo. Flavor brought vigorous rub presence and light, pleasant smoke.
The two follow-up tries on combo platters were more moist (there's a faint vinegar-meets-marinara feel to the backdrop) and more tender (arguably overtender on the last try) but more muted, with less rub, less smoke and more of a natural pork flavor.
Brisket: I tried this as a sandwich ($11.99 with two sides) on visit 3, on a 3-meat combo ($23.99 with two sides) on visit 4, with very different results. The brisket on the sandwich was tender and steamy moist, but felt a little old and pot roasty, with very little barbecue flavor. The platter yielded slices that were very fatty on the edges, but the tradeoff was moist meat all the way to the center, with nice beefiness and a gentle bite. Flavor was about average, lagging a little in the rub and smoke departments, but I've learned by now they're not really trying to bowl you over with either.
Coney Island Jumbo Dog: A smoked hotdog ($10.99 with two sides) carried mild smokiness and without fanfare provided the requisite snap and juice leakage on first bite. I learned about halfway through that the Pearl smoked dog would be replaced one made at Moody's in Waltham. Even better.
Cole Slaw: A refreshing foil for the meats thats both cooling and flavorful. The yellow comes mostly from turmeric, but there's mustard in there too.
Edamame Succotash: My favorite of the sides tasted very fresh and summery, with just the right amount of firmness and give to the vegetables.
Potato Salad: Light and simple, with just enough condiment and a minimalist approach to the spices and herbs, letting the potato do its thing uninterrupted.
Cucumber and Yogurt Salad: Refreshing and healthy, but a little too much yogurt and a little too little cucumber.
Fries: Frozen for now, fresh cut down the road.
Cornbread: Tried only one time so far, this is a large block served warm on the third visit. There's a hint of sweet, but it's not the cakey style you see around town. This one's more in the Blue Ribbon and East Coast Grill style: coarse, dense and suitable as a side.
Two varieties of tomato based sauces are offered in stainless steel cups. One is sweeter, one is hotter and both are complex and good, though flavor intensity and thickness have varied slightly from visit to visit.
Service in all four visits has been a plus: accommodating with the booths, quick with the samples and attentive to drink refills.
The Bottom Line
Based on the smoker, the menu and the principals involved (two have served first rate meats at multiple other restaurants), I expected Causeway to quickly establish itself as one of Boston's premier barbecue joints. That hasn't happened yet. Decent to good instead of the hoped-for very good to great, Causeway has been a little slow out of the gate with flavor and consistency. Periodic flashes warrant more visits and maintain hope that they'll fulfill my initial prediction someday.
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