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Firefly's is the brainchild of Steve Uliss, who previously oversaw the barbecue at the Original Sports Saloon in Boston and the Tennessee's mini-chain around the Boston suburbs. The always-packed original Marlborough Firefly’s is like an oversized frat house sitting atop a hill overlooking Route 20. It has a dining room with tightly packed tables, a separate bar room, a function room, another large room dedicated to billiards and live music, and outdoor seating in the summer. The more sedate Framingham strip mall location (now closed) had a bar area that's more integrated into the main dining area and more TVs, but fewer other features. Both locations have a complimentary condiment bar featuring an array of pickles, hot peppers and salad items that can be added to burgers or eaten as a free appetizer. Both also feature a wall of about 40 hot sauces for sampling, arranged in rows according to heat level. When you're seated, you receive a complimentary bowl of cucumber salad. The smoker at both locations is a Southern Pride.
The Firefly's menu features a wide array of appetizers, many falling into the categories of fried foods and sampler versions of barbecue items. There's also candy laquered bacon, burnt ends, smoked wings, cracklin' bread, crab cakes, nachos and four different salads.
Barbecue forms the backbone of the entrees. For ribs, the choices are St Louis spare ribs or babybacks (full cut spare ribs were discontinued back in 2006). These can be had by the full rack or half rack on platters, as a quarter rack on combo platters and as a single rib. There's pulled pork, sliced brisket, chicken (pulled or barbecued), chorizo sausage and smoked turkey.
There's always been an Angus burger on the menu, but in 2011 Firefly's added a build-your-own burger menu with a la carte toppings to augment the standard offerings. In 2012 they introduced a custom blend (in addition to the Angus), made with chuck, brisket and porterhouse. That same comprehensive menu change also introduced pizza made with barbecue and non-barbecue toppings. Other non-barbecue fare includes po' boys, fried chicken, jerk chicken, chicken and waffles, sirloin and turkey tips, four seafood dishes and two steaks.
Firefly's offers an all-you-can-eat weekday lunch buffet ($9.95) at Framingham and a Sunday brunch buffet ($16.99) at both locations.
Firefly's has probably been my most visited joint over the last six years, thanks mostly to its menu diversity and close proximity to my home, office and commute path. I've visited both branches for lunches and dinners, on weekdays and weekends, joined by an assortment of wives, ex-wives, friends, ex-friends, coworkers and ex-coworkers.
Fried pickles: The fried pickles ($6.99) are crinkle cut dill slices lightly coated with an out-of-the-norm cornmeal batter that's always crisp and sometimes seasoned. They have a good batter-to-pickle ratio and a respectable all-around flavor that's enhanced by the remoulade on the side for dipping. I like to spike that remoulade with some of the hot sauces.
Wings: With Firefly's wings, you get five full wings in the small order ($9.99), equivalent to 10 pieces that many joints call wings, and they're of good size. They're smoked, finished on the grill and served with hot sauce (closer to a spicy French dressing than Buffalo) and ranch dressing on the side. More often than not, the smoking process leaves them with a crisp skin and deep mahogany hue, though I've received pale ones every now and then. Inner texture (extremely moist) and inner flavor are more consistent, leaving the pleasing effects of the rub, smoke and honey-cayenne basting (not too sweet, not too hot). I like to grab a few hot sauces from the shelf to mix and match with each other and the ranch. For something different, ask for the chile lime vinaigrette dressing used on a salad I'll never order, and instead use it for dipping. Firefly's wings are one of their surer bets and a multiple PigTrip Favorite Wings List honoree.
Candied bacon: I had a preconceived notion of what this early 2012 menu addition would be well before it hit the table: lacquered bacon with a solid, cooked-in brown sugar or maple glaze, slightly spicy, slightly bendable and still crunchy. The Firefly's candied bacon ($6.99) is a little different, reminding me more of a caramel coated apple, only with bacon. The presentation is the biggest surprise, as the four strips of bacon share plate space with a fried egg. The bacon itself is thick cut and house cured, bringing a pleasant flavor that can be tasted even under the heavy saucing. A little spice peeks out, but the predominant flavor characteristic is sweetness. As for texture, the predominant characteristic is sticky thickness. Keep that in mind, take small bites and chew carefully, because that caramel-like sauce can quickly solidify into a cement while it's in your mouth. The heating doesn't affect the liquidity of the coating, so while there's not much crispness, it avoids coming in burnt. This is an enjoyable appetizer that can also make an appearance on a pizza or a po' boy.
Burnt ends: Described on the 2012 Firefly's menu as an item that's been requested for years, the burnt ends ($8.99) present thick cubes cut from the brisket deckle, where most of the fat resides. The burnt ends arrive with about a dozen chunks on the plate, generously coated with their house Memphis sauce. On the first try, the cubes had minor surface crispness but not enough size, resulting in a dry interior. On another visit, the burnt ends had more girth and more moistness, but the tradeoffs were a steamy consistency, no crispness and none of the wobbly, juice-gushing magnificence of what this dish can bring. On both visits, smoke and rub levels were very low, with the latter almost nonexistent. Although satisfying from a tenderness and sauciness standpoint, the burnt ends here were a missed opportunity to say the least.
Chicken tenders: This is most likely a prefab frozen product, but it's large of chunk, light of breading and white of breast meat. The exterior is only borderline crisp but the inside is juicy. These rise to the occasion with the addition of honey mustard or white gravy, but they also stand up okay on their own.
Onion strings: These thin cut onions arrive as arcs rather than rings, with a thick, very lightly seasoned batter that needs a little more crunch.
Cracklin' Bread: The name sounds like a breakfast cereal, but cracklins are a Southern term referring to the extra crispy bits of skin that result when you smoke a whole hog. At Firefly's, the cracklin' bread ($8.99) is a doughy flatbread pizza with white onions, green onions and crisp bacon bits standing in for actual cracklins. Presentation is a big draw: it's brought out on a long wooden plank with the flatbread pieces arranged in a row, with a near-liquid 3-cheese dipping sauce in the center. Those whose pizza pecking order starts with dough and crust can probably do much better, but those who dig cheese might dig this. It's very thick, very intense, a little rubbery and very heavy, so I recommend it more as a shared appetizer for a group.
Ribs: The ribs are smoked, then optionally grilled with your choice of five different sauces. If you like your ribs wet, with a caramelized crust from grilling with sauce on, these are among the better ones done in that style, with a lot of slurp factor in every bite. Try them with their new Dixie Kiss barbecue sauce to get a hint of the ribs that won Firefly’s first place in the 2005 “Best of the Best” open competition in Douglas, Georgia.
The level of smoke and the juiciness in the meat can vary, so you may get a very good rack one night and a dry rack the next. The one undeniable constant in a Firefly's rib is pleasantly intense overall flavor. So even if the smoke is off, the rub is there to pick up the slack, penetrating all the way to the bone and also providing some texture to the surface. There's been pink color and a nice crust wet or dry, without having to resort to grilling to accomplish it. My most recent rib examples have had good moistness, low smoke levels and very high rub levels, with a little more sweet than spice in the mix.
If you prefer your ribs naked, historically Firefly's has not been the best place to get them, but recently things have changed for the better. The barbecue section intro in the 2012 menu states "No BBQ before or after its time" and "BBQ is only available until we run out." There's no explicit claim—probably to allow a little wiggle room—but the implicit claim is that the 'cue is served fresh each night with no refrigeration time between smoker and plate.
On five of my six most recent visits, I had at least one rib—twice sauced, thrice unsauced—and have encountered excellent results with improved consistency. There's no guarantee of ribs right out of the smoker, but I timed my visit perfectly on a Friday night, and that's exactly what I received. On more typical visits, the ribs are easily in the top 20%, probably in the top 10%. But on this visit the ribs were among the very best I've had in a New York or New England barbecue restaurant.
Brisket: Unfortunately, the "No BBQ before or after its time" hasn't done anything to improve the Firefly's brisket, which is far from a highlight and usually a lowlight. This can also vary greatly, running the gamut from thin-sliced and very dry to thick and borderline moist. But even on the examples with satisfactory tenderness and moistness, it's been at the expense of being very roast beefy and steamy, with edges that lack crispness and with very little rub and very little smoke.
Pulled pork: The pulled pork is tender and generally very mild, light on smoke and moderate of bark (though there's significantly more bark nowadays). The flavor is at its most appealing when ordered with the North Carolina vinegar sauce that allows the natural porkiness to shine through; the Memphis option can be too thick, sweet and overpowering. Texturewise, the Firefly's pork can come in anywhere from slightly dry to bouncy and super moist to slightly waterlogged. I like that it comes in larger chunks now, replacing the overmashed texture of a few years ago. As a sandwich, it's jammed inside a sesame seed bun and served solo ($6.99) or with fries and slaw ($8.99). Overall I'd place Firefly's pulled pork only slightly above the middle of the pack, but with occasional highs (see the 2009 photo) that might make the top 20%.
Chicken: Firefly's chicken is generally one of the better examples of smoked chicken, with crisp (though sometimes black) skin from grilling and meat that's tender and juicy even in the breast. On some nights it's truly magical and you can really taste the sweet fruitwood smoke combining with the natural flavor of the chicken. On other nights it's more charcoaly-grilly, but the smokey batches outnumber the charcoaly batches 3-to-1. Either way, I'd put it in the the top third, maybe higher.
Turkey: Introduced in the 2012 menu revamp, Firefly's turkey is all breast meat, smoked, sliced thick and served in large pieces. My first try was bathed in its own juices and literally dripping with serious flavor. The second stab had fleeting moisture and less smokiness with more of a standard turkey flavor. Sampled without condiment both times, it struck me as more of a deli offering than a barbecue staple, but it's a nice option to have as a respite from the heavier meats. On its own platter the turkey's offered with cream gravy; on a sandwich it comes with remoulade and bacon. There might not be a super strong smoke profile, but it's of fairly high quality.
Sausage: This has changed a few times over the years, with the current sausage model a chorizo made with chunks of pork rather than ground pork. This method gives the link a little more substance, but the first time I tried it on a 3-meat combo, I wished there were a little more sausage: there was only about 3 inches of it, strategically tucked under the ribs. I liked the overall flavor with salty, peppery and spicy components that hit from different angles, but the stiff texture bordering on rigor mortis was a deal breaker. It's one of the few times I've sent something back in a restaurant. Curiosity made me try the chorizo again, and it was more substantial (about 6 inches), much more moist and a little easier to cut.
Burger: If you order one of the preconfigured burger creations, you get the standard Angus burger that's been at Firefly's for years. The early 2012 menu overhaul introduced an additional premium beef blend created especially for Firefly's, comprised of chuck, brisket and porterhouse. With the new blend you pay a flat rate ($9.49) for the burger on choice of bun, with fries and cucumber salad or cole slaw included. Cheese, bacon and other toppings may be added "build a burger" style for a separate charge. As is my custom, I customized my medium rare burger with cheddar ($1.00), bacon ($1.50) and sauteed onions ($0.75), bringing the total package to $12.74. The grilled burger came in at medium rare or a little under, with a super juicy interior but minimal seasoning and crusting—I look for outside/inside contrast and it wasn't there. Flavor was there, but it's all a matter of degree. For an unassuming burger at a typical casual family restaurant, it had more than enough flavor. But this was a burger touting a special blend and bearing a Boston/Cambridge pricetag. For that combination, I expect more oomph out of the beef, better execution getting it crusted and salted, and a little creativity with the bun. The bacon brought above average thickness, crispness and chewiness; bonus points for the quartet of fried pickles wisely used as a garnish and not a topping. Okay, so maybe I beat this burger up a little, but all things considered it was pretty good—just not the burger it's trying to be.
Fried chicken: This is perhaps the unsung hero at Firefly's, turning out consistently succulent inner meat and a crisp exterior with a delicate golden crust. Seasoning is a little light, but texture is on the money. I usually get it straight, but the fried chicken can also be had drizzled with maple syrup or country gravy.
Pizza: Another 2012 addition, the pizzas are semi-thin pies whose light crust is a cross between a Sicilian and a bar pie. When I get an urge for pizza I'm probably not going to think Firefly's, but it's a serviceable vehicle for the interesting toppings (a dozen different choices, plus a "build your own" option) and a great item to split with a large crowd. The shrimp and garlic pie ($12.99) may have been the most garlicky item I've ever sampled.
A choice of Firefly's barbecue sauces can be cooked into the ribs and chicken during the grill finish or added yourself at the table. Sauces in plastic bottles at the condiment bar can be squeezed into small cups to take to the table. I like to think of the sauce station as a laboratory, where sauces can be combined with each other, with the various hot sauces on a separate rack and with the remoulades and ranches that come with many of the dishes.
Thick, dark Memphis sauce is along the lines of a store bought Kansas City style sweet sauce, only bringing more nuance and a little bit of chocolate. Beelzebar is similar, only with more heat. Texas is lighter of color and more tomatoey, with minced onions, making it my go-to for the brisket. Dixie Kiss is a darker, thinner sauce that has the same moderate spice kick with a lot of sweetness, and is my choice for ribs. North Carolina is a thin vinegar sauce that's changed around a lot lately—it's been thicker with more tomato on recent visits. I miss the South Carolina mustard sauce. I'd rather not see them stored on ice, but the Firefly's sauce arsenal is among the best in the area.
Cucumber salad: Sliced thin and coated with a dressing that's a nice balance between sweet and tart, this is a refreshing item that doubles as a side.
Cole slaw: This recipe changes too often to keep up, but it's usually on the creamy side, usually well seasoned and often packs onion.
Baked beans: Large beans combine slightly al dente texture with good moistness in a very subdued sauce that's neither sweet nor spicy.
Mac and cheese: This one bounces back and forth between kiddie and adult styles, it's now leaning a little toward the former, with a loose, sticky mild sauce.
Fries: Steak fries are a frozen product, but a decent one, cooked to maximize contrast between outer crunch and inner fluff.
Collard greens: Cooked slightly past wilting, these are served in a thin broth that mostly lets the vegetable do the talking. The leaves are left fairly large, an improvement on overchopped earlier versions.
Rice and beans: Loaded with peppers and other chopped vegetables, the moist rice had a pilaf feel with lots of flavor in the grains as well as around them.
Cornbread: The flavor may be just a slight upgrade from Jiffy, but on my last ten visits or so it's been soft, moist and fresh every time. There's also a new jalapeno cornbread that can be substituted.
Sometimes Firefly's has the feel of a chain. I can't quite put a finger on exactly what it is, but I just get that chain vibe.
The servers are generally knowledgable and very friendly, often adding to the overall enjoyment of the meal.
There's a New York City BBQ joint that I've called the Bert Blyleven of barbecue. Firefly's is more like the Rick Pitino of barbecue: quick with the changes and quick with the hook. The cole slaw has changed more times than I can remember. The chili had beans, then no beans, then beans again, then got removed from the menu, then got reinstated as a Cincinnati 5-way version, then got axed again. Mac and cheese has run the gamut from very loose and mild to slightly loose and very sharp. Fried green tomatoes, Pearl hot dog sliders (a favorite), black-eyed pea salad, full-cut spare ribs, beef ribs, mini burgers and countless other dishes have all come and gone. So what's the point? I'm just saying that if you like something here, be sure to get it again soon, because it might soon be gone or changed. And if you don't like something here, wait a while, give it another try and there's a good chance you might like it the next time.
If you haven't noticed by now, let me drive home the point that Firefly's is very inconsistent but very good when they're on their game. Interestingly, they're an excellent road team: catch Firefly's at various barbecue festivals, food truck festivals and TV-related festivals and there's a good chance you'll not only catch owner Steve Uliss personally overseeing the operation, but also catch meats fresh out of the smoker with no reheats. I've had some of my best Firefly's experiences at these events.
The Bottom Line
Firefly's is high volume barbecue, designed to appeal more to the masses than the hardcore barbecue junkie. If you order the right items (wings, bacon, burgers, ribs, chicken), you can have a pretty good meal here and a shot at a very good one. The overall combination of the wide-ranging menu, condiment bar, hot sauces, full bar and entertainment features makes Firefly’s a fun night out.
Perhaps it's fitting that the Framingham outpost of Firefly's is right behind the post office: sometimes they just mail it in and sometimes they truly deliver. On the nights they do, they're one of the better Boston BBQ joints in or around the city. Just know that it may take you a few visits to hit paydirt.
My 2006 review of Firefly's
Yelp reviews of Firefly's Bodacious Bar-B-Que - Marlborough
Yelp reviews of Firefly's Bodacious Bar-B-Que - Framingham
Urbanspoon reviews of Firefly's Bodacious Bar-B-Que - Marlborough
Urbanspoon reviews of Firefly's Bodacious Bar-B-Que - Framingham
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