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Housed in a former McDonald's on Route 3A in Burlington, Lester's Roadside BBQ is an over-the-counter joint with the added advantages of a parking lot, curbside take-out service, simple but spacious seating, an outdoor deck, a few TVs and a modest selection of beers and wines in the cooler. They also offer abbreviated table service if you want to run up a tab.
Owner Doug Shaffer is a professional pilot who fell in love with barbecue during frequent trips down south, so he fashioned the joint after roadside eateries there, including several vintage signs and much gasoline memorabilia in the decor. The meat cutting area is right out front, adding a touch of showmanship to the proceedings, but what I like is the benefit of seeing what's good that night before I order it.
Lester's started out as a poor man's Blue Ribbon, offering a menu so similar that even the handwriting looked the same. They soon developed their own identity and are now a good example of a barbecue joint that improves with time. Sometimes a first visit to a place doesn't impress you, but it could be an aberration: an off night, a new server, or simply a new joint. Lester's didn't do much for me on my first visit, but I'm really glad I came back. A year into the operation, Lester's hit its stride, added a J&R smoker and evolved into one of the better BBQ restaurants in the Boston area.
The Lester's menu covers most of the basics, with pork ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, chopped brisket, smoked chicken, pulled chicken and smoked sausage, available on their own, on 2- and 3-meat platters and sandwiches. Appetizers include BBQ sliders, pit smoked wings, pulled pork quesadillas, "Big Johnson's" chili and pulled chicken atop a salad. There's also chipotle chicken salad and smoked salmon, available as wraps.
I've visited Lester's with an assortment of barbecue companions over an 8-year span, hitting them on weeknights, weekend nights and a few Saturday lunches.
Wings: One of the benefits of the Wednesday and Sunday "All you Can Eat" ribs nights is the inclusion of wings. It's a good way to try the various sauces and try them naked as well, a few at a time. I'm going to come right out and say that while they're definitely okay, wings aren't exactly Lester's strong suit, even as the stand-alone appetizer ($5.99 for 6). The good sized wings are smoked but lightly so and a bit understated (read: underflavored) without the sauce. That said, my most recent stab at the honey sauce was a minor success: good sized wing, good crispness, still tender, nice flavor to the sauce.
Chili: The chili is available in two sizes, allowing it to be an appetizer ($5.99) or meal ($7.99). It's got a mostly mild chile pepper heat, with decent smokiness to the thinnish broth and dense inclusions of brisket in large chunks. Not a contender for my top ten Chili List, but a solid enough offering.
Pulled pork quesadillas: Tried only once, and not that recently—I usually go for the sandwiches and 3-meat combos without appetizers here—the pulled pork quesadillas were stunningly good, delivering top notch smoky pulled pork with a fresh supporting cast and blistery tortillas that brought great flavor of their own. Often a dish like this is an excuse to move old product, but this tasted like it was the sole reason for the pork and worked so well that I actually enjoyed the combination of pork and cheese.
Ribs: Likes many barbecue joints moving from purveyor to purveyor and thus from rib to rib, Lester's has changed styles over the years, shifting from giant spares to a more manageable St Louis cut. They've also seemingly shifted doneness as well, nudging from saggy to spunky. There's a little snap to these ribs, and that requires a little more bite than the fall-off-the-bone camp desires. That said, there's often streaming juices, other times just a trickle and occasionally nary a drop. But more often than not, Lester's ribs have good texture within that snap and at least respectable moisture and tenderness even if not overtender. Freshness is what varies most. Sometimes they seem like they just came out of the smoker; other times they have that sitting-around feel. Flavor, on the other hand, is undisputed and unwavering. There's lots of rubby bark, a consistently high smoke level, and often a woody component to the smoke profile. As with their other meats, Lester's ribs are well above average on average (I'd say upper third for greater Boston) and as good as anyone's at their peak.
All You Can Eat Ribs: Offered on Wednesday nights and more recently also on Sundays (possibly only for football season), this deal ($14.99, must also purchase a drink) includes endless wings, ribs and sides. You can choose wet or dry ribs and choose among a few different sauces (or naked) for the wings. You start off with four ribs and four wing pieces, then the servings get cut down to two ribs on each refill. I like that you can keep trying more sides with each round, which was probably cost effective for the house and a great way to try the ones I don't usually get. Call it a win-win. A more obvious house advantage in the win-win would be the using up of old stock, but on the most recent time I tried them the first round's ribs were spectacular (seriously, among the top 5%) and seemingly fresh from the smoker. The second, third and fourth rounds (okay, so I had 9 ribs total) degraded noticeably but were still wel above average and a solid offering for an all-you-can-eat situation. Note that I ordered the dry ribs each time; I can't speak for the wet ribs, which I now regret not trying for comparison.
Brisket: The sliced brisket at Lester's is one of my go-to items, ordered at least every other visit, and arguably the best thing they do. The worst thing I can say about it is that over the past dozen or so tries it's been on the steamy side twice and lacked flavor only once. But those other ten times? Solid to superb. It's always tender and always moist, usually without being steamy and sometimes full-on juicy. Flavor brings good beefiness, above average smoke and above average crunchiness at the barky edges that get a good salting above the other rub ingredients. So we're talking consistently good brisket that once every three to four visits is stellar. I distinctly remember one visit where on my combo I bypassed the brisket for one reason or another, then stopped dead in my tracks on the way out when I saw the glorious brisket at the cutting station. I raced over to take some photos and was then treated to a sample slice. It was entirely coated in its own juices and practically melted in my mouth. Although they've never duplicated that shining moment and it's not something you can bank on, they've come very close on more than a few times. Overall, I'd rank Lester's brisket in the top three for greater Boston and possibly the top 10 for all of the region.
Pulled pork: The pulled pork is even more of a go-to for me than the brisket. The highs are just as high and the consistency from visit to visit is higher. Bark is reliably abundant and pink color is just as reliable and even more abundant. The pork is often well coated in liquid pork fat, which some like and others may not like, but it supplies great moisture and flavor without any soggying effects. The meat has a chopped quality but avoiding overchopping and overcooking ensures some bite-back while still fully tender. The thing I notice most is the flavor of the wood in addition to the smoke, combining with the rub deep into the meat. This woody/smoky characteristic is there even on an off night (where the culprit might be dryness or steaminess due to low traffic and longer holding). Pork had an epiphany moment as well. I've loved Lester's pork from almost the beginning, but one Saturday afternoon in May 2010 I had a combo with pork so stupendous that I went back and had the pulled pork sandwich whose photo graces the PigTrip Facebook page. I'd rank Lester's pulled pork no lower than #2 in greater Boston and a definite top 10 for all of the region.
Sausage: A snappy Italian style sausage is competently smoky and moist. It's a solid offering but not distinctive enough to edge out the ribs, pork or brisket on my 3-meat combos.
Chicken: Honestly, it's been a while since I've tried Lester's chicken, as I usually gravitate toward the troika of ribs, pulled pork and brisket on combos and those last two on sandwiches. But the memories from 2 years ago and beyond are positive ones. Generally, the chicken here has had a decent skin with slight crispness and an assortment of spices more in the roast chicken realm than barbecue. Underneath, the meat has been slightly smoky, moist at a minimum and juicy on its best days. Not a ground breaking chicken but a fairly reliable one.
A solid quartet of basic sauces offers various combinations of molasses, vinegar, mustard and chile pepper heat. All are very good, though all may be too vinegary for some. There's also an occasional hot sauce special or vinegar sauce spiked with more potent peppers.
Cole slaw: With a mostly good mix of creamy and savory (lots of seeds), just enough sweet to say it's there and surprisingly little vinegar, this is a solid cole slaw that works as both a coolant and a flavor provider.
Mac and cheese: Velvety creamy, hinting at sharp but mostly tame, this is a one-size-fits-all approach that gets the job done.
Potato salad: Mini cubes of sturdy potato get dressed with herbs and a little too much mayo.
Baked beans: A solid effort for sure but not maybe not worthy of the attention-grabbing moniker "Lester's Famous Baked Beans," they're a molasses-happy bunch, at least lately (previous versions were lighter and less sweet), with what seems like rub and smoke amping them up.
Chili mac: A nice way to add even more meat to your sides, this has small chunks of brisket, a just-slightly-above-spicy chili heat and the aforementioned mac.
Rice and beans: Same beans, served over a lightly flavored rice.
Collard greens: Intense flavor every single time and studded with pork bits, these have a brothy, salty vinegar kick that makes them one of my favorites. I actually crave this sometimes.
Cornbread: A cakey treatment billed as fresh baked, this used to be one of my favorites thanks to softness, fluffines and promised freshness, but the most recent half dozen or so examples have all been on the dry side and probably baked at least a day prior to hitting my plate.
The Bottom Line
Underrated Lester's doesn't have much of a following among the local boards, bloggers or social media set, and that's a shame, because when they're at their best, they're on a par with the best of greater Boston, and their top of the rotation ribs-pork-brisket compares favorably with any of them—whether average against average or best against best. Sometimes I imagine how much better they'd be if they had the traffic to turn product over faster. But even as currently constituted, Lester's is worthy of a spot in my barbecue rotation.
My 2006 review of Lester's
Yelp reviews of Lester's
Urbanspoon reviews of Lester's