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Lester's BBQ, housed in a former McDonald's on Route 3A in Burlington, is the perfect 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 later, Lester's has hit its stride and is one of the better BBQ restaurants in the Boston area.
I first visited Lester’s on a weeknight in the summer of 2005, shortly after they opened, and my immediate impression was that they were trying to be Blue Ribbon BBQ. Not only was the chalkboard menu handwriting eerily identical to Blue Ribbon’s, but there was a former Blue Ribbon employee handling the meats behind the counter. It turns out that Lester's owner Doug Shaffer is friends with the Blue Ribbon owners, who helped him get started; Laura Janowski of Blue Ribbon did in fact do the menu lettering. Lester’s exudes the same southern shack vibe as Blue Ribbon, but is roomier and newer looking, with the added twist of gas station memorabilia.
I found the ribs on that first visit tender inside and crisp outside, with a Shake and Bake flavor on the crust. Not bad, but not all that fresh, particularly for a night visit. Pork shoulder was served in large hunks and didn’t have much flavor. Sides and sauces were similar to but not as good as Blue Ribbon, so my initial thinking was, why go here instead of Blue Ribbon other than for the conveniences of proximity (if you live in the area) and the parking lot.
In the spring of 2006 I gave Lester’s another shot and the place looked and felt more seasoned. Lester’s now sports plasma TVs, a small but decent assortment of beers and wines, and abbreviated table service if you want to run up a tab. A large outdoor patio is a nice feature in the warmer months.
This time, I was impressed by the ribs and pulled pork, which were tasty and fresh. The ribs now had a much thicker crust as well as a better spice blend. The bright pink meat had a natural, pleasing flavor and flowing juices. The pulled pork didn’t exude a lot of smoke, but had lots of bark, good flavor and a nice vinegar kick. The sides were all pretty good. The sauces, mostly vinegar based, were more varied, with a few different sweet sauces and a habañero vinegar like Blue Ribbon’s, but with chunks of pepper in it.
A half dozen more visits yielded more good results, with the meaty ribs and pork solid every time and occasionally superb. With the exception of one off night, the sliced brisket was very tender and juicy, with good flavor. A friend went separately on my recommendation and was similarly pleased with the brisket, claiming it the best he’s tasted. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but their brisket is definitely up there.
In the fall of 2006, Lester’s added a J&R smoker, ratcheting the smokiness of the meats a little higher. I noticed this most in the pulled pork, which was now also lighter on the vinegar. I like the texture too, with lots of large, chewy chunks and some strings, along with natural pork juices. Ribs were as juicy as ever one night, merely moist another. Chicken was moist, smoky and very tender, with a lot of spice in the rub.
Service at Lester’s BBQ is unique in that you typically order at the counter and take your own tray to the table, but the counter staff double as servers who’ll cheerfully taxi extra drinks and food orders to your table while maintaining a tab. I like this. For takeout customers, there's curbside pickup.
The wings at Lester's are pretty plump and pretty smoky. Chili is decent. Sides and cornbread aren't as impressive as the meats, but pretty good.
Lester’s BBQ has an all-you-can-eat ribs and wings special for $12.99 with the purchase of a drink on Wednesdays. Ribs for this special include your choice of their standard dry ribs or wet ribs (not as fresh). A deal that’s possibly even better is “Two-For” Tuesday, where you buy one 2- or 3-meat combo and get another for half price. It’s the perfect way to navigate the barbecue menu.
The bottom line: Lester’s offers good barbecue that’s elevated to very good barbecue when the place is busy and the product is at its freshest. The atmosphere is comfortable, they have beer and parking, and they’re continuously looking for ways to improve the operation. On a good night, their ribs, brisket and (especially) pork compare quite favorably with the best of Boston BBQ.