(01/09/06) (08/09/06) (08/23/06)
Redbones in Somerville’s Davis Square is one of the legends of Boston barbecue. They were one of the first joints in the area to do barbecue right, and their location between Harvard and Tufts has garnered thousands of fans who have a lifelong fondness for Redbones. It’s a popular place where you’re likely to wait in line to get in. On the main floor is a separate large bar area with its famous “wheel of beer” allowing you to let fate determine your brew. The brightly lit main dining room, with an open kitchen, looks somewhat like a Southern diner. Downstairs is the louder, livelier Underbones, a windowless, dimly-lit basement with its own large bar and funky artwork on every wall.
The menu is extensive. There are more than 20 appetizers/sides and countless combo permutations. Ribs include babybacks, St Louis ribs, Memphis ribs (spare ribs), Arkansas ribs (country style) and beef ribs. There are plenty of seafood (catfish, salmon, shrimp, scallops) and vegetarian options for easy menu navigation for the whole crowd.
For my first visit to Redbones in several months I ordered the St Louis ribs, with all four sauces on the side, with collard greens and cole slaw. The ribs were meaty and surprisingly pink and juicy, the first time I've had even slightly moist ribs here in years. They also had a perfect texture, just barely tender with a little snap in each bite. The bark was minimal and the meat had a slightly gamey flavor, but overall, the taste was really good.
The sauces were mostly one-note affairs: the mild was decent, the hot was a slightly hot mild, the vinegar was literally just vinegar, and the sweet was basically just molasses. Not necessarily bad, just a little monotonous. Mixing and matching is advised.
Sides were disappointing: cole slaw was vinegary and not much else, possibly too vinegary (and I love vinegar). Collard greens were bland and contained about two cups of liquid that slowly soaked its way into my last few ribs.
Follow-up: On a Wednesday night visit my wife and I both tried the chili as an appetizer. We both thought it was very good (and very different), with a brothy consistency, no beans (that’s good), and lots (I mean LOTS) of large, fork tender chunks of beef. There must have been 3/4 of a pound of meat in there. The flavor was good, but a little mild, with Tabasco adding the right touch of heat.
For entrées, I ordered a 2-meat combo with Memphis ribs and jerk beef; my wife chose chicken. The ribs were fantastic, with good flavor, nice bark, and just the right tenderness (not falling apart). The jerk beef was tender brisket that wasn’t too spicy but just hot enough to give you a little nudge. The chicken was pretty good, with slightly juicy meat, just a little smoke, and a nice flavor. The sides were again just OK, with the cole slaw bland and the black beans more Mexican than barbecue. Sides aside, I was impressed. All of the meats were excellent.
Follow-up #2: On another Wednesday visit with a few friends, we started with a few appetizers: fried catfish fingers were tasty but just a tad dry; Buffalo shrimp were tasty and cooked just right; BBQ hash (brisket, pork, potatoes, onions, peppers) was the perfect confluence of great flavor and great texture. The Texas beef ribs on my entrée had a nice pink smoke ring, a more pronounced bark than any of the pork ribs I’ve had at Redbones, and a really good flavor. They were moderately meaty, moist but just shy of juicy. The huge portion of pulled pork consisted of mostly large chunks and was a little dry. I tried the fries for the first time and they were homemade and cooked perfectly.
The good news: As always, it's a fun place. The beer selection is among the best in the city. The artwork in the downstairs room is cool. The prices are reasonable, if not an outright steal. The management and staff, through seemingly laid-back, are very customer oriented (you can substitute sides, get extra sauces, etc.). And the ribs have been better than they've been in a while.
The bad news: As always, there’s a long line to get in. It can be extremely loud. The sides—aside from the excellent ones that double as appetizers—have been mostly disappointing.
The bottom line: Redbones is a legend that may have been coasting on its reputation during the first half of the decade, but they seem to have found their mojo again and are producing solid barbecue. They're not in my upper upper echelon of barbecue, but they're right behind.