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Redbones in Somerville’s Davis Square is one of the legends of Boston barbecue. It was one of the first joints in the area to do barbecue right (read: smoked, not oven baked), in a location between Harvard and Tufts that's garnered thousands of fans with a lifelong fondness for Redbones. It’s a popular place where you’re likely to wait in line to get in and just as likely to make some new friends while you wait. On the main floor is a separate large bar area with its famous “wheel of beer” that lets fate determine your brew. The main dining room has an open kitchen where you can see the J&R smoker and a very lively pit crew. This brightly lit area looks like a Southern diner and is the tamest one in the joint. Downstairs is the louder, rowdier Underbones, a windowless, dimly-lit basement with its own large bar and funky artwork—now an integral part of the Redbones brand—on every wall.
In recent years redbones has spawned a seasonal rib shack near Kendall Square and a food truck that services a few different Boston locations.
The menu is extensive. There are more than 30 appetizers/sides (blurred intentionally to let you order what you want, when you want, with what you want), including a couple of wings options, a couple of chili options, a bunch of fried stuff, a bunch of green stuff and a bunch of fishy stuff. Ribs include babybacks, St Louis cut spare ribs, Memphis ribs (untrimmed spare ribs), Arkansas ribs (country style) and Texas beef back ribs. Sliced brisket, pulled pork, pit beef, jerk beef, BBQ hash, grilled chicken and a sausage of the day round out the barbecue menu.
The barbecue combo permutations are virtually endless, with different options for multiple ribs, one type of ribs with one other meat, no ribs but two or three meats, or the "Barbecue Belt" combo with three types of ribs plus brisket. You can also get "one perfect rib" for any chosen style.
There are plenty of seafood (catfish, salmon, shrimp, scallops) and vegetarian options for easy menu navigation for the whole crowd. Substitutions are welcome but may cost a little more.
There was a time not that long ago when just about anyone in greater Boston with a hankering for barbecue sated that urge at Redbones, and even today many Bostonians think of Redbones as the quintessential Boston barbecue joint. Eventually, other joints popped up, and the boom we enjoy today spread the barbecue wealth around. With that growth came the inevitable comparisons, and Redbones—though still beloved by most—took somewhat of a hit when stacked up against some of the young Turks.
Many of my 2005 workplace watercooler discussions and group emails that eventually led to this site revolved around Redbones. There were arguments among my coworkers pro and con, with the sticking point being not whether Redbones had gone downhill but just how far. For my first "official" research, I had two very solid meals at Redbones that convinced me they were turning it around, and I said as much in my 2006 review. My return visits have been scattered and less impressive, with none of them approaching the quality of those first two (and none approaching disastrous). I figured I'd get around to a review update someday but didn't exactly make it a priority. Eventually there came a point when I knew the review was not just old but inaccurate. With that as my trigger, I hit Redbones a few times over the last six months with a watchful eye and an open mind.
Visits considered for this review have been scattered among week nights and weekend nights, usually with one or more tablemates. This review focuses almost exclusively on the visits from 2007 through 2012, with heaviest emphasis on the most recent three. The earlier visits are summarized in my initial review, linked below.
Cornbread: Served as a gratis appetizer before you even order, the cornbread is corny, airy and more savory than sweet, with a serious baking powder component. It sometimes comes across as a little dry (and sometimes is a little dry), but kudos for not trying to be the tired cakey style.
Hush puppies: Tried only once, the quintet of Dunkin Munchkin lookalikes ($2.99) had a golden brown exterior with bits of greenery breaking the monotone. Inside, the cornbread batter lacked both moisture and flavor (and by "lacked," I mean "none"). Vinegar dipping sauce took care of the former but not the latter.
Chili: There are two kinds of chili here. The beef chili ($6.99) has an unusually thin, brothy consistency, no beans (that’s good) and nearly a pound of of large, fork tender chunks of beef. Flavor is pleasing, but it's subtle and mild, with tableside Tabasco required to add the right touch of heat. The chili verde ($6.99) is pork, tomatillos, jalapenos and a bouquet of herbs that are light on heat but big on flavor. This is another unique chili that'll have you wanting more before you've returned home. The tandem of the two chilis is a much overlooked area of the Redbones menu, and it might be your best bet at lunchtime.
Buffalo shrimp: A starter plate of tiny shrimp ($6.99) were dowsed in the spicy, tangy Buffalo sauce that obliterated any crispness. I liked the picquant punch of the sauce but would guess that its sky high sourness quotient isn't for everyone.
Onion strings: Crisp and served within seconds of emerging from the fryer, these onions ($3.99) had a tasty batter and a good batter-to-onion ratio. A little salt was needed, but these were among the better ones I've had at barbecue restaurants.
Fried oysters: They're crisp on the outside, tender on the inside and just big enough to be able to tell. It's a small portion, especially for the price ($7.99), but a good way to do the appetizers, since it allows ordering a good variety without filling up.
Sausage: I've always liked that Redbones has a sausage of the day ($4.99). The May 2012 visit featured onion and jalapeno, which arrived as a plate of pre-cut 3/4" link segments. That made it easier to share but probably sapped the sausage of much of its moisture, which fortunately still had something left. The snap of the crisp skin, the crumbly inner texture, the visible pink smoke ring and smoky flavor were all plusses. Lower-than-expected onion and jalapeno flavor and lack of gleaming juiciness were drawbacks but hardly showstoppers. Overall, some decent sausage. The hot mustard dipping sauce was a capable complement but not a requirement.
Fried catfish fingers: These have been tasty but just a tad dry.
BBQ Hash: This combination of pulled brisket, pork, potatoes, onions and peppers ($4.99) can often be the perfect confluence of great flavor and great texture. The constitution (potato content, for instance), consistency (it can often be mushy) and freshness of this dish vary greatly from night to night, but the flavors are usually on target. If this is going to be shared, it's better as an appetizer than as a combo item.
Wings: Good size whole wings ($7.99) brought lightly charred crusts, moist interiors and much grill flavor. Cole slaw is a bonus. These are the typical backyard variety and an adequate example of that grilled style, but nothing exciting. If you're looking for a smoked wing, pass on these.
Fried okra: This dish ($4.99/$6.99) delivers crisp cornmeal batter and doesn't deliver much seasoning, but it succeeds in letting the natural vegetable flavor shine. The thick orange dipping sauce looks spicier than it actually is, so dip aggressively.
Beef ribs: Only two beef bones graced the "Rib Rib" combo ($19.99) on two recent visits, down maybe 50% from years past. Tenderness was on overdrive, even driving into mushyville. Surface crispness, smoke ring, actual smoke and all around flavor also found themselves down, but I'm not down with simply calling it a downward trend. There's some of that, I'm certain, but without more substantial evidence I feel more confident chalking it up to gross inconsistency that's part of the equation with the kind of volume Redbones does. Historically, the beef bones had been the most reliable item on the Redbones menu. On a few different occasions I've received bones with good meat content, crisp surfaces with rub bumpiness, bright smoke rings and bright flavors (moisture/juiciness varied). What characterizes the later examples—and the other meats as well—is a degradation in flavor and juiciness from what I'm guessing are long holding times.
Memphis pork ribs: Also tried most often on the "Rib Rib" combo (and on those same recent visits), the long, meaty unsauced spares bring good tenderness, light crusting, light smoke, mid-range overall flavor and varying color, moistness and freshness. Those two most recent tries yielded ribs of nominal moisture that seemed to be hanging around a bit before being served. The rub component was refreshingly strong on one of those visits and solid on the other, but the textural mediocrity ("old" is how my young bride described them) brought ribs that could have been excellent down to merely good.
One perfect rib: When you promise perfection, the bar is already quite high; charging $4.99 for a single rib (prices seem to have gone up dramatically across the board recently) raises the bar even higher. Just like Super Cuts, they rocked the cut, presenting a mammoth bone from the thick end in both 2009 and 2012 trials. In the recent one, they also applied the "Memphis cut" (popular in some competition circles) that provides two ribs' worth of meat in a single rib by cutting so close to the two adjacent bones that their meat gets included too. So in the physical sense, they were perfect. In the juiciness sense, they were moist but not juicy—steamy would be more like it. In the flavor sense, I sensed no rub and only moderate smoke, with no fruitwood component standing out (interestingly, the unheralded standard ribs on my previous visit's combo had significantly more rub, smoke and wood flavor). Tenderness was ideal for most, but for purists a little too fall-off-the-bone both times. If size is all you're looking for, this rib lives up to the billing. If smoke, rub, texture and juiciness are also important, then it's flawed. The value probably comes less from bites per dollar and more from not having to make a commitment to a larger order.
Pulled pork: A huge portion of pulled pork from a platter consisted of mostly large chunks that were a little dry despite the vinegary sauce (this saucing style appears to have changed).
Pulled pork sandwich: Served openface with onions, pickles and slaw, this sandwich ($7.99 solo or $9.99 with beans and potato salad) on two tries placed a very generous pile of lightly sauced pulled pork chunks on a soft, fresh bulkie roll. I liked that the meat had a high bark content and wasn't overchopped. I didn't like that the flavor leaned toward the bland side, with most of it coming from the coating of mild sauce used more as a binder/moistener than anything else. Or that it seemed like the pork had been sitting a while in the sauce. Taken as a whole, this sandwich still satisfied, but more as an exercise in meaty gluttony (think Sloppy Joe) than as barbecue.
Brisket sandwich: Served openface and unsauced with onion and pickle as garnish/ condiment, the brisket was thick cut and only borderline moist, with a beautiful smoke ring, a wall of crisp bark and a pleasant (but very restrained) flavor inside and out. Sauce may not have been a requirement here, but it helped for both moisture and flavor.
Jerk beef: This may or may not be brisket, but it's meaty, mildly smoky, tender as all get out (like stew beef) and flavorful from the spicy Jamaican style mustard sauce. It's more of a novelty item than a hardcore barbecue item, but it's very satisfying when you're seeking meat, sauce and heat in equal quantities.
BBQ beef: Basically the jerk beef, minus the jerk. It's a good choice if you a) like your brisket nearly as soft as beef stew and just as saucy, b) want a budget version of brisket by way of the "Any Two" or "Any Three" combo, or c) wan't something beefy but don't want to take your chances with the roulette wheel of flavor and freshness that come with the sliced brisket. It's straight out of the 1980s, but for what it is, it's pretty good.
Chicken: It's been a while since I've tried the Redbones chicken. I recall it being crisp, grilled rather than smoked and fairly moist inside.
The Redbones sauces have recently progressed beyond one-note affairs, but only slightly. The mild is a decent thick and tangy tomato. The hot a slightly hotter version of the mild. The vinegar might literally be just vinegar, possibly cut with sugar to make it not quite as tart. The sweet was once all molasses; now it's slightly thickened and tempered by what I think is a hint of tomato. These sauces aren't necessarily bad, just not a little monotonous. Mixing and matching are advised.
Sides are a mixed bag. The premium sides, such as the perfectly cooked hand cut fries, are outstanding, while the standard sides included with the platters have been disappointing. Cole slaw is sometimes vinegary, sometimes mayoey and not much else. Collard greens have been bland and have contained about two cups of liquid that slowly soaked its way into my ribs more than once. Mac and cheese is a creamy style with a mild treatment. I don't like that the beans are often black beans. I do like the refreshingly tangy potato salad.
If you see some stools available at the counter at the rear of the main dining room, grab them. You'll be treated to a free show as you watch the meat crew handle every order that leaves the kitchen. And just like with ringside seats, there's a chance you may get splattered along the way, but that's half the fun. You may also get treated to a complimentary appetizer.
It's been from this perch where I've gotten the greatest sense of Redbones simply by watching nearly a hundred orders being prepped and dispatched. Some of the plates looked so fantastic that I wished they were mine. Some plates made me glad they weren't mine. Most looked somewhere between good and just okay. So on the same night, quality varies significantly from plate to plate. Maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe you won't.
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 management and staff, through seemingly laid-back, are very customer oriented (you can substitute sides, get extra sauces, etc.). And the barbecue is real, which isn't always the case for a joint of this vintage.
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. And the meats may not have the same freshness, texture, moisture, smoke and all-around pop that they did a few years back.
The Bottom Line
Although I no longer think of Redbones as a serious contender for Boston's best BBQ (realistically, it's a couple rungs down), I do think of it as at least above average. For a diverse crowd that makes beer selection, non-BBQ options and vegetarian options all equally important components of the equation, Redbones is a one-size-fits-all solution that may or may not rock your barbecue world, but it's a guaranteed fun night out.
My 2006 review of Redbones
Yelp reviews of Redbones
Urbanspoon reviews of Redbones