Review Date: 08/14/17
Visit Dates: (04/27/17) (08/08/17)
Located just a block from Downtown Crossing and two blocks from Park Street station, this brother-and-sister joint by the owners of Viga Eatery slings Texas style barbecue in an over-the-counter, cafeteria style format. It's only open during lunchtime, and only on weekdays, so it's geared primarily toward downtown Boston workers who can walk in, grab something quickly from the line in back, and either take it to go or eat in the mid-sized dining area in front. There's a Southern Pride smoker in the kitchen.
Shed's isn't built for lingering, so there are no appetizers offered as such, but they do have chili, which you can serve yourself at the start of the line. Barbecue meats can be had solo, on sandwiches (the boneless ones, anyway) and on platters of up to three meats with two sides. The one caveat is that you can no longer get ribs as part of a 2- or 3-meat combo. 'Cue selections include St Louis cut pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, chopped brisket, sausage, turkey and pulled chicken. Hot and cold bowls allow you to get your barbecue meats served over quinoa, mac and cheese, and salad blends (kale and brussels sprouts, anyone?).
I twice visited for weekday lunches with a friend who works in the city.
Other than chili, there are no appetizers as such.
Brisket: Ordered on a 2-meat combo ($16 with two sides and
cornbread), and both times just before the noon rush, the brisket was
served in long slices with dark peppery bark. Fat percentage is low; you
don't see that rim of fat that needs to be discarded. I also didn't see
much moisture on either visit.
Interestingly, on the first visit a
manager saw the meat on my tray as it was being prepared and instructed
the cutter to use the next available brisket instead, even though the
first attempt came from a virgin brisket. Bingo, I thought.
Unfortunately, my serving wound up being very ordinary for tenderness
and only slightly moist from steam.
The elephant-skin-like second serving was drier—painfully so in some bites. Neither sample brought much smoke, but
while the first was very low in flavor, the second improved the rub
profile dramatically. The salt and pepper rub could be tasted all the
way in, making for slices at least serviceable with a little dab of
sauce (you have the option of having the counter staff ladle one of the
sauces over your meat in line or do it yourself at the table).
second visit I saw a fresher, moister example of brisket pass by in
someone else's sandwich, so there's hope. But if Shed's is only serving
one meal per day, and over a manageable four-hour window, and is
offering chopped brisket and chili which could theoretically utilize any
leftovers, there's no excuse for not serving moist brisket from first
customer until last.
Pulled Pork: Also tried twice on 2-meat combos, the pork was
twig-like and borderline dry (save for light steaminess) on the first visit, and required the
addition of sauce more for flavor than moisture. The highlight was decent
bark, but even the bark had very little flavor—smoke or otherwise.
Texture repeated on the second visit, perhaps coming in drier, but it
nicely avoided being either stiff or mushy. More importantly, flavor
improved; it was much like the brisket in that smoke levels were very
low, but overall flavor was okay. Sauce still helped.
Sausage: Full of snap and strongly seasoned, the sausage was the
lone flavor highlight of visit 1 and one of the lesser choices of visit
2. The maiden voyage didn't have juiciness, perhaps because they serve
the sausage sliced, but I wouldn't call it dry. The recent try saw
thinner slices that I would call dry. The combination of firm texture,
spiciness and inherent fattiness reminded me of salami.
Turkey: Tried only on the second visit, the turkey was thick
sliced breast with some slices moist, some slices not. All of it had a
very strong poultry flavor with some lightly sweet and briny accents and
a hint of smoke. This would work well on a sandwich with a generously
applied condiment. While it might not match up against the better
examples of smoked turkey I've had at barbecue joints, I'd take it over
most deli counter turkey.
Ribs: Tried once on a 2-meat combo and once on its own
platter ($15 for a third-rack with sides; no longer available as a
combo), the diminutive St Louis ribs were the only meat that saw both
textural and flavor improvement from visit 1 to visit 2. On the first
try they were an obvious reheat, with faded color and flavor, and came
off the bone a little too easily. The second try brought more vivid
color, a cleaner bite and more freshness (possibly from the smoker, but
more likely a better executed reheat, based on the high temperature and
crisp bark). And more intensity of flavor: the rub was more voluminous
and more potent. More importantly, every bite was at least moist, with
some legitimately juicy. Smoke was still low, but overall flavor was
still enjoyable. I left that second visit thinking ribs were the item
that would most warrant a revisit.
Five options are available in plastic bottles at a communal area, ready to be squeezed into small cups.
North Carolina Vinegar: Pretty standard vinegar and tomato treatment, with tartness leading the way, with sweet and spicy much further back.
South Carolina Mustard: A cross between deli mustard and a thick, mustardy salad dressing, with a little sweetness and a lot of black pepper.
Texas: Imagine a thicker, sweeter Tabasco sauce, with the same fruity-peppery flavor, a little more heat better cling.
Espresso: Similar to Texas, with more heat and more complexity thanks to coffee.
Memmaw's Molasses: Dark, thick and self-explanatory. The sweetest and most similar to the KC Masterpiece standard.
Cole Slaw: Two versions are available. The Creamy rendition uses crisp white cabbage and a thick condiment whose mayo component is offset by complementary spices and a little tang. The Vinegar slaw is equally crunchy, but uses purple cabbage and diced apples.
Collard Greens: These are crinkly and cooked down to strengthen the flavors, with bacon bits for reinforcement.
Mac and cheese: A baked version with spiral pasta and a thick, slightly sharp cheese sauce was dry on the first visit (though I saw a better serving pass by later) and near-creamy on the second.
Potato salad: A simple home style treatment features large chunks of potatoes and peppers, with not too much mayo and not too much spice.
Black-eyed pea salad: Closer to a salsa, with less vinegar and bite than most.
Baked Beans: Similar to canned in feel and saucing, but lighter of color, kicked up a bit spicewise and more savory than sweet.
Cornbread: Moist and cakey in feel but not as sweet as you'd think.
This is in the heart of downtown Boston, where the lines can get lengthy at the peak of the lunch rush. The line experience at Shed's, including second trips both times, was both smooth and enjoyable. The staff is eager, extremely efficient and extremely friendly, briskly pumping customers through while answering questions and exchanging pleasantries. If you see a long line here, don't get discouraged—you'll get through it a lot quicker than at most places.
Meat portions aren't skimpy, but they're not plate-tipping; they're probably just right for lunch. Pricing might be a bit on the high side for what you get, but you're getting a full barbecue meal with variety and sides for under $20, or a sandwich and a side for a little over $10, which hardly qualifies as gouging.
Parking in the area is nearly impossible. There are meters that are affordable but too far away and with too short a maximum time to guarantee you'll make it back before expiration. And there are garages that'll cost you more than your lunch—possibly even more than a lunch for two.
They're calling it Texas style barbecue, but Texas style barbecue encompasses more than just loading the meats with a salt & pepper rub and serving them unsauced (actually, they're ready with ladle in hand to do just the opposite unless you opt out). Texas barbecue is also about cooking it early, serving fresh product for lunch, selling it until it runs out, and opening the next day with fresh product again and not leftovers. If they're serving reheats, Shed's is hardly alone in that regard. But if you're only serving five meals a week, and have the luxury of a four-hour window for the meats to be at their best, the bar has to be set higher, and Shed's isn't clearing it.
Now that's not to say that they're not nailing the hospitality component and killing it on the line efficiency. For an office worker who wants to get a quick barbecue meal with a good variety of meats, sides and sauces, get back to work on time, and not feel bloated and in need of a nap afterward, Shed's is just what the doctor ordered. Well, maybe my doctor.
The question is whether they're stuck in the proverbial middle: there are barbecue restaurants at which you could get higher quality, albeit at a higher price, nearby neighborhood legends (Sam LaGrassa's comes to mind) with better value, and numerous fast food options that are cheaper. Whether Shed's can compete against those ends of the spectrum is yet to be seen.
The Bottom Line
While there's still a lot to like at Shed's, if I had to slot them in the above-average or below-average category, I'd go with the latter. Would I recommend it? To someone based in the immediate area, sure; speed and friendliness count for a lot in my book, and the second visit's ribs showed promise. But unless you're a gotta-try-them-all type, this level of 'cue isn't worth an investment in transportation or parking.
Yelp reviews of Shed's
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