(11/22/13) (12/05/12) (12/12/12) (01/19/14) (01/23/14) (02/04/14) (02/06/14)
Slowbones, located in a small strip mall behind the larger Burlington Mall, looks a lot like a Boston Market. But that's no surprise considering that it's the creation of Boston Market founder Kip Kolow. Many of the elements and much of the vibe are there: over-the-counter ordering, numerous homestyle sides, attempts at higher quality ingredients, seemingly healthy options and a handsome interior that shows good taste and some money behind it. Oh, and one thing Boston Market doesn't have: a Southern Pride smoker clearly visible behind the counter. Now, mind you, I have never seen food in it, enter it, leave it or seen it smoking, but nice to know it's at least there.
The seating is limited and the space can get cold fast in winter when the door opens, so keep that in mind when choosing your arrival time and seat. The warmest spots are the last curved-back table on the left and the two tables with wood-back seats facing the counter and door.
You order meats and sides at the back left end of the counter, order drinks and pay at the front right end of the counter, fetch your own plastic cutlery further to the right and pick up your order at the counter when it's ready.
For a tiny over-the-counter operation aimed at the suburban shopper, the menu is fairly extensive (and fairly expensive). The smoked barbecue selections include pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket (sliced or smoked-then-braised), and smoked chicken. These can be had on platters by themselves, as add-ons for around $5, as sandwiches (pork, brisket) or on the one combo platter called the Sampler (ribs, chicken, brisket). Wings are offered in quantities of 3, 6 and 12. A "soup or chili of the day" is rumored to occasionally (eventually) include brisket chili.
Beyond barbecue, there's a shrimp burger, a grilled chicken sandwich and three different salads.
I visited three times with guests, four times solo, with one Sunday lunch and the rest all on weeknights.
In this review I'm not including food photos or descriptions from the first visit, which was already documented in my opening night "first impressions" review.
Wings: The flexible order sizing (3 for $4.95, 6 for $7.50, 12 for $12.50) makes the wings an easy pre-meal snack or in-meal add-on. They're smoked, then grilled with choice of sauce, with the end result more grilly than smoky, but the smoked chicken flavor does come through. Texture is the big wild card: skins aren't always crisp, inner meat isn't always tender. As I often say, there are reheats you don't even notice, reheats you notice but are done well and reheats that are painfully obvious. Unfortunately, I'd place the wings here in that last category. The sauces work well, aren't overdone and the skins do often have a thick crust with high octane, basted-in, rubbed-on, smoke-kissed flavor, so the potential for solid wings is there. But texture is problematic.
Cornbread: I tried this as a hold-me-over while waiting for someone to meet me. SlowBones cornbread is a very soft, very loose, very corny and very wet rendition that's more of a corn souffle than cornbread. It's a polarizing recipe for sure that may scare some off (me) but have others running back for more. It's definitely worth a try; there's a 50% chance you'll love it.
Soup or Chili of the Day: I've been very eager to try the chili here, but there's just one soup or chili available at any given time and it hasn't been chili yet on any of my visits. They offered me a taste of their corn chowder and I passed, saying, "I've already tried your corn chowder. You guys call it cornbread." I'm just kidding, folks. (I really did say that, but they took it with a laugh, so no cranky comments, please.)
Until recently all of the barbecue platters were served in thick recycled cardboard clamshells, whether to-go or eat-in, and extra items got placed in extra clamshells. Now they use paper plates for eat-in orders.
Ribs: I've had these on almost every order, whether on the Sampler ($15.95) or as a 2-rib add-on ($4.95). Short St Louis cut spares are smoked, then grilled with sauce to finish them off for service. The house sauce is used by default, but you can choose an alternate if desired. The end result is more of a basted-in glaze than a smothering, which allows you to taste the meat. The first taste on the first visit landed the thickest rib cut and the most generous rib quantity (that have not been duplicated), and it also landed some deep rib flavor (that has been duplicated).
Though not overtly smoky, you can really tell that these ribs are smoked. And though not super bumpy on the surface, the rub used on these ribs is very evident all the way down to the bone. Wrap it all up with a full-bodied sauce with just the right amount of sweetness, spice and quantity, and you've got some very tasty ribs. I'd even say that they've been extremely consistent in the flavor department. And more than any other meat, the ribs can be counted on for glorious color.
It's texture where the rubber (sometimes nearly literally) hits the road. Sometimes (like on the second visit) the crust is light but the doneness is perfect. Sometimes (like on the third visit) the crust is perfect but they're steamy and overdone, with the meat pulling too easily off the bone in one giant, soggy meat canoe with a groove down the middle. Sometimes (like visits 4 and 5) everything seems to come together, and sometimes (like visit 6) they feel and taste like stale leftovers.
The good news is that they're on the upswing and flavor has never been an issue. Maybe I'm connecting dots that aren't there, but you heard it here first: with just the slightest tweaking of holding and reheating techniques SlowBones ribs could be some of the best in New England.
Pulled Pork Sandwich: Since the Sampler combo doesn't include pulled pork, the occasional sandwich ($6.95 with chips) is the best way to get it. I twice opted for the pulled pork on a brioche bun (naan and lettuce wraps are the alternatives). On my first try I loved the housing (light, fresh, soft, airy, ever so faintly sweet) but could barely make out the pork, much less taste it. Smoke was light, bark was scarce, consistency was steamy, color was mostly brown and taste was mostly muffled by cole slaw and bun even with generous meat quantity.
After skipping it for a few visits, I recently re-examined the pulled pork and saw some encouraging progress. Color was no better, but the texture was uplifted by much more bark and some firmer chunks in among the softer strands. The saucing—with a cinnamon or allspice component different from the standard sauce selections—added moisture without drowning the meat. Flavor had a little more impact, both from the sauce and the pork itself. This time the meat didn't get lost. It's not quite ready for the pantheon, but it's a different take on a pulled pork sandwich that's at least respectable—assuming, of course, that the second one is representative of sandwiches ahead. The chips, by the way, are fantastic, so a sandwich with one add-on and maybe an extra side is a very viable ordering strategy.
Brisket: Here it's available both smoked-sliced and smoked-chopped-braised, and
both options are available on platters and sandwiches. Like the pulled
pork, both brisket varieties are served straight out of the steam table with no
grill time. I've tried both brisket varieties as items on the Sampler and as sandwiches ($7.95 with chips) on brioche and on grilled naan (pillowy, a little denser and less pliable than the few Indian versions I've tried).
The sliced has been thick, steamy and near falling apart. Crust isn't there. Smoke is a little more noticeable but still very light. Rub can't be seen or felt but has worked its way into the meat to supply some pleasant flavor, if usually muted. But it has come at the expense of texture: sometimes pot roasty, sometimes waterlogged, sometimes dry. None of the permutations has come close to looking like the brisket photo shown overhead in the menu display slide show.
The braised version of the brisket has been much more reliable. It's sauced but it's a thin sauce similar to a beef stew if it had just enough barbecue sauce to perk it up. The meat is supremely tender in this format without being overcooked or over-held, and still has some integrity, bark and color. While I expected the braised to be repurposed leftovers, it's looked, felt and tasted fresher than the sliced. It's similar to the barbacoa beef available at Chipotle, but very tasty and arguably superior.
Chicken: The creator of SlowBones previously created Boston Market, so it's no surprise that chicken is one of the stronger items here. There are many similarities to the ribs. They're smoked first, then finished up on the grill with sauce. There's a
similar down-to-the-bone flavor penetration that comes not just
from rub but marinade as well, and yes, smoke is part of the equation. The surfaces have ranged from
respectable to spectacular, with the rub more evident than on any other
meat. This reached a pinnacle with the half chicken platter ($9.95 with two sides),
where the maroon topping was closer to sticky lacquer than sauce. And
just like with the wings and ribs, texture has sometimes been a
downfall: skins aren't always crisp, interiors aren't always as tender
as they could be and reheats don't always approximate a fresh product.
I'd love to try some SlowBones chicken (or any meat, for that matter)
right out of the smoker, because an improvement in texture combined with
the beyond-reproach flavor would pay big dividends.
Cole Slaw: Tried a few different times, this has been an up and down item. Though always crunchy, its flavor level has varied from screaming loud to softer than a whisper. On at least two occasions it felt like it had just been made within the hour, so the vegetables had a little too much crunch and the flavors hadn't had a chance to set.
Smoky Beans: Large legumes cooked all the firmness out, with a very mellow flavor helped only a little by smoke but also a little by meat inclusion. This is an adult version without the usual molasses approach.
Healthy Black Beans: Pretty basic, letting the bean itself doing the talking, with just a little background chatter from tiny slivers of peppers.
Mac and Cheese: Another very adult version here, made with four different cheeses and topped with panko crumbs. The crumbage (usually much) and creaminess (usually high) have varied but the sharpness of the cheese and overall good flavor have been constants. If you're a mac and cheese fan, this is a must.
Grilled Vegetables: Mostly squash, mushrooms and winter vegetables (this may change come summer) with very noticeable grill flavor. The three times I've had them they've been very soft with a sitting-around-a-while feel.
Quinoa: Imagine Sugar Smacks cereal in hot grain form and this is it.
Potato Chips: Served automatically with sandwiches but also available as a side, the housemade chips are light, slightly thicker than storebought, crisp with just a little give and loaded with salt and seasonings often found in a barbecue rub. They're among the best chips I've ever eaten, and I kid that they'd make many more millions ditching the barbecue and going into the potato chip business instead. Whether eaten plain or dipped into their horseradish barbecue sauce, they're addictive.
Cornbread: See above. Not my style but I bet some people will love it, so take a look in the case and give it a try. Unlike at most joints, cornbread is not included automatically on the platter—you've got to allocate one of your two sides to it or add it on extra.
So many to choose from, with a good mix of sweet, spicy, tangy and creamy. The House, Spicy, Smoky and Asian all seemingly use the same thick base which looks like a generic storebought bottled sauce but has a lot more character. Sometimes they've felt a little watered down but lately the full strength has come through. There's a nice contrast of sweet and heat (not crazy, just a little bite) and refreshing complexity that I like. Any of these four would make a perfect complement to the ribs. Carolina is thinner, vinegar and mustard sauce with more focus on the latter. Horseradish BBQ combines the kick of the root, a sweet base and some spreadable creaminess that makes it a unique foil for brisket and a better dip for the potato chips. Horseradish Cream is creamier but denser, making it less spreadable but more grabbable as a dip. Chipotle Ranch is pretty much what you'd expect, but solid.
One of the prime draws to SlowBones is the location. The most obvious part of that is that it's so close to the Burlington Mall. Less obvious until you go is that within the same strip mall as SlowBones are Chipotle, B. Good, Starbucks, Clover and some generic frozen yogurt shop du jour, so if you're going with a group with different tastes, there's a draw for everyone.
On most of the visits (even before Christmas) the place was not all that crowded. I would expect an increase in traffic to lead to an increase in food turnover, which could lead to an increase in quality.
The staff is a friendly bunch, always ready to answer questions and offer samples if you're not sure about something. That's one of the reasons I've returned as many times as I have. (The others are convenience and curiosity regarding their turning the proverbial corner.)
Prices add up very quickly if going strictly or mostly a la carte. The platters present better value. Portions are diminutive.
The Bottom Line
If you're looking at SlowBones as a hard core barbecue joint, you may be in for a letdown, as it's more of a fast food interpretation with better-than-fast-food ingredients. I say the flavors are better than at least half of the hard core (or wannabe hard core) barbecue joints in the area. If they can figure out how to remedy the erratic textures so that things seem a little fresher, SlowBones could be a winner—if taken for what it's trying to be and nothing more.
Yelp reviews of SlowBones
Urbanspoon reviews of Slowbones
||'Like' PigTrip BBQ Reviews on Facebook to keep up with all of the reviews and much more content not available on the site.