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Having done some scouting (some might call it stalking), I learned that June 26, 2006 would be opening night at the Boston area's newest BBQ joint. As luck would have it (some might call it stalking), I was their first customer ever. You can hardly call SoulFire a joint, though, because it looks pretty classy, with high ceilings, dim lighting, red walls and black and white photographs of iconic soul musicians. The awning outside has an eye-catching, ready-for-T-shirt logo. A 12-seat bar offers a small but solid selection of craft brews and wines. The once over-the-counter operation now offers full table service from a friendly, eager-to-please staff.
SoulFire's chalkboard menu lists two kinds of pork ribs (spares and babybacks), pulled pork, beef brisket and both pulled and barbecued chicken. The appetizers look appealing: spicy honey chicken wings, chili, hot links, Southern fried mac 'n' cheese, "Spaghetti Western" (mac and cheese mixed with chili) and combinations of ribs and wings. A "Lone Bone" single rib option is great as an add-on. Pulled meats are available on sandwiches and on single, 2- and 3-meat platters. SoulFire also offers fried chicken, fried catfish and a few different salads. On Monday nights, SoulFire offers an unbeatable all-you-can-eat wings deal for $6.99 that includes barbecue wings, Buffalo wings and a rotating guest wing.
I visited on day #1 and have returned many times, upping my frequency as SoulFire has steadily progressed from one of Boston's brightest new barbecue spots to flat out destination barbecue that's among the best in the region.
SoulFire's hot links remind me of breakfast sausages in the basic flavor profile, only plumper, smokier, spicier and juicier. If that breakfasty component is not up your alley, pass on these, but I rather like the sweet/heat tandem, especially with a little South Carolina mustard sauce available on request.
Spicy honey wings are smoked, flash fried and lightly coated in an appealing sauce that also skillfully blends heat and sweet. The smoke is subtle but noticeable and they're always satisfyingly crisp. SoulFire's wings ranked #5 in my January 2009 Favorite Wings list.
I don't have a fried chicken list, but if I did, SoulFire's Southern fried wings would rank even higher. These have a thick but light batter that's always crunchy, with an addictable "inside out" briny flavor that emanates all the way from the bone. The batter is never greasy, but be warned that the juices from inside the wings run freely.
Chili is a competently prepared pork/beef blend that has the advantage of being lighter on the beans than on the meat, but the disadvantage of being lighter on the meat than on the thick, beer-infused broth. I like the faint smokiness of the brisket and the heat that starts off slow and gradually accelerates as you move through the bowl. But after a few tries, the chili here might be the only thing on the menu that doesn't get my juices flowing.
Corn dogs are a kicked-up carnival item, served on a stick. The beer batter here is much, much lighter than on the fried chicken, with an almost cotton candy consistency and a subtle sweetness. I like these plain or dipped in one of the many available condiments.
Deep fried macaroni and cheese balls might have gained SoulFire more notoriety than the barbecue in its earliest days. These are crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside and another great vehicle for the SoulFire sauce arsenal.
On day #1 in 2006, SoulFire served me some spare ribs that were quite ambitious in their rub content. At their best—which they were that night and most nights thereafter—a heavily rubbed rib can be fantastic, but over the long haul, such a rib is vulnerable to the holding and reheating processes that leave little room for error. So in those early days a stellar rib on one visit would be followed by a less than stellar rib on another visit. After a few tweaks to the preparation, the ribs at SoulFire have not only been stellar just about every time, but for my money are the best in Boston. Although rubbed with a lighter hand than in the early days, the ribs still pack plenty of flavor and a generous level of smoke. A light glaze at the end of the smoking process adds another layer of flavor and a nice crust for a textural contrast to the extreme juiciness that lies beneath.
Preferring the spare ribs, I order the babybacks infrequently, but the few times I've tried them they've been very good. The smaller size accepts the smoke much more readily.
SoulFire's pulled pork is served on a slice of white bread, just like they do in the South (as a sandwich it's served inside a bulkie roll). It offers an assortment of pulled strips from different parts of the shoulder, with a good amount of bark. Most of the meat tends to be pink and supremely tender, with a gentle, buttery texture that goes well with its porky flavor. The saucing—a Carolina variety with cider vinegar and spices—is also gentle, allowing the meat to take the forefront.
Brisket here has a crisped exterior that reminds me of bacon, with a similar smokiness and pleasing beef flavor that permeates the inner meat. It's served unadorned, allowing user discretion on the saucing front. Served in a sandwich, the brisket forms two 1/2" layers inside a powdery bulkie roll.
The fried chicken platter is an item that takes a good 20 minutes to prepare, but it's worth the wait. It includes light and dark meat and is as good as if not better than any soul food joint within 50 miles of Boston. Like the appetizer wings, the fried breast and thigh pieces have even more of that addictive "inside-out" flavor from the top-secret brine. The batter itself is light on the seasoning, but a little sprinkle of dry rub from SoulFire's condiment station adds instant zest.
Smoked chickens tend to vary in size, but the skin is reliably taut and crisp, the flavor is always pleasant and the meat is usually juicy. Like the fried chicken, its subtle exterior is upstaged by the more intensely flavored brine that empowers the inner meat.
SoulFire serves most orders on a pan lined with wax paper. Unless otherwise specified, the meats come without sauce, and that's a good thing, because they have enough flavor without it.
The array of sauces—three of which are available in heated form that you can pump like a soda jerk—is impressive. The brick colored SoulFire sauce is a nice compromise between sweet, tangy and spicy, with a good overall balance. The dark brown Sweet sauce is even sweeter, but less balanced, allowing the molasses flavor to dominate. Pit Boss is a compromise between these two and billed as "competition worthy." My favorite is the Fiery sauce that has a mustard base but enough other flavors and hot pepper oomph to please even those who normally stay clear of mustard sauces. A North Carolina sauce uses cider vinegar, pepper and spices to complement the pork without obliterating it. South Carolina is a milder (but still spicy) mustard sauce that's now available by request only. The condiment station near the former pick up window (self service has been replaced by full service) also includes simple syrup, Frank's hot sauce, habanero devil relish and a shaker of SoulFire's dry rub. Owner Wyeth Lynch loves heat and loves to experiment, so there's sometimes an additional condiment or two for sampling. But overall, the meats at SoulFire are moist enough and tasty enough on their own that sauce is merely an enhancement, not a requirement.
Large leaf collard greens are cooked past the point of wilting and dressed in a dark vinegar sauce. Once packed with bacon, these are nearly devoid of meat now, but still tasty as long as you don't mind their intense sweetness. Nearly-as-sweet baked beans have a thick, dark sauce, a molasses kick, a hint of smoke and bits of bacon. Cole slaw is crisp, lightly spicy and backed with a little creaminess. Fresh homestyle potato salad is lighter on the condiment and shines thanks to the simplicity. Macaroni and cheese is the loose, creamy variety that picks things up with a topping of crushed potato chips. Cornbread is generous, soft, moist and slightly cakey, with some kernels thrown in. Overall, I'm not as fond of the sides as I am of SoulFire's appetizers, meats and sauces, but they're all pretty good to very good.
SoulFire is just steps from the MBTA's Harvard Avenue stop. Parking can be tough, but I've often found a free spot along Harvard Avenue. Plentiful metered parking is available around the corner on Commonwealth Avenue.
The bottom line: In my initial review, I saw the potential for SoulFire to join the ranks of the better Boston BBQ destinations. Within two years, they've done that and then some. My go-to joint in Boston for ribs and fried chicken is consistently good and often great.
Food Monkey's Review of SoulFire
Yelp reviews of SoulFire
Urban Spoon reviews of SoulFire