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Just footsteps away from Commonwealth Avenue and a convenient T stop is SoulFire BBQ, a joint whose first customer ever was yours truly. Owner Wyeth Lynch chose the name because it combines his two passions: soul music and barbecue. Posters, photos and a wall mural pay tribute to some of the genre's iconic singers. The playlist leans mostly on familiar and unfamiliar tracks from the 1970s. The bar to the left has classic album covers displayed under the counter and a small but solid selection of craft brews and wines behind it. Behind the kitchen doors, the smoker is a Southern Pride.
The once over-the-counter operation now offers full table service from a friendly staff. You might have to assert yourself to catch their attention, but once you do, they're eager to please.
The large, dimily lit dining room has more of a nightclub vibe than that of a restaurant, but fear not: older couples and families with children should still feel somewhat at home.
Now nine years old, SoulFire has a very "lived in" (read: "neglected") look, from the faded awning out front to the missing footrests on the barstools to the gashes in the men's room walls.
One of SoulFire's claims to fame in the early days was its revolutionary barbecue sauce station that had soda fountain pumps to dispense heated sauces. It was a nice touch that was out of order for about a year and removed entirely more recently. I hope it comes back.
In 2012 SoulFire opened up a smaller second location in Mission Hill. This review is for the original Allston location.
SoulFire's compact menu lists two kinds of pork ribs (spares and babybacks), pulled pork, beef brisket and both pulled and barbecued chicken. The appetizers look appealing: smoked chicken wings, Southern fried wings, chili, hot links, Southern fried mac 'n' cheese, "Spaghetti Western" (mac and cheese mixed with chili) and corn dogs. 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 $12.95.
Besides having one of the best rosters of menu selections, SoulFire for a long time had one of the best written menus: explanations of each item, how it was cooked, what the sauces were, and so on. The current menu looks as generic as can be, with all of the descriptions, contact information and even the name of the place all stripped away.
Not listed on the menu is meat by the pound, but it's always an option if you ask. Not all of the servers know about it, but there'll always be someone on duty who can make it happen. Pulled pork, pulled chicken, sliced or chopped brisket and turkey are all available for around $5 per quarter pound. It's a good way to get variety without committing to a combo.
I visited on day #1 and have returned many times, upping my frequency as SoulFire progressed from one of Boston's brightest new barbecue spots in 2006 to flat out destination barbecue that's among the best in the region in 2009. This review mostly focuses on visits from 2009 to the present.
Hot Links: Available as an appetizer ($6 for two links), entree or an item on a combo, the sausage at SoulFire has changed in recent years. Once a sturdier, smokier interpretation of breakfast sausages, they're now shorter, plumper juice bombs "imported" from Meyers Elgin Smokehouse (Elgin TX), one of the iconic sausage producers in a state where sausage is a much more integral part of barbecue. The casings get a crackle from a quick deep fry; inside, the flavor is bold and the juices run rampant. The appetizer presentation includes a spicy yellow mustard not available as one of the regular sauces. Its flavor and texture reliability make this one of the city's better sausage offerings.
Smoked Wings: Here's an item ($7 for six) that's practically a microcosm of SoulFire's recent inconsistency. On some nights, they're big, crisp, tender, juicy and alive with flavor, easily earning their spot on the PigTrip WIngs List (and the only barbecue joint to make it every time). On other nights, they're lacking size, crispness, freshness, moistness and overall oomph. The worst example was on the night when SoulFire hit rock bottom: little, limp and lackluster. The best examples are on the Monday all-you-can-eat wings nights ($12.95) when everything's fresh, focused and frequently turning over. On the most recent tries off the regular menu, there have been more hits than misses. The sauces are never in question.
Southern Wings: Still very good, and the best way ($7 for six) to sample SoulFire's mastery of the fried chicken arts. I don't have a fried chicken list, but if I did, SoulFire's Southern fried wings would rank even higher. They 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 piping hot juices from inside the wings run freely.
Chili: This ($5 and $7) is a competently prepared pork/beef blend that has the advantage of being lighter on the beans than on the barbecue meat, but the disadvantage of being lighter on the meat than on the thick (sometimes 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. It's gotten more spicy over the years, but the heat's dropped off in the last few tries in favor of a sweeter approach.
Corn dog: A kicked-up carnival item ($2), 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. Disclaimer: I haven't had one in a while.
Fried Mac and Cheese Bites: This once cutting edge item ($3 and $5) might have gained SoulFire more notoriety than the barbecue in its earliest days. The bites are crisp on the outside, sometimes creamy on the inside (and sometimes dry) and another vessel for sampling the SoulFire sauce arsenal.
SoulFire serves most orders on a pan with a paper liner, adorned with piuckle slices. The meats come without sauce, and that's a good thing, because they have enough flavor without it and there are several worthy sauce choices.
Spareribs: For the better part of the last eight years, SoulFire's strength has been the jumbo spares that sometimes reach one foot in length and have usually been fresh, juicy and filled with just the right amount of clean and fragrant smoke.
When asked last year by the Boston Globe to choose the best restaurants to get key barbecue dishes, I chose SoulFire for ribs. But where a year earlier it would have been a no-brainer with no research even required, at this point SoulFire merely edged out the competition. (Right now as I write this, Blackstrap, Rosebud and Firefly's would be SoulFire's three biggest rivals for rib honors inside Route 495; the winner would come down to the luck of timing more than anything else.)
There's been some tinkering in recent years, with more of a savory feel in the rub where sweet had been the leader among a well balanced attack. But the explanation for the spares slippage (if slipping from great to good constitutes slippage) has more to do with freshness than anything else. The moistness is rarely in question, but the once-reliable juiciness is only a sometimes-thing now. The bold, piercing flavors that deftly united smoke, rub and pork are a little faded now, much like the awning out front. The echoes are still there, so I'm guessing the product has been held longer lately than in their 2008-2010 heyday. Sometimes they just feel a little worn.
Gloom and doom? No, SoulFire's ribs are still among the best in and around the city and still capable of a great batch on any given night. They're just a little less reliable now.
Am I alone? No. I even received a few unsolicited emails (about six months ago) from readers bemoaning a decline and asking if I'd noticed the same.
Is there any good news? Yes: they seem to be turning it around. While they're not fully out of the woods (meaning a return to the 2008-2010 era when they were killing it every time), the depths of late 2014 and early 2015 seem to be behind them.
Is the rest of this review going to be asking and answering my own questions? God, I hope not.
Babyback Ribs: Go to a hundred barbecue restaurants that carry both spares and babybacks, and at 99 of them, the spares are better. It only makes sense, given the extra fat content that makes them richer and more forgiving—both cookingwise and holdingwise. SoulFire is that one joint where the babybacks are better, at least in the last year or so. While the babybacks have always been good here—the cut is fuller than most, the smoke penetration is deeper than most and the moistness is more reliable than most—they've been at an exceptionally high level and high consistency lately, making the spares' decline a little easier to swallow.
Pulled Pork: While most of the meats here have followed a similar trend over the years of peaking, declining, then making a resurgence to about halfway back to peak level, the pulled pork remains a wildcard, and it's one of those items where you never know what you'll get from one visit to the next. Sometimes there's no bark and it's as finely chopped as chunk light tuna. Sometimes there's long, thick strands with good color and enough bark for three times the volume. Sometimes it's incredibly smoky and porky. Sometimes it's faded and bland. Sometimes it's sweet, via the addition of barbecue sauce. Sometimes it's not. The one near-constant is the moistness. On average, the pulled pork here is above average; on its best days, it's very good. A recent pulled pork sandwich ($8 with a side) supplied very little meat (failed to cover the bottom of the bulkie) and very little moisture. Recent pork on combos has had better moisture.
Brisket: In the earliest days, the brisket—always from the flat—was thin-cut, occasionally juicy, somewhat smoky and more bacony. A few years ago, that evolved into a softer, thicker slice with more black pepper on the outside (a Texas influence) but more of a pot roasty feel below the surface. The thin-cut, bacony style is what they're doing again, with decent moistness that sometimes drifts into juiciness and sometimes slips to dry with a short-lasting steamy shroud. Bark varies greatly, as does smoke, but the last two or three tries have been very uplifting with smokiness, moisture and impactful rub spice all in the same bite.
Turkey: Added a few years ago, smoked turkey is a healthy option that's typically snow white and occasionally closer to tan. It typically carries the bare minimum for moisture and smoke levels, but one recent outlier was brimming with both.
Smoked Chicken: Tried only a few times in recent years, usually on a 3-meat platter ($20), the chicken has been lightly smoky, more than reasonably moist, less than reasonably colored and crisp, and pleasant enough in flavor without making a case for regular ordering.
Fried Chicken: The fried chicken platter ($13) 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 crunchy batter itself is light on the seasoning, but a little sprinkle of dry rub from SoulFire's condiment station adds instant zest.
The array of sauces 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 often 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.
Collard Greens: Large leaf greens are cooked past the point of wilting and dressed in a dark vinegar sauce. Once packed with bacon, these are less meaty now. Once incredibly sweet, they now have a sweet and tart balance that I really enjoy.
Baked Beans: Sweet baked beans have a very slight al dente texture, a thinner version a dark molassesy sauce, hints of smoke and bits of bacon.
Cole Slaw: Crisp, lightly spicy and backed with a little creaminess.
Potato Salad: Fresh homestyle potato salad with egg is restrained on the condiment and shines thanks to the simplicity.
Mac and Cheese: This is the loose, creamy, mild variety that picks things up with a topping of crushed potato chips. I prefer this to the fried mac and cheese.
Rice and Beans: One of the better versions of this dish. Usually moist and a natural for vegetarians in tow.
Cornbread: A generous, soft, moist and cakey rendition, with some kernels thrown in. A good example of the cakey style done well.
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.
Comparisons with nearby Sweet Cheeks are inevitable. For those who gravitate only or primarily to ribs when thinking barbecue, SoulFire is a better choice than Sweet Cheeks. For those who gravitate only or primarily to brisket when thinking barbecue, Sweet Cheeks is a better choice than SoulFire. Wings and fried chicken? SoulFire. Pork belly and pulled pork? Sweet Cheeks. Sausage? SoulFire. Biscuits and sides? Sweet Cheeks. It really depends on what you're after, but more than that, it depends on who's having the better night.
I've been intentionally brief in many of the descriptions and intentionally open ended in my conclusions because SoulFire is in a state of flux right now. Hopefully, I got four things across: a) they used to be really good, b) they've slipped noticeably, c) they're still pretty good and among Boston's best, and d) they appear to be back on the upswing, but time will tell.
I'm hoping to update this review in the near future with more detail and tales of progress.
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 did that and then some. After a bit of coasting and a downturn, SoulFire seems to be turning it back around lately. To quantify on a ten-point scale, they've gone from a 9 (with visits ranging from 8 to 10) in their 2008-2010 heyday, down to a 6.5 (with visits ranging from 4.5 to 8.5) by late 2014 into early 2015, back up to a 7.5 (with visits ranging from 6 to 9) very recently. I'm hopeful for a complete return, because when they're on their game, SoulFire is really something special. They certainly have the talent to make it happen.
My 2009 Review of SoulFire
Yelp reviews of SoulFire
Zomato reviews of SoulFire