Review Date: 10/21/15
Visit Dates (this review):
(12/15/12) (12/23/12) (02/11/13) (05/19/13) (08/30/13) (10/07/13) (01/30/14) (07/17/14) (07/24/14) (07/26/14) (09/10/14) (10/15/14) (12/14/14) (12/20/14) (02/13/15) (04/08/15) (04/11/15) (04/16/15) (05/16/15) (05/31/15) (09/17/15) (10/01/15)
Visit Dates (previous reviews):
(11/10/11) (11/15/11) (11/20/11) (12/01/11) (12/29/11) (01/29/12) (03/18/12) (05/12/12) (05/19/12) (07/08/12) (07/21/12) (08/05/12) (08/26/12) (09/17/12) (10/01/12) (10/24/12) (11/03/12) (11/10/12)
No Boston barbecue joint has ever been more anticipated than Sweet Cheeks in Fenway. Combine the news power of the super restaurant blogs (no, not PigTrip; I'm talking Eater and Grub Street) with the star power of chef/owner Tiffani Faison (immensely popular at Rocca and a repeat finalist on Top Chef) and the PR juggernaut that landed several big time previews (Boston Globe, Urban Daddy and Thrillist) and you've got the perfect recipe for over-the-top interest. Things got so hectic on the first Saturday that lines went around the block.
The physical space is an urban, upscale twist on the classic barbecue joint, with wood paneling everywhere, modern lighting and well worn table surfaces (some repurposed from bowling alleys and church doors). Bookending the room are large antique scales that might have weighed barbecue meats decades ago in Texas. Many of the tables are communal, fitting up to ten diners, not necessarily all from the same party. A few groups of stools for counter dining hug the perimeter; more stools line the midsized bar. Televisions are there if you need them but are tastefully understated. The music is modern, upbeat and as loud as it gets while still allowing conversation. In warmer months, picnic tables grace the sidewalk in front. To the left, a fenced-in patio deck with its own minibar allows outdoor dining and drinking.
The kitchen is open, presenting as much of a visual as the televisions. Every now and then you'll whiff the blast of wood smoke when the doors of the J&R smoker swing open.
Its location in the Fenway area (walkable to Fenway Park) makes Sweet Cheeks a natural for Red Sox game nights.
The Sweet Cheeks menu is small by star chef standards but deep by barbecue standards: three fried shareables, ten barbecue meats (up from eight at opening), six hot sides, four cold sides, a few salads, biscuits and four desserts.
Berkshire pork ribs are available as a "onesie" single rib ($3.50), a la carte racks ($31), a la carte half racks ($18), on a tray ($24) or in multiple meat combo trays. All trays come with two slices of white bread (automatic at first, now only by request), one hot side, one cold side, a pile of thin sliced onions and a pile of homemade pickles. The 2-meat Big Cheeks tray ($24) and the 3-meat Fat Cheeks tray ($26) include any combination of ribs, pulled chicken, pulled pork, pork belly, sliced brisket, chopped brisket and sausage. All except sausage ($4 per link) are also available on their own tray. Available only on their own tray are smoked half chicken ($20), buttermilk fried chicken ($22) and a beef short rib ($35). Turkey legs are no longer offered.
Fried items serving as either apps or sides are fried okra, fried green tomatoes and salted potatoes, all $7. Cheese sauce and jalapeño ranch may be purchased as add-ons.
Vegetarians need not fret: the fried items, biscuits, most sides, three different salads and some seasonal items provide meat-free options aplenty.
I hit Sweet Cheeks early (second night of soft opening) and as often as the quality and my wallet allowed in their first month, aiming for early and late weeknights along with weekend lunches. Chef Faison was present on all of those visits, admirably choosing the trenches of the kitchen over merely hobnobbing with guests. Appearances were less frequent after that and downright rare recently (two sightings out of the last two dozen visits), but mine continued, albeit more spaced out, as I saw the quality, consistency and value all continue to evolve and then devolve. A constant figure in the kitchen has been tireless chef de cuisine Daniel Raia.
The Appetizers and Fried Stuff
Hush Puppies: These have been removed from the menu semi-recently. Probably for the best, as I found them dry and not all that flavorful.
Fried Green Tomatoes: Crisp, warm, sliced thick and full of tartness, the FGTs present a reliably executed snack that's both indulgent and remotely healthy. The once-included jalapeño ranch dipping sauce is now an add-on, but it's worth ponying up the premium. This is my go-to app and for a while the only deep-fried one I recommended strongly.
Fried okra: I now also strongly recommend this, which has come a long way since the early days. A surprisingly huge bowl of surprisingly fresh okra supplies a crisp batter and nearly twice the volume of the fried green tomatoes. The seasoning is assertive without being overdone, the batter light and flaky, letting the vegetable shine through. Again, the dipping sauce is extra, but just go with it. Pretend you're on vacation.
Salt and pepper potatoes: About three or four potatoes, cut mostly into halves and quarters, bring nice crispness, a tender baked potatoey feel beneath and substantial salting without overdoing it. Again, spring for the dipping sauce, but only for amplification; these need no rescue in the flavor department.
Biscuits: You were probably wondering when I'd get to these—easily the most talked-about item on the Sweet Cheeks menu. Large, dense, piping hot, crisp, sturdy on the outside, flaky on the inside and just buttery enough to make them moist throughout, the biscuits ($3 each or a tin can of four for $10) completely live up to the yum-happy blogger raves, making them an absolute must-order every time. They're served with a soft, whipped honey butter on the side, so think of it a dessert you can enjoy as an appetizer. This biscuit is the size of a hamburger roll, so don't be put off by the price. More importantly, don't get too filled up on them before the meal arrives. But don't let my warning stop you from ordering the bucket; they reheat well—use a toaster oven, not a microwave—and make a great breakfast the next morning.
Wings: Introduced in the fall of 2013 to coincide with the start of the NFL season, the Sweet Cheeks "Monster Wings" were initially offered as both a platter and by the individual wing. I went with the latter route a handful of times, even though they were $2.50 per whole wing (what would ordinarily be two pieces) at first and eventually $3.50. Sounds crazy, right? Maybe not, because, at least in the beginning, the wings carried literally twice the meat as what you'd get at a typical sports bar. So two full wings with two drumettes and two wingettes with twice the meat is the equivalent of eight pieces anywhere else, so $7 isn't such a bad deal. Just as a baseball GM might be willing to spend a few million more per season on a short term contract for salary flexibility—and a hedge against poor performance—so went my wings ordering at Sweet Cheeks. They made an easy nibbler with a preliminary beer, or an add-on to a platter to flesh things out, while saving enough cap space for the menu superstars (spoiler alert: those would be pork belly, biscuits, pulled pork and brisket).
But it was the hedge against poor performance that was key.
According to a description on Epicurious, the Sweet Cheeks wings are brined with salt, sugar, star anise and fennel seeds, smoked over white and red oak, deep fried, then dusted with salty-sweet dry rub. Based on my repeated tastings, they're brined in salt, salt, salt, more salt, smoked, deep fried and dusted in salty-salty salt rub. Oh, and did I mention they're salty? Like yanked out of the ocean and prepared like salt cod salty. And I like salt, but this is ridiculous.
Usually (save one time out of six) the wings have crispness going for them. And the interiors are tender. But the flavor generally lacks the smoke that's more noticeable in the red meats and the balance from all of the other promised ingredients. And while not always dry, they've never been truly juicy. Lately the size is on the downswing, so to their credit, on one visit when the wings were small, they doubled the quantity to make up the difference. Maybe that's why they're no longer offered as individual wings. I'd like to keep tabs on them, but as much of a smoked wings fan as I am, I just can't commit to a whole order without first hearing tales of improvement.
Pulled pork sandwich: The very first thing I tried at Sweet Cheeks was the Berkshire pulled pork sandwich (then $12), split as a makeshift appetizer and ordered on toasted white bread, sans cole slaw to get straight to the meat. The pork had noticeable bark and a hint of a smoke ring, but the corresponding crispness and smokiness didn't come through. Nevertheless, the meat was very satisfying with its natural porkiness elevated by a fairly salty rub. Moisture was impressive, seemingly coming as much from the meat itself as a faint application of saucing evidenced by stray bits of pepper. Overall, this was a solid sandwich, and I liked that the white bread was more robust than the standard airy kind. With a little more crispness, a little more smokiness and a lot more meat (for $12, the meat should at least cover the bottom slice), I wondered whether this might work its way into one of my favorites.
That was 2011, so why am I mentioning that now? Because sometimes reputations are hard to shake. In the early days Sweet Cheeks not only charged about a third more than everybody else, they also gave you about a third less than everybody else, making them twice as expensive per bite. Despite what others may say, I'm telling you that's no longer the case. Nearly four years later, the pulled pork sandwich is still $12, but the meat is much more plentiful. I'm talking meat-spilling-out plentiful and more-than-you-get-across-town plentiful.
The recent tries have all been on the brioche bun that's more hifalutin than white bread, but what's the crime in that? It hugs the meat well, bolsters the mouthfeel, adds some light sweetness and absorbs the juices. I'll talk about those juices in a bit.
To answer the question I asked on night 1: Yes, the pulled pork did work its way into one of my favorites.
Pulled pork: Sweet Cheeks can call itself Texas barbecue all it wants, but their beef is often outshined by pork, which at its best has been stellar. Perhaps more so here—or at least more often—than with any of the other meats, you can taste the wood in the smoke. And the "Berkshire Pork" billing isn't just to make the menu read better; you can also taste the difference in the sourcing. The meat isn't merely a blank canvas for sauces; it tastes like pork.
I've ordered the pulled pork as a sandwich and on the 2- and 3-meat platters, but the best way to go might be by the pound (still the same $18 as when they opened). You can start small, like a quarter pound for one or two people, or a half pound for three or four, then see how it goes before hitting again.
Typically, the meat is deeply pink, well populated with bark and very tender but with a little "bite-back" rather than simply laying down. It's moistened with just a dab of vinegar sauce; from there you can either add more, go the other way with a sweeter sauce or just leave it alone. There's also plenty of natural moisure in the meat.
About that moisture: roughly half the time, the juices have been legitimate, spilling pork nectar into your hands (if in a sandwich) or onto the butcher paper (if on a tray); the remainder of the times, the meat has been nominally moist but disappointingly steamy (it's never been dry). That seems like a pretty good success rate, but the ratio of juicy to steamy has declined over time, with the more recent visits leaning toward steamy. In 2013 and 2014 the pulled pork dazzled repeatedly both flavorwise and texturewise, whether at lunch or dinner (including a few when it was the meal's saving grace). In 2015, all eight of the visits had pulled pork one way or another. One was juicy (a weeknight dinner), one was magnificently juicy (a weekend afternoon) and six were steamy (mostly weeknight dinners).
On the nights when the pulled pork is steamy, it's still the best in the city (probably by default), but there's a corresponding evaporation of flavor. When the pulled pork is at its barky-smoky-juicy best, it's truly special and among the best in the Northeast. Whatever they were doing a year ago to maintain consistently high quality, I wish they still did now.
Pork ribs: Ordered more regularly on the early visits and more sparingly (no pun intended) on the later ones, the smallish (iPhone-sized) ribs have been almost universally photogenic with their thin, shiny (unsauced) surface and easily visible moisture throughout. Also consistent has been unfailingly tender inner meat that's usually fall-off-the-bone tender (for better or worse, depending on your preference) and sometimes well past that (worse).
Smoke, rub, crusty exterior, pink interior and all-around flavor have all been less consistent and often disappointing. Sometimes the flavor leaves a gaping void, but even on the low flavor nights, the natural porkiness of the meat itself has been impressive. Less impressive is the salty rub—which in the early days was a plus, but on the last dozen visits or so has been hammy-salty to an extreme.
Back to that reliably tender texture: it's accompanied by equally reliable moistness, but it's a steamy kind of moist. Of all the ribs I've had at Sweet Cheeks, only two visits produced what I'd call truly juicy ones. Interestingly, one of them was a just-before-noon Saturday lunch visit in the summer of 2014 where my only rib was the best I ever had here (nice crust, fresh feel, juicy interior, balanced rub, not too salty, not hammy at all). The other was a spring 2015 dinner visit where the four ribs on a Fat Cheeks tray had two long-in-the-tooth ones on top but two exceptionally fresh ones on the bottom.
There's only a slight difference in rib quality when had as a half rack, as one of the meats on a 2- or 3-meat combo, or ordered individually. But generally speaking, the more you get the better they are.
After many tries, I've concluded that I'm simply not a fan of Sweet Cheeks' pork ribs, which I consider a slightly-below-average item among its menu of mostly above-average ones. Someone who considers barbecue synonymous with ribs and only ribs will probably be disappointed here.
Onesie pork rib: Despite the odds being against me (since ordering larger quantities yields better results), I still often order a single rib ($3.50) to accompany pork by the pound. This is probably the way to go here, even though it's small, as the onesie makes an easy add-on. If it's good that night, you can always get more. I keep ordering them, one per visit, waiting for that smoky slot machine to pay out. It did once.
Beef short rib: A popular cut in Sturbridge, New York City and points south, the beef short rib has mostly eluded Boston barbecue, but it's on the menu at Sweet Cheeks—at least for now. It's a tough item to source, both for pricing reasons and quality reasons (often too fatty), so it took an extended hiatus a couple years ago and is sometimes not available on a given night. So if it's something you're prioritizing, be sure to call first.
The Sweet Cheeks version is a single bone-in meat slab about the size of a chalkboard eraser (on a typical night) or two (on a good night). It arrives with a blackened crust and a bright smoke ring in the well marbled cross sections. Or (on a good night) the end bone with no cross sections but extra bark.
No matter how you slice it (and you should slice it), this is a lot of meat, meant to be eaten with a fork and knife, not picked up by the bone. That makes it a major commitment, so consider ordering the beef rib as a makeshift shared appetizer for the table before everyone's personal trays arrive.
Because of that commitment, I've only tried the beef rib twice within the period covered by this review (and three times before that).
The first try, toward the end of 2014, exhibited great size and a gloriously crunchy crust with a good balance of salt and pepper (too often you get too much of one or the other). That's where the positives ended, unfortunately. As I dug in with fork and knife, it became apparent that about a third of the beast was inedible blubber. It took a little longer to realize that of the remaining two thirds, half was delicious, nicely textured beef while the other half was a steamy mess. Since I was dining with Young Bride and had the entire rib to myself, it was easy enough to just stick with the good parts. But if this were a shared item (and noticed earlier than I did), it would have been sent back.
Another beef rib this fall fared much better. The outer crunch wasn't entirely there, but the surface was still firm, barky and well seasoned. This gave way to some incredibly tender meat that was more steamy than juicy (notice a trend?), but the moistness was undeniable in every delicate strand. Flavor was somehow both beefy and light. Rub and smoke were noticeable but ratcheted down, relying on the natural splendor of the pristine beef to not only sing lead but essentially sing acapella. For what it's worth, my tablemate loved it and I merely liked it. If they can duplicate the captivatingly caramelly texture with legit juiciness that I enjoyed on a previous visit, I'll love it too. But a solid effort for sure.
Pork belly: If you've never had pork belly, this is a must-try. Think of it as a bacon steak. Or a softer, smokier, porkier (heritage breed), richer, jigglier, juicier (as in flood gates) version of bacon. This is the best thing Sweet Cheeks does, because a) on the nights they get it right, it's the one with the most wow factor, and b) they get it right a good percentage of the time.
Their slabs of pork belly have a mahogany rib-like surface with a sexy sheen from the liquid fat, with pinker, well-lubricated cross sections on slices that are coincidentally also of rib thickness. From afar, they can look like ribs, but the flavor is stronger and the juices are far more plentiful and reliable.
Let's talk about that reliable. On the nights they don't get it right, the pork belly can be too steamy (with corresponding washed-out flavor), so fatty (approaching or exceeding 50% fat) that it's practically inedible, or simply dry (twice out of many, many tries). Fortunately, those nights are outnumbered by the good ones—by about a two-to-one ratio. And you can improve your odds by requesting crisper and/or less fatty pieces when ordering.
You should expect a little fat in each slice and even embrace it, because fat is flavor. But most of that fat should be melted into the meat, leaving a puddle below and fully lubricating the entire cross section. If the unmelted fat level gets too out of hand, they'll swap it out for a leaner replacement, so don't be afraid to ask.
The pork belly has been of high quality lately, with good crispness, minimal steaminess and fat levels low enough to eat most slices with no discard. One particular recent visit stands out like it was yesterday. On the Saturday before Red Sox 2015 opening day, I sat at the bar and ordered a quarter pound each of brisket, pulled pork and pork belly. I must have hit the jackpot, because all were smoker-fresh, tender, juicy, crisp and as delicious as I've ever had, all on the same tray. On this meal for the ages, the pork belly was spectacular. The four tries since then have been: 1) somewhat disappointing (crisp, slightly dry, minimal fat); 2) solid (barely crisp, slightly fatty, very juicy); 3) near-spectacular (perfectly crisp, slightly fatty, extremely tender and juicy, intensely porky); 4) good (crisp, highly fatty, near-liquid tender, very juicy, satisfyingly porky).
Enough detail; just get it. A triumph of texture and porky flavor even with subtle smoke, the pork belly is a steal at $20 per pound and arguably the most compelling item on the Sweet Cheeks menu. Yes, even more compelling than the biscuits, even if not as consistent.
Brisket: Cut from the luxuriantly fatty brisket deckle every time, the brisket at Sweet Cheeks is different from most others in the area. That extra fat content brings tenderness and a nice moistness to each bite, just like with the pork belly, while still retaining a little resistance (you don't want mushy). And just like with the pork belly and some of the other meats, sometimes it's juicy and sometimes it's steamy. And just like with the pork belly, when the brisket is at its best—that is, when it comes through on the succulence, the caramelly mouthfeel, the near-buttery consistency, the crispy edges, the punch of straightforward spices on the crust—it's something special. It's just a lot more unpredictable, with the highs more fleeting.
I've had two visits in 2015 when the brisket did hit those highs, with all of those characteristics, and it was magnificent. Not coincidentally, they were on the same visits as the two best pork belly turn-ins. Probably also not a coincidence was that owner Tiffani Faison was in the house both times—and the only times I spotted her in 2015.
But even with the sometimes steamy and frequently pot roasty examples, some of which had to be reheats, the combination of reliable tenderness, strong beefy flavor and light smoke puts Sweet Cheeks brisket at the head of the pack among Boston barbecue joints.
I've had the brisket on trays ($19 for the one meat), by the pound ($19 per) and on a sandwich ($12). There doesn't seem to be any secret way to get better quality or quantity with any one avenue; I've had ups and downs on all three.
Generally speaking (read: aside from the often timid flavor), I'm happy with the brisket as currently constituted—even with its flaws, Sweet Cheeks brisket is the best in the city. There's no problem with the Texas style simplicity of the rub (probably salt, pepper and cayenne, in that order). But to truly emulate Texas style they need to use much, much more of it and serve the meat straight out of the smoker more frequently.
Brisket Sandwich: One sure-fire way to up the brisket moistness quotient is to order it as a sandwich on Texas toast. We're talking inch-thick slices of white bread grilled or griddled with butter on all four surfaces. That much butter might be a little much in theory, especially with fatty brisket, but it's worth trying every now and then. To revisit the value component, note that the price of that brisket sandwich is the same as on day 1, but much more generous: on two tries the meat hung well outside the edges of the toast and once the meat stacked two inches high.
Chopped Brisket: Previously called burnt ends, the chopped brisket is tossed in a bit of barbecue sauce, presumably as a way of using up leftover slices. The two times I tried it, both as a quarter pound (same $19 per pound as the sliced), it arrived incredibly soft, bordering on mushy, but the beefiness and smoke didn't get lost. Bark levels were high. For those who like it saucy—and there's no shame in that—this is a good choice. I'll say this much: it's not pot roasty.
Half Chicken: With so many other things to choose, I've chosen not to try the chicken within the last three years. My memories from 2012 involve sometimes pale but always crisp skin, salty flavor, good juiciness and occasionally underdone interiors.
Pulled Chicken: Again, chicken isn't something I prioritize, especially when it's pulled (why have that when you can have pulled pork instead?), so I haven't tried it within the period covered by this review. The servings I've seen others have at my table have looked good, and my memories from 2012 and earlier are very positive. It's one of the few pulled chicken renditions that showed effort (at least in 2012).
Sausage: Best ordered as an add-on to a tray or a pre-tray appetizer, the house made link using pork shoulder—a departure from traditional Texas beef—typically exhibits respectable moisture. There's no snap, but that's forgiven when the first bite unleashes a loose, crumbly and dare I say juicy procession of well-lubed, pinhead sized pork pearls. The flavor is often impressive, with accents of salt (maybe too much for some, but just right for me), chile pepper and seeds (I think mustard's the main one). The casings are rarely if ever crisp. The meat is often meatloafy, with that ever present steamy quality.
Fried chicken: Introduced as a twice a week novelty and now a full-time item, the fried chicken (back in 2012, when I tried it twice) hit all the marks with batter that's thick and light and crisp and seasoned, with explosively juicy meat within.
Three old school pharmacy bottles grace each table with sauces. The largest bottle features the house sauce that seems to be a complex vegetable puree spiked with molasses to round things out. It's naturally sweet, but not as sweet as your typical house sauce, which makes it just as usable on brisket as on ribs. A vinegar-pepper sauce is closer to the consistency of a salad dressing than the classic Carolina red. A hot sauce is a constantly rotating creation whose pepper, fruit and heat level all vary. Sometimes you'll see two different versions of the hot sauce on different tables. The roster could use some deepening, but I like the originality and usability of the sauces so far.
Sides have generally been very good to excellent.
Pickles and onions: This complimentary tandem on every tray is well prepared, with super thin, super crisp sweet onions and homemade sweet-tart pickles. White bread was originally included on every tray; now, it's still available gratis upon request. For boneless meats, the idea is to create your own sandwich using these ingredients and perhaps a tableside sauce.
Cornbread: Don't look for cornbread here. For authenticity purposes, the much-discussed biscuits are offered instead.
Mac and cheese: Served in a coffee mug, as are all the hot sides, the small elbows get a
thorough coating of a thick and creamy cheese sauce, followed by a sandstorm of rich and crispy cracker crumbs. Sharpness and unusual tartness are both present in the
cheese. The last few tries have been tight: not lacking in cheese, but
seized enough to prevent the elbows from separating without a struggle.
Baked beans: The antithesis of New England style beans, these started out more cuminy than molassesy, with a thick broth, faint sweetness, a little heat and a lot of meat (shredded pork rib scraps, according to a server). Over time it has evolved into a version that's ramped up the molasses but without losing its savory edge. The equally ramped-up chile pepper component works really well with the sweetness, giving this dish the feel of a hearty chili. They're my favorite side here and are among my all-time favorite beans, easily making my list if I do another beans rankings. The protein representation varies; sometimes it's added liberally enough to make the beans a meal of its own.
Collard greens: A surprisingly generous serving nearly fills the ceramic mug it's served in, and there's often equal generosity with the porky accoutrements. Early versions were a little too heavy on the vinegar and the butter, but they're now scaled back for better balance and to allow the greenery to prevail.
Black-eyed peas: Served hot in the mug rather than cold in a salad, the BEPs come through masterfully on flavor intensity without the soupy sludge factor that sometimes takes down this dish. Really hearty, strong on natural flavor and perfect on a cold night. I sometimes crave it.
Cole slaw: Sizeable mini wedges of crip cabbage and creamy, tame dressing make it feel more like a salad. Go with one of the real salads instead.
Potato salad: A ho-hum version brings large chunks with skins and larger amounts of creamy dressing, brightened by a liberall inclusion of dill. The bacon crumb garnish on top is no more.
Farm salad: A crossover from Tiffani Faison's menu at Rocca, this one debuted with grilled Brussels sprouts with farro, halved red grapes and grated Parmesan in a light and zesty vinaigrette. In the summer, sliced plums sometimes make a cameo; the nuts have varied. Yes, it's a little more fussy than you'd ordinarily expect with barbecue, but it works. Regardless of the seasonal permutation, this salad is one of the better examples I've tasted in a barbecue restaurant or any restaurant. The large size farm salad could make a meal for the person in the group who's more along for the ride than for the 'cue.
I rarely order dessert at barbecue restaurants but had to make an exception for the house made giant nutter butter peanut butter sandwich cookie ($8). The invigorating combination of the sweet cookies, silky peanut butter cream filling and densely scattered sea salt crystals along the base make this creation a winner. It's big enough for four to share.
Sweet Cheeks is probably the most New York of all the Boston barbecue restaurants—in decor (the wood pile near the open kitchen), feel, menu breadth (short rib, pork belly), plating and price.
Pricing is the biggest elephant in a mostly happy room. That said, I appreciate that the exceptionally sourced meats are "never ever" injected with hormones, and I'm willing to pay for the noticeable higher quality.
Also noticeable are the portion sizes that have progressed from laughably small during the first few weeks to today's standard of somewhat generous on meats and very generous on sides. When the stakes are high, consistency must be equally high. That improved by the end of the first year (late 2012) but has been concerning more recently, as if complacency has appeared to set in. The highlights occur often enough that, even at the higher prices, I still believe there's value.
That value—along with periodic improvement on the meats—explains why, even after I forecasted after one month that "pricing will surely impact the frequency of the visits," no other barbecue restaurant has seen me more often since then.
Despite the praiseworthy portion improvements (more volume on the 2- and 3-meat trays, bigger sandwiches, hot sides filled to the brim of the mug), Sweet Cheeks' pricey perception persists. Perhaps that's why the restaurant's website recently removed the defiant "If you leave here hungry, it's nobody's fault but your own" statement that could easily rub people the wrong way, especially since it was quite possible to drop $30 in the early days and not get full.
It's very possible to get your fill and not break the bank. As ridiculous as it may seem given how good they are, you can get by with a single biscuit for one couple. You can get by with one tray for two, augmenting that with another half pound or so of meats but sharing the tray's two sides. When ordering this way and everything goes according to plan, you get close to the same volume as at the seemingly more affordable competitors, for about the same price, with less variety for sides (since you're splitting two, not four), but better quality on the meats.
Parking spaces are surprisingly easy to obtain, but be aware that the meters are in effect until 8:00PM. I found out the hard way on my first visit. Don't even think about parking at the supermarket across the street. Instead, use the garage on Kilmarnock Street, get your ticket validated, and get out for $3.
A good rule of thumb: boneless meats, yay; meats with bones nay.
Sweet Cheeks critics point to the popularity of the biscuits as evidence that the barbecue couldn't possibly be good—otherwise, why would they receive so much attention? Come on. The reason the biscuits receive more attention is that they're the least common denominator: almost every customer in the place gets them almost every time. Why? Because they're great biscuits. Look around at your neighbors—many of them groups of attractive young women, a rarity at a barbecue joint—and you'll see brisket on one plate, ribs on another, sandwiches at one table, wings at another and biscuits everywhere. Granted, the biscuits are closer to perfection than the meats, but the biscuits might be closer to perfection than the meats at the best places you've been. Even though I'd like more consistency and higher upside, Sweet Cheeks compares very favorably against the competition.
In the NFL, many offenses run on all cylinders some Sundays and sputter on others. Championship caliber teams have defenses that perform consistently week to week, carrying the offense on their off days. Such is the case at Sweet Cheeks, where the meats can be spectacular one visit, lackluster another, but the sides, fried apps, salads and biscuits always come through triumphantly, ensuring a positive overall experience on most nights.
There are the naysayers and doubters (some just because they're in the industry) who hate the place, and there are the sophisticates and suck-ups (some just because they're in the industry) who love the place. I'm somewhere in the middle, perhaps closer to the latter group, though with no suckuppage. I like the menu and I like the higher quality meat sourcing. The persisting flavor outages can be annoying, but more often than not, I've really liked the 'cue at Sweet Cheeks—and much of it has been outstanding.
The Bottom Line
When the meats are on, Sweet Cheeks is untouchable, at least within I-495. But even on the off nights (and there have been as many off as on over the last year or two), there's enough else to like. And despite the inconsistency and frequent coasting on reputation, Sweet Cheeks does more things well and does more things really well more often than any other Boston barbecue joint.
Other Opinion and Info
My first look at Sweet Cheeks
My 2011 first review of Sweet Cheeks
My 2012 review of Sweet Cheeks
Urban Daddy preview of Sweet Cheeks
Thrillist preview of Sweet Cheeks
Boston Globe preview of Sweet Cheeks
Tiffani Faison "One Year In" Interview on Eater
Yelp reviews of Sweet Cheeks
Zomato reviews of Sweet Cheeks
Tabelog reviews of Sweet Cheeks
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