Barbecue is about as American as blue jeans and baseball. Yet the siren call of smoke was ingrained in our DNA well before the Jamestown settlement threw its first whole-hog fete. In fact, our lust for meat cooked low and slow over a wood-fired pit predates the Republic of Texas, Christopher Columbus, hell, even Homo sapiens.
Granted, the South’s much ballyhooed “barbecue belt” (the Carolinas, Texas, Memphis, Kansas City) deserves all the adulation it gets for raising the craft from elemental to art form and for cultivating canonical joints such as Southside Market, in Elgin, Texas, and Arthur Bryant’s, in Kansas City. But in recent years, a tectonic shift has occurred, with worthy ’cue practitioners popping up north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
That includes in New England, where barbecue is having a cultural moment. Suddenly, local pitmasters are treating spareribs and slaw with the same attention to detail that tweezer-wielding toques have always brought to their menus. The results? Well, they speak for themselves. Here: 17 New England barbecue spots emblematic of our new golden age—and well worth a summer drive.
When Chris Janowski opened Blue Ribbon’s doors in 1995, he was the rare area evangelist for the vinegar-based barbecue of North Carolina. More than two decades later, Blue Ribbon is still our region’s prize pig. Stop into either of its locations to get sumptuous pulled pork and chicken, chili-and-cumin-rubbed Memphis ribs, and peppery brisket that yields some of the most enticing burnt ends around. Catering has become a cornerstone of Blue Ribbon’s business, with five J & R smokers churning through 40 cords of red and white oak annually. But even at that volume, Blue Ribbon’s quality and consistency remain striking.
1375 Washington St., West Newton, 617-332-2583; 908 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 617-332-7427; blueribbonbbq.com.
In a way, we have Ken Oringer to thank for New England’s best pulled pork and collard greens. After the acclaimed restaurateur turned Spire into a beacon of beef and bone marrow (the now defunct KO Prime), chef Brian Treitman was left on the outside looking in. Unwilling to play second banana to Oringer’s anointed chef de cuisine, Jamie Bissonnette, Treitman abandoned Boston and threw all of his energy into building a tiny barbecue trailer along Route 20. But an auspicious catering debut at the Brimfield Antique Show changed the stakes of what he was doing. Watching pickers salivate over his well-seasoned brisket, siren swine, and sausages stuffed with sparerib scraps, Treitman immediately started to think bigger. Now the little western Massachusetts shack that could is a destination brick-and-mortar. How much so? “I started off ordering 300 pounds of meat a week,” Treitman says. “Now I order by the ton.”
392 Main St., Sturbridge, 508-347-3188, btsmokehouse.com.
Some guys sate a midlife crisis with a Corvette. Tim Barbiasz bought a custom smoker built into a trailer, which he hauls from cook-offs to catering gigs when it’s not at its roadside home in rural Ware. Billed as the Northeast’s largest mobile pit, Pig Park serves Styrofoam boxes of dry-rubbed delights that recall Barbiasz’s early years in Tennessee and South Carolina. That’s where he found the perfect formula for standout Carolina pulled pork, slow-cooked quarter chickens, and his signature pig bowls—messy mounds of pork layered with rich baked beans and crunchy slaw. Sauce? You don’t need it when there’s so much naked flavor.
97 East St., Ware, 413-544-4712, pigparkbbq.com.
Since 1985 this tumbledown warhorse in Mattapan’s Morton Village has been preaching the sow-plus-vinegar gospel synonymous with Carolina barbecue. The only change in 30-plus years has been around which sauce philosophy to embrace: namely, to mustard or not to mustard? That’s because owner Derek Fowler, whose family hails from pro-ketchup North Carolina, purchased the spot from a South Carolina family in 2007. Other than that, the giant spareribs remain tender, the brisket (a minuscule amount available only on Fridays and Saturdays) elusive, and the mashed yams—loaded with butter and brown sugar—ethereal enough to score top billing.
888A Morton St., Mattapan, 617-436-0485, pitstopbarbecue.com.
For well over a decade, there was only one name in Somerville barbecue. But then Redbones went into a steady (and puzzling) decline, and Davis Square was in peril of becoming a smoked-meat mortuary. Enter John Delpha, whose eclectic résumé includes both four-star fine-dining stints and competition barbecue gold. At Rosebud, a diner-cum-cheffed-up-fusion spot, that means dry-fried green beans spangled with pulled pork; whole-hog barbecue sans the vinegar-based mop; and a towering Rachel sandwich that swaps out pastrami for cherrywood-smoked brisket. Looking for more-traditional takes? Try Delpha’s St. Louis ribs or agave-lacquered chicken wings, both of which have pulled in some serious hardware on the competition circuit.
381 Summer St., Somerville, 617-629-9500, rosebudkitchen.com.
With his trophy case at capacity, chef Andy Husbands has gone on sabbatical from his IQue team—the first clique of non-southerners to win the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue (akin to the Super Bowl of the competitive circuit)—and opened a dedicated barbecue brick-and-mortar in Kendall Square. Launched this summer, the Smoke Shop marries both traditional (Husbands’s award-winning ribs) and not-so-traditional menu items—say, West-meets-East brisket sandwiches bedecked with Korean vinaigrette, kimchi, and fermented pepper mayo. For guests on the go, an annexed takeout counter offers hot links schmeared with pimiento cheese and a butter “crack” cake that’s as addictive as its name implies.
One Kendall Sq., Cambridge, 617-577-7427, thesmokeshopbbq.com.
Following her star-making turn on Top Chef, many questioned Tiffani Faison’s decision to squander the cachet of newfound celebrity on the “humble fare” of barbecue. Five years later, she and chef de cuisine Dan Raia have silenced every naysayer, with Sweet Cheeks standing among Boston’s best restaurants, regardless of genre. Consider the beef ribs—large enough to feed a small family, obscenely tender, and brushed with the memory of red and white oak from Tootsie, the 4,700-pound smoker Faison named after one of the country’s pioneering female pitmasters. Or the array of house-made hot sauces, especially the Carolina-style vinegar, which perks up slices of brisket that rival any outside of Texas. And we haven’t even gotten to the decadent mugs of mac ’n’ cheese or the “giant nutter butter,” a catcher’s-mitt-size stoner’s ecstasy. At Sweet Cheeks, barbecue is not only “serious” cuisine, it’s also downright sexy.
1381 Boylston St., Boston, 617-266-1300, sweetcheeksq.com.
Founded in 1979 by two guys named Ted, then bought 20 years later by a duo of Keiths, this Pioneer Valley blues haunt—really, it’s purportedly haunted—has an innate sense of history. Bands jam nearly nightly in a weathered brick building that also houses the country’s oldest continuously operating pool hall. (The Keiths own that, too.) Thick and sweet sauces, including the awesomely named “Super Badass Sweet Daddy Slap Your Pappy Hot Sauce,” pick up the hickory notes of 12-hour smoked pork and brisket that melt like butter. Fair warning: You’ll want to arrive well before the opening act in order to enjoy that day’s fresh-smoked scores, which can quickly become, er, history.
201 Worthington St., Springfield, 413-736-6000, theodoresbbq.com.
Elsmere ticks plenty of boxes on the hipster-barbecue checklist: It’s in Portland (albeit Maine); one co-owner plays in a band (guitarist Adam Powers, of the local rock act Twisted Roots); and the interior design—with its Americana auto-shop neon—suggests well-scrubbed blue collar. Heck, even the cocktails are served in Mason jars. But Elsmere doesn’t coast on on-trend posturing. This is great Texas-style ’cue that doesn’t hide behind anything more than salt, pepper, and an expert understrata of smoke. Pork butts sourced from F. Ménard, a family-owned Quebec hog breeder with a tradition of humane processing, are spectacular. So is the Bell and Evans chicken splashed with the tangy tableside golden mustard. But the real draw is “Fuzzy” Houran’s not-too-spicy sausages—a well-guarded secret recipe you’ll want to crack, if only to tell the whole world about.
448 Cottage Rd., South Portland, 207-619-1948, elsmerebbq.com.
Sure, there are chicken wings to accompany flights of the Atlantic Brewing Company beer produced on-site. But these aren’t the breaded, sauce-drenched, deep-fried Buffalo bites you might expect from a brewpub. Like all of Mainely Meat’s titular proteins, they’re slow-smoked in a repurposed old water tank, fashioned by pitmaster Paul “Doug” Douglas. His hand-chosen roster of Maine hardwoods (birch and beech, just to name a couple) flavors racks of St. Louis ribs and char-flecked mounds of pulled pork. But beyond the Bar Harbor Real Ale needed to stand up to all of that smoke and spice (even the cornbread is studded with jalapeños), Mainely Meat’s symbiotic partnership with the microbrewery has some family-friendly benefits. Its house-made blueberry soda, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, makes for a fine Vacationland digestif. Open mid-May through mid-October.
15 Knox Rd., Bar Harbor, 207-288-9200, atlanticbrewing.com/mainly-meat-bbq.
Chef Jay Villani’s (Local 188, Sonny’s) turn from tapas and tacos to the Texas holy trinity of barbecue (brisket, pork ribs, and sausage) has come with no small amount of hype. Yet the fanfare has been justified. Two custom-built, reverse-flow smokers, designed by local motorcycle maker Ray Tourigny, churn out intensely flavorful brisket and ribs. Carolina-sourced pork shoulder—bolstered by 13 Scoville-scaling house sauces—is tinged with sweet Maine red oak. And “meat whisperer” Joshua Craigue’s hot links pop with peppery juices that dribble right down your wrist. Locals might be content to visit solely for Salvage’s outstanding bar program, complete with a rotating selection of Maine craft drafts, but we can’t swing through the Portland peninsula without succumbing to Villani’s entire arsenal (e.g., the Meat Fatality tray, some 3 pounds of blackened bliss).
919 Congress St., Portland, 207-553-2100, salvagebbq.com.
David Nivus raised plenty of eyebrows when he announced his intentions to open a meat-heavy food stand near his Good Food Store, a natural market in Bethel that caters largely to vegetarians. Nonetheless, the nascent pitmaster found an ideal vehicle (literally) for his brand of ’cue: a 1988 Fan trailer that had previously served as a hot-dog wagon. After 10 years in the shadow of Sunday River, the iconic orange stand is shellacked with stickers from fans traveling from as far as China and Russia for a taste of Nivus’s well-rendered brisket, meaty spareribs barely clinging to the bone, and addictive, spicy cashews. Because, yes, even the nuts are barbecued here. Trailer parked mid-May through mid-October and mid-November through mid-April.
212 Mayville Rd. (Rte. 2), Bethel, 207-824-4744, smokingoodbarbecue.com.
Pliny Reynolds didn’t apprentice with a pitmaster or even stage under a chef. The former Austin architect honed his craft, like so many other backyard grillmasters, with a beer in hand and a slab of meat simmering inside a Big Green Egg. Yet that amateur education seems to have paid off, as every blackboard special at this East Bayside spot—from succulent lamb shoulder to tempting slices of fatty brisket—is a stunner. And the rest of the menu, honed by chef Wilson Rothschild, is no slouch in the smoked-meat department, either. Try the elevated Frito pie brimming with brisket and red chilies, or even better, the prickly pozole made from roasted Anaheim peppers and pork shoulder. Each represents a bold, neotraditional style that is pushing the genre forward while staying true to its protein-heavy roots.
52 Washington Ave., Portland, 207-808-8502, terlingua.me.
After restaurateur Sue Bette moved Bluebird Tavern—Burlington’s first gastropub—to a chic spot downtown, she was left with an empty roadhouse befitting a more laid-back concept. Enter Bluebird Barbecue, inspired by “that joyous spirit of digging into meat right off the grill,” Bette says. And indeed, there is joy in chef Matthew Thomas’s maple-barbecue baby back ribs and chicken thighs doused in a garlicky Alabama white sauce augmented by sambal oelek and gojuchang. But don’t ignore the stellar tiki program led by Boston ex-pat Kai Gagnon (Bergamot). Initially created as a kind of faux-Polynesian escape from the crushing Vermont winters, the restaurant is now a year-round salve for fiery, house-made Texas hot links.
317 Riverside Ave., Burlington, 802-448-3070, bluebirdbbq.com.
Rough-and-tumble roadside charm is 80 percent of the experience at this four-decades-spanning institution near the Connecticut River. Come summer, it’s hard not to swoon over the all–al fresco landscape dotted with picnic tables, or the bright blue, beat-up old school bus that serves as its takeout window. Moving quietly in the background is the eponymous Curtis Tuff, a grizzled pop prodding meat on his makeshift pit: two overturned oil drums balancing a grate lined with pork ribs brushed lightly in vinegar and ketchup. “No frills” is an understatement, as is “tasty” (an exploded baked potato heaped with shredded chicken, sour cream, and melted cheese is a must-gorge). Curtis’ is the best kind of barbecue setup: a quality curiosity that could only exist exactly where it is.
7 Putney Landing Rd., Putney, 802-387-5474, curtisbbqvt.com.
Chad Rich spent his formative years in Greenville, North Carolina, but the ninth-generation Vermonter returned to his native New England a far richer (no pun intended) man. Not only had he developed a passion for home brewing and for smoking pigs, he also came back with a honey-vinegar sauce recipe—bequeathed by a family of North Carolina hog farmers—that was like rocket fuel to even the most insipid chopped pork. Armed with that enchanted elixir, he opened his homage to southern fare from the rubble of the Alchemist brewpub, which stood vacant after Tropical Storm Irene. Now executive chef Mike Werneke’s pit-smoked chicken, Thai cracklings, and bacon-barbecue-sauce-drizzled brisket are as much of a draw as its predecessor’s Heady Topper tallboys. And Rich’s own hophead expertise became the Pro Pig microbrewery, which debuted behind the restaurant in 2014.
23 S. Main St., Waterbury, 802-244-4120, prohibitionpig.com.
There’s a reason Jamie McDonald is nicknamed “The Bear.” Connecticut’s finest pitmaster is also a voracious competitive eater who has slayed everything from chili dogs to spicy taquitos to ghost pepper burritos in the name of gluttonous gold. But easily his finest achievement (and New England’s biggest gain) occurred in 2013, when he won a national GoDaddy competition that awarded him enough money to help open his downtown Hartford restaurant. Since then, the Kansas City native has given the Constitution State its first stalwart smokehouse, with prime-grade brisket cooked low and slow for 18 hours; colossal beef ribs with just the right amount of chew; and some seriously outstanding pulled pork, caramelized with a curry-mustard-and-celery-seed bark.
89 Arch St., Hartford, 860-724-3100; and other locations; bearsbbq.com.
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How banana pudding became brisket’s saccharine sidekick.
For more barbecue, check out Boston magazine’s Cue and Battle of the Burger events August 9-10. Go to bostonmagazine.com/cueandburger for tickets.
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