Ben Whelan’s BBQ Special

Ben Whelan

For some, barbecue is just a way to unwind on a nice summer day, kick back with some friends, eat some meat and drink some beer. For others, however, barbecue is no joke and less work than art. The Kansas City Barbecue Society, one of the biggest sanctioning bodies in competitive barbecue, hosts upwards of sixty competitions a year all over the country. Everyone from amateurs with a Weber to true pit masters turn out to compete in categories such as Open Pork, Chicken, Brisket and Chili. However, the true mark of any real competitor is their Ribs.

In competition, judges use time tested guidelines for determining a winner, but hopefully the following will give you at least some sense of what to look for. The best way to tell a good rib from an impostor is to take careful notice of two categories: Texture and Taste.

Unfortunately, when most of us think of ribs, we think of the baby back ribs served in big chain restaurants and little divey neighborhood joints that are broiled and characterized by being dry, tough, and smothered in sauce. A real rib should be a little tough on the outside and bursting with flavor and juice on the inside; If you don’t need a bib and a pile of napkins to eat it, its not a real rib.

Texture for an ideal rib in competition is often judged by two factors known as “the Bark” and “the Bite”. The Bark refers to the outside of the rib, which should be a little crispy and a little tough. This layer is necessary to seal in all of the natural pork juices and also provides a nice contrast when biting into the rib.

The Bite refers to the texture of the meat in how it stands up to the traditional method for judging the texture of a rib in competition, which is literally taking a bite out of it and pulling away. The meat should detach from the bone with little effort and be very tender and juicy, although it should maintain its structure enough for the bite to leave distinguishable teeth marks in the flesh.

One mistake that many restaurants make is to produce a rib that is too tender by not rendering enough of the fat in the cooking process, which can produce a rib that is like a piece of greasy fat. The key to good texture in ribs, like with most foods, is finding a balance.

Finally, the most important category when judging any food is the taste. The rib itself should have a deep, smoky flavor, almost like bacon but with more meat to it and less fat. The flavor of the rib depends on any number of factors, such as what kind of fuel is used on the grill to what kind of chips are used in the smoker.

Outside of that, the issue of flavoring ribs is a very divisive one in the barbecue world and there are two distinct schools of thought on the subject boiling down to a simple controversy: Dry Rub vs Sauce.

A Dry Rub is a mix of dry ingredients that is applied to the meat before it is cooked, and can often include such classic ingredients as brown sugar, cumin, mustard seed and chili powder. The rub provides a subtle flavor and blends with the meat during the cooking process, but for the most part lets the flavor of the meat shine through. The final product using the dry rub method is less messy and has more of an accented, smoky pork flavor.

The flip side of this is using a Sauce, either after the rib is cooked or right before it hits the table. Sauces come in many different varieties depending on where you are and what you like. There are traditional southern sweet sauces that are more molasses-brown sugar based, hot sauces that use more chilies as you get further West, and the classic vinegar-based North Carolina family of sauces. This method allows the diner more of a choice over what kind of sauce they want and how much, but many purists feel that sauces can overpower the pork flavor of the meat and thus prefer the dry rub method instead.

RedbonesFor many Boston diners, Redbones in Davis Square is the gold standard of Barbecue food. They offer a dizzying array of barbecue options including jerk chicken, pulled pork, homemade sausage and every conceivable kind of rib to ever have protected porcine vital organs. Of course, no traditional Barbecue meal would be complete without “the fixin’s”, and Redbones is also the home of a set of sides and appetizers so good they could stand on their own.

We started our meal with a trio of appetizers in the Hushpuppies, Chicken Wings, and Redbones’ most popular appetizer, the Buffalo Shrimp. The Hushpuppies, small balls of fried cornbread dough with little bits of dices onion, were very crispy, dense and filling and were complimented nicely by the tangy vinegar dipping sauce they were served with. The Chicken Wings were truly a revelation of pure chicken flavor and were served without sauce, leaving a wing that was clean and dry on the outside but bursting with juice and flavor on the inside. The hearty wings were reminiscent of chicken at the old family barbecue, except that they weren’t as messy, weren’t burned and had a more concentrated flavor. The Buffalo Shrimp provided a nice twist on an old classic and was coated with a homemade buffalo sauce that still had zip, but didn’t overpower the flavor of the shrimp.

For our entree we were served a sampler with Memphis Ribs, Baby-Back Ribs and St. Louis Style Ribs that provided an interesting contrast between the rib varieties. The Memphis ribs, the largest of the three, were as tender a rib as any we’ve ever had with a very subtle flavor and tons of meat. The only drawback was the amount of fat on the ribs, but this is to be expected from this cut. Next up were the Baby Back Ribs, which were leaner, providing a firmer texture, and had more of a prominent flavor, although they were slightly smaller than the other two varieties. We finished with the St. Louis Ribs, the best of the three, which were soft as butter with a nicely blackened outer crust and a slightly more complex flavor.

SoulfireOne of the newest additions to the Boston barbecue scene, Soulfire in Allston offers a tantalizing combination of traditional barbecue and down home southern cooking. All of the recipes have been time tested and almost everything is made fresh in house, including the wide array of barbecue sauces that separate Soulfire from the pack. At one end of the spectrum is the sweet sauce, which is loaded with sugar and molasses although packs a little kick in the aftertaste. At the other end is the Devil Relish, a hotter-than-Hades concoction of habaneros, jalapenos and dried chili peppers that is not for the faint of heart. In the middle is the traditional Soulfire sauce, which has just the right balance of aromatic cinnamon and cumin combined with a deep, smokey flavor and a subtle heat. All sauces are self serve and, as the represent extremes of flavors, diners are highly encouraged to mix and match to get their sauce just right.

While Soulfire is primarily a barbecue restaurant, they pay homage to the Southern roots of barbecue by offering a selection of traditional comfort foods with a slight twist. One such item is the fried chicken wings, which are good enough to give any Southern cook a run for their fatback. These wings are perfectly enveloped in a crispy, flaky flour coating that surprisingly is unflavored, as the wings derive their flavor from the lengthy pre-fry brining process. Any trip to Soulfire would also be remiss without ordering the Fried Mac & Cheese Balls, which are gooey and cheesy on the inside and covered in a crispy crust.

There are only two kinds of ribs on the menu at Soulfire, spare ribs and baby back, but what they lack in variety they more than make up for with flavor. The spare ribs that we sampled were cooked perfectly with a nice, charred bark and tender, succulent meat. While we had the full arsenal of sauces at our disposal, the dry rub that the ribs were served with needed no help in accenting the hearty flavors of the meat. The cut of the ribs leaved a little to be desired in the quantity department, but with ribs this good, there’s never enough.

East Coast GrillEast Coast Grill in Inman Square is not your typical “Ribs-and-Bibs” barbecue shack, offering one of the classiest settings in town to provide finger-lickin barbecue. While not strictly a barbecue restaurant, as the menu is also renowned for its seafood options and raw bar, owner and chef Chris Schlessinger made sure to include a small section of barbecue specialties that are remnants of when his legendary barbecue restaurant Jake & Earls Dixie Road House was right next door.

If you have a vegetarian dining companion, I don’t know why you would bring them to a barbecue restaurant, but if you did, the menu at East Coast Grill would not disappoint. The sweet pickles are as good as grandma used to make and are a nice touch of authentic southern flair offered gratis at the bar. Other options included a spicy Szechuan Eggplant and an avocado stuffed with pineapples, peppers and onions. If you’re feeling dangerous, the raw bar has every type of clam in the sea, fresh and waiting to be slurped down with gusto.

Unfortunately, in many ways the barbecue selection at East Coast just could not capture the brilliance of the food served at Jake and Earl’s in bygone years. The ribs, while juicy and well cooked, were under seasoned and lacked the depth of flavors one usually associates with a smoked rib. Likewise the brisket was velvety smooth, but was served smothered in barbecue sauce that masked the flavors of the meat. Another poor indicator was the cole slaw, which is usually a welcome addition to a plate of barbecue providing some acidity to cut through the flavors of the meat, but in this case was warm, watery and bland. The sole highlight was the pulled pork which was dressed in a sinus-clearing North Carolina vinegar sauce and was like eating a cloud, if clouds were made of pork.

Blue Ribbon BarbecueBlue Ribbon Barbecue, with locations in Arlington and Newton, has developed a fanatical following over the years that has spread through Boston and beyond. With the chrome interior, busy centralized open kitchen and counter seating, Blue Ribbon truly emotes the road side barbecue shack.

While the meat is the main show, a surefire sign of a barbecue restaurant worth its sauce is the attention they pay to their side, and this is a test that Blue Ribbon passes with flying colors. Most meat platters are accompanied by a gargantuan piece of cornbread, and a choice of a few signature sides. The cole slaw was cold, crisp, and sharp, providing a nice balance for the rest of the plate. The corn and black eyed peas had good ratio of beans to corn and was baptized in a smokey, bacon flavor that permeated the dish. Finally, the baked beans had a nice molasses flavor and were just sweet enough without being loaded with sugar, which is often times the Achilles heel of many baked beans we have tried.

The sides were indeed a good indicator, as we could immediately tell why Blue Ribbon has such a fanatical following upon taking the first bite of the the massive pile of meat placed before us. The ribs, spare ribs, had a good bark and a good bite, although were not quite as smoky as we were used to. They were some of the biggest and most tender ribs of any we have tried before, and were served smothered in a sauce which was subtle enough to not overpower the flavor of the meat. The pulled pork was also a revelation, and avoided the usual tendency to over-sauce and thus have less meat in each serving. The mound of greasy, porky goodness was action packed with meat, meat, and more meat and was very flavorful despite not being smothered in sauce. The burnt ends rounded out our massive platter and were butter-soft with a strong beefy flavor and substantial enough to be their own dish.