Saturday, August 25, 2012

Boston's Sweet Cheeks Q

Good barbecue comes to Boston
The North East has a real lack of good barbecue. It's no secret that mediocrity reigns supreme in these parts. Sure, we have various restaurants that say they serve barbecue. Every chain restaurant seems to list a barbecue item on the menu. But basically the barbecue that we have here is some kind of slow cooked crap, or dried out rubbish that is covered with a KC Masterpiece-style sauce. A few years back, the Bigger Half, well acquainted with good barbecue having lived in Texas, Virginia and Mississippi in his formative years, told me I had no idea what I was talking about when I made an off cuff remark about how barbecue just can't be that great. Horrified, I did the proper research (reading Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy), and went on a 48 hour binge eating research mission to Kansas City, Missouri, and a year or so later repeated the research style in a trip to Hill Country in Texas. A barbecue contest judging class, and many books later, I feel that I have a proper grasp of what good barbecue is. And it is heavenly. 
So this leaves us with a serious problem. Those slow smoked miracles are just not available in New England. We've found a good spot out in Western Massachusetts called B.T.'s Smokehouse, but honestly it's a hike. And until very recently, Boston's been completely devoid of decent barbecue. (That's right, I don't think Blue Ribbon is that great. I'll just lay it out, send hate mail to: Thankfully, we've got a reasonable facsimile of good barbecue, having semi-newly arrived in the Fenway, and headed up by Tiffani Faison, that Top Chef contestant who has really tried to improve the availability of legitimate slow smoked delicacies in this fine city of ours. I don't think it's on the level of LC's or Arthur Bryant's or Smitty's. I would never ever make such a claim. But I will say it's pretty good, and the smoke flavor is right, and it's worth a trip to the Fenway if you find yourself an expat of barbecue country and are all twitchy and jonesing for that little taste of slow-cooked, painstakingly low temperature prepared, spice-rubbed piece of meat. 
The dining room
So onto the restaurant. As is the case with many restaurants in and around Boston, unless you're really special, you're not going to survive, and whatever your store front was, it's going to be something else within a year or two. I think that the space where Sweet Cheeks is located used to be a pizza place. But whatever it was, it has been transformed into a barbecue appropriate atmosphere. There are along communal tables, and an area to sit outside, which is very popular. Servers are attentive and eager to offer opinions on what sauce goes with what, and what are the most popular side dishes. The kitchen is located at the back and is constantly bustling, producing great smoked meats for all to enjoy.
What to order:
Fried green tomatoes
Well, we went with the fried green tomatoes, not a typical menu item available in these parts. And they were delicious. The thick cut, lime green tomatoes are slightly acidic and coated with a crunchy, deep fried outer layer. They are tangy and savory, salty, and combined with a peppery sour cream based sauce, they're simply delicious.
Angels on high: Bucket o' biscuits
The biscuits: You have to order the biscuits. I'd come here just to order the biscuits. I've tried my hand at baking biscuits, and in ever bit of criticism I received from the Bigger Half, in consuming a huge, crunchy, deceivingly heavy, but light and fluffy on the inside, warm, flaky, tender biscuit, I know why he shelled out the comments. The biscuits at Sweet Cheeks arrive in a tin pail, and each biscuit is man fist size, and steaming with love from the oven. The honey butter that you smother on a split biscuit is heavenly, producing a melted, sweet, and creamy topping to the perfect bready treat. They're amazing biscuits... and although they're $10 bucks for four biscuits, trust me, they're a steal at twice the price, and not to be found elsewhere in the city.
Onto the Q.
1/2 Chicken
1/2 Chicken: My opinion, the slow roasted half chicken is unbelievable. It doesn't need sauce. It's juicy and tender, and can pull apart with little effort. The skin, while a victim of a low temperature, is a little rubbery, but fatty like the best part of bacon, and rubbed with an irresistible sweet, salty, and teeny bit spicy mixture. 
Pork belly
Pork Belly: I'm a sucker for pork belly. This version is slow cooked and tender, nice and salty and unctuous with a nice layer of fat at the top, which amazingly even has a bit of crisp to it. The meat is perfect and tender, deeply savory.
Pulled pork
Pulled Pork: The tips of each strand of lovingly pulled apart pork shows the tell tale signs of pink and a slightly charred end. They're juicy and again, very savory, with a mineral sweetness you get with pork, and all that wonderful smokiness throughout every piece of meat. This dish went very well with the vinegar sauce that they have on the table... which is sweet and a little spicy, tart and dotted with spices and pepper. It kind of tastes like spicier sweet and sour sauce.
Pork ribs
Pork ribs: I thought the pork ribs are very good. They were so juicy that I wouldn't be surprised if they were brined prior to cooking. The smoke ring is present and that fun of pulling the meat from the bone with your teeth is all part of the beauty of barbecue ribs. These ribs go best with the sweet, slightly peppery classic deep burgundy barbecue sauce that's also available on the table for each diner. Sweet and porky meat, with a tougher on the outside sort of skin from the slow smoking, growing more tender as you work your way in toward the bone.
Potato salad
Blackeyed peas
Baked beans
For sides, I think you should definitely go for the potato salad, which has a nice sprinkling of some kind of bacon bits or something on top. Then there's also the black eyed peas, cooked until just over al dente, nice and tender, and producing their own nice buttery, nutty sauce. I'm also a fan of the beans, which are sweet with molasses and smoky, like Boston baked beans with a little Southern attitude.
All in all, this was a delicious meal at a really casual restaurant that has made every effort to do justice to barbecue in a city that in past just hasn't understood what they were missing. I think the sauces they provide are good, but it's the sincerity of the smoke flavor that makes the restaurant legit. While the classic barbecue is good, you may want to forgo those items and head straight for the pork belly and the half chicken to see how the restaurant shines. Oh, and order those biscuits. They're divine.

Sweet Cheeks Q
1381 Boylston St.
Boston, MA
(617) 266-1300

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