Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's a Slow Bone...

I know my meat!  The edible kind…

As you faithful readers know, I love meat.  I love meat cooked over an open flame, on a hot griddle, roasted in the oven or a barbecue grill, or slow smoked over 12 hours until the meat melts in your mouth.  I especially like that! 

I am particularly a fan of Texas barbecue.  I follow Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin, TX, John Fullilove of Smitty’s, Edgar Black of Black’s and Keith Schmidt of Kreuze Market, all of Lockhart, TX.  What these people can do to a brisket will make your eyes, and mouth, water.  I can talk about the point/deckle and flat of a brisket, and chat you up about the best way to get a smoke ring in your meat.  Bullet water smoker, offset stick-burner or ceramic Kamado-style smoker, doesn’t matter to me…Brisket, prime rib, burnt ends, beef ribs, chicken, salmon…if it comes off a smoker it’s going in my mouth.

Up here, in the Boston area, we have sad pretenders in the bbq realm.  While eating at any number of local joints may satisfy, for a brief while, my need for the taste of smoke in my mouth, mostly they are not good…at all.  I could list them for you, but if you live in Massachusetts, you know who the big players are.  I assure you, the worst bbq I had in Austin (County Line, with multiple locations throughout the Austin area), is better than the best bbq up here.  Why?  Because it’s not just a method of cooking food down there…it’s a way of life.  It’s in their blood.

In Texas, bbq roadhouses are authentic.  Most have been in business for decades, and the walls are naturally darkened with the rich patina of age, smoke and the ghosts of briskets past.  The air is redolent with the wisps of burning Post Oak logs, the essence of smoked meat and there is a comfortable, welcoming feeling as you walk in and are greeted with a friendly “how you doin’ today?”  There is a quiet pride in cooking this food, and you can feel and taste it with every bite.

So…when a new place opens up here, I have to wonder if this is the “one”.  Will this be the place than finally replicates the taste and environment that is Texas bbq, or will it be just another spot with kitschy bbq d├ęcor, trying to be something it’s not, and failing miserably in the attempt?  Can Slow Bones Modern Barbecue in Burlington make a case for itself?  The answer is a qualified “maybe”.

Slow Bones is a new concept from the founder of Boston Market, and when you walk in, you are immediately reminded of BM.  From the counter-style ordering, to the stainless steel smoker (replacing the BM rotisserie) to the display of side dishes behind the glass (including some that look suspiciously like they came from the corporate cousin), they are clearly looking to capitalize on their Ford-style production methods that were such a great success at BM.  There are a few differences, but let’s talk about the food.

I read enough of the Yelp reviews to keep my expectations in line.  Having eaten most bbq in the Boston area, and as a smoker myself, I am familiar with the difficulty in replicating true bbq flavor.  Most mass-produced bbq up here is an ugly stepchild to real bbq.  In Massachusetts, it’s a menu item, in Texas, it’s dyed in the wool.  So, with that said, Blue Ribbon in Newton, Massachusetts, has the best locally prepared smoked brisket, other than my own.  It was the local standard for me. 

Fatty Brisket Platter
I ordered the brisket platter, which came with two sides of my choice (Memphis slaw and black beans).  I asked if they had “burnt ends”, and ended up with fatty brisket.  In this case, I mean “fatty” in the best possible way.  (As an aside, a brisket is comprised of two different muscles, connected by a layer of fat.  The bottom, or “flat”, is large and very, very lean.  The top, known as the “deckle” or “point”, is heavily marbled with fat and when cooked right, is a party in your mouth, with its unctuous  deliciousness.)  Making burnt ends is a little bit of an art form.  After an initial 12 hours in the smoker, you take the fatty deckle, and smoke it a second time for at least six hours.  Then you cut it in to chunks, sauce it, and smoke it some more.  By the time you eat these heavenly morsels, all the fat has melted away, and a tasty crust has formed that takes your tastes bud to another dimension of time and space.  When I ordered burnt ends at Slow Bones, I expected little gobs of goodness, but instead I got slices of the fatty brisket.  There seems to be a misunderstanding about bbq definitions.

I can say that the fatty brisket was tender and moist.  It had a softened bark that was tasty, but not crispy at all.  This is a problem with bbq in the northeast…because much of it is pre-cooked and held for long periods of time, usually wrapped in foil, the bark softens (unlike in Texas, where the food is consumed in large quantities, and quickly).  It had the taste of smoke, but it was not a great reminder of my Texas experiences.  It was good, and among the better that I have had around here, but as I said, the worst bbq in Texas is still better than the best bbq here.  I didn’t expect it to be the best, but the fatty brisket did exceed my expectations.  I also ordered some regular brisket, which was cut from the flat.  Very lean, with a little smoked flavor, but a meaty taste.  Not bad, but I certainly prefer the fatty cut.

Cornbread with real corn!
I cannot say the same for the sides.  I don’t care much for a lot of sides, but I was underwhelmed with the slaw.  Too much junk in it, and heavily sweetened with sauce.  I really liked the black beans, and thought it was a pleasant surprise.  We also had a few chicken wings, and they had a nice smoky flavor and were tender and tasty.  Lastly, my company enjoyed the cornbread, which had whole kernels of corn and was actually better than expected.

I had two mystery diners with me, and they were satisfied, while not overly impressed. They too had some brisket, but also dug on some swine and ordered the lean St. Louis Ribs.  They both thought they had better elsewhere, but were satisfied with the brisket.  They also enjoyed vegetable sides and salads.  They were also very satisfied with the attention of the service staff.  Though this is a counter service place, “Devin” who was extremely helpful, had a great memory for names, and really brought his “A” game.
St. Louis ribs with fresh cucumber salad

smoked and sauced chicken wing

Overall, I give it a “forked up”.  Slow Bones is located at 80 Mall Road in Burlington, in a space in a strip mall formerly taken up by a D’Angelo’s sub shop.  While not a destination location, if you’re in the area, there are many worse places you could eat.  I look forward to business expansion and more locations, and a little refinement.

Now get out there and eat!