To many, barbecue is sacred, deeply linked to places like Texas, Kansas City, St. Louis, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Memphis, and fiercely guarded by the natives. So for those purists’ sake, let’s get this out of the way early: SlowBones Modern BBQ in Burlington serves quinoa, not exactly your typical side to pulled pork and brisket. Hence the word “modern” in the restaurant’s name.
“A lot of traditional barbecue, it would just be comfort food, a splurge,” says general manager Keith Szymanski, who helped develop the menu and concept. “What we tried to do is have a mix so people could come in several times a week and have a completely different experience.”
SlowBones isn’t trying to be some kitschy roadhouse passing off platters as authentic Texas barbecue (when they’re not). The place has good bloodlines. President and CEO Steven “Kip” Kolow was cofounder of Boston Chicken, which opened in Newton in 1985 and became the chain Boston Market. SlowBones debuted in the Burlington Marketplace in mid-November; the team has already scouted a second location in Nashua, and is targeting the end of the summer for the opening. There’s no alcohol at the Burlington restaurant but Szymanski says that future locations will offer craft beers and wine.
The clean, open space in a strip mall gives a good hint about what type of chain it hopes to become, keeping company with Chipotle and B Good. There are modern amenities, like digital menu boards and online ordering, along with “the most current rotisserie smoker,” says Szymanski. SlowBones’ traffic is split between dine-in and takeout, and also offers catering. The menu leaps between regions, from Texas-style brisket to Missouri-inspired ribs. Much of it is surprisingly good.
The most straightforward — and most popular — way to get a good feel for what’s here is the BBQ Sampler Plate ($15.95): two ribs, a quarter chicken, a choice of carved or braised brisket, and two sides. This massive amount of food threatens to buckle its paper plate, but it’s also a bargain. Each item can be ordered on its own.
BBQ braised Angus brisket (small $9.75, large $12.75), smoked in delicious barbecue sauce, has great flavor, which can be heightened by adding a little more sauce. SlowBones offers eight sauces, including a tangy Carolina and a spicy Asian. Carved Angus brisket (small $9.75 , large $12.75) is, regrettably, too dry.
St. Louis ribs (third $11.95; half $15.25), dry-rubbed and smoked until tender, are big on flavor but don’t have much meat. BBQ chicken (quarter $7.50, half $9.95) has been rubbed and smoked rotisserie-style. It’s nicely cooked but not that flavorful. The same holds true for a grilled chicken sandwich ($6.95) with Memphis chopped slaw and spicy Asian BBQ sauce on a brioche roll, naan, or lettuce wrap. The meat isn’t exciting and the overabundant slaw cancels out other tastes.
Shrimp burger ($7.45), on the other hand, flame-grilled and paired with lettuce, tomatoes, and chipotle aioli, balances tastes and textures well. Sandwiches come with house-made barbecue chips that look well-seasoned but don’t taste like it. If you were blindfolded, says a friend, you’d never know they were barbecue.
A beautiful SlowBones salad ($9.95) is a mix of greens, grilled chicken breast, tomatoes, dried cranberries, roasted walnuts, cornbread croutons, and gorgonzola.
Barbecue sides are hugely important (small $2.25, medium $3.25, large $6.25). Two stand out: whipped sweet potatoes with crumbled pecan crust, and mac and cheese, a blend of smoked provolone, yellow cheddar, Parmesan, and romano with a hint of bacon in curly cavatappi pasta topped with panko. Cornbread ($.75) isn’t overly sweet and has a good texture thanks to whole kernel corn; mashed potatoes and French fries ($2.25) are both satisfying.
And that quinoa? The maple syrup-smacked grain is too saturated with butter and tastes like it’s been sitting too long. A pecan bar for dessert ($1.95) provides a tasty finish to the meal.
Even with a few misses, SlowBones is better than like-minded places (SoulFire in Boston and the nearby Firebox in Bedford). It’s not trying to be anything it’s not and that’s refreshing. We’ll watch with interest as it multiplies.