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dining out

Searching for the soul of Boston barbecue

Pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and cucumber yogurt salad from Causeway.
Pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and cucumber yogurt salad from Causeway. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Northern barbecue is a convincing argument for the existence of the soul. No matter what we do right, our ribs and brisket and burnt ends don’t quite taste like they are supposed to.

That “supposed to” is a cavernous, windy phrase filled with meaning: The way these foods taste when prepared in Kansas City, or North Carolina, or Texas, or Memphis, or whichever region is yours and therefore the home of true barbecue. The methods of creating such foods, and the geography and air quality and scenery of the place they are created. The right wood, or animals, or sauces, or lack of sauce. It is easy to see how someone from a barbecue capital of the world could wind up homesick and lonesome in this town. An aspiring business can order the gold-standard smoker, create meticulous blends of hardwood and fruitwood, go as low and as slow as a limbo champion on NyQuil, and still: It won’t taste right. You can taste the tang of industrial restaurant kitchen beneath the smoke in the meat, the dropped Rs of the Sox-fans-since-birth preparing and serving it, and the sincere, well-meaning appreciation of good food that nonetheless falls a few degrees away from native understanding. Your matzoh ball/mofongo/minestra/moussaka is not my mom’s matzoh ball/mofongo/minestra/moussaka.

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When a new barbecue place opens, there is always a moment of excitement among aficionados. Could this be the one that makes the food my heart desires? Especially when it opens in an unlikely spot — say, in the shadow of the Garden. How totally great it would be to have a knockout barbecue place amid the sports bars and the greasy pizza joints. In July, Causeway Restaurant & Bar opened, in the space that used to be the Penalty Box. It’s run by Ruben Garza, and he’s the real deal, a former pit master at Blue Ribbon Barbecue.

It’s a two-level restaurant, brick-walled with tufted black banquettes, downstairs a capacious bar where one evening a lone businessman chews ribs in moody contemplation. Girl-next-door types with ponytails and black Causeway T-shirts serve draft beer and house cocktails with artifice-free friendliness. The menu has a Tex-Mex slant, with nachos and burritos, along with burgers and sandwiches. The main event is the barbecue — brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and more, plus a full complement of usual and unusual sides. It’s all very promising.

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But pedigree and a mouthwatering menu can’t quite stand up to the external forces of North Station dining. In the air: Bruins brawls, frat-boy pheromones, hard-luck stories. Things that make pizza crust go tough and beer flat. The terroir runs counter to ’cue, too. On one visit, the meats are dry and cold and lacking flavor, the sides unappealing, the one sauce on offer too sweet. There is an edamame succotash that tastes frozen then reheated, and colcannon potatoes with a lingering hint of fake butter product. “Nothing here to make you keep eating,” my notes say.

The brisket and ribs with baked beans and endamame succotash from Causeway.
The brisket and ribs with baked beans and endamame succotash from Causeway. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

A second visit, then, is a real improvement. It’s afternoon this time. A trio of Japanese tourists embarking on a Segway tour of the city wave gamely as they pass Causeway’s entrance. The food is hotter, with more life force, less obviously reheated. A pulled pork sandwich comes on a fancy, chewy roll, admittedly a step up in the world from the cheap, airy buns I prefer, which sop up the juices and adhere pleasantly to the roof of the mouth. The meat is a bit dry as you chew, but only if you really concentrate. There’s an aggressive sweet spice in the mix, something almost coconut-like, whether in the meat itself or the sauce I can’t tell. Otherwise you’ve got a nice balance between smoke, vinegar, and meat, with some crisp bits in the pile of tender shreds.

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Ribs are saucy, tender and smoky, nothing to knock your socks off but worth eating this time. Brisket is extremely fatty, salty, and blackened. I’d think maybe I was served burnt ends by accident, but I don’t see them on the menu.

Baked beans are fine but too sweet, like a better version of the canned variety, firm where those are mush. Collards still have a bit of crunch and are laced with plentiful garlic. There’s no mac and cheese on the side. “Only for kids,” a waitress informs me ruefully. My people, all grown, want mac and cheese nonetheless. Causeway is a welcome option near the Garden. It is not yet the serious barbecue spot I dreamed of. I suppose the ads for DJ nights and football parties sponsored by vodka companies on its Facebook page might have tipped me off.

Where, then?

Pit Stop in Mattapan has the right atmosphere, a little hut in a fenced-in parking lot, but it’s only open Thursday through Saturday.

M&M might be “the king of ribs,” as it claims, but the truck is elusive, particularly as the weather gets colder. Twitter, Facebook, and good old-fashioned phone don’t lend much assistance tracking it down.

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Blue Ribbon is easy to find and open daily, with locations in West Newton and Arlington. I visit the former and find the pulled pork sandwich, a regular order of mine a few years back, isn’t singing my song these days. Memphis dry-rubbed ribs and brisket are better. Burnt ends are the best event, flavorful if less burnt than I’d hoped. It seems what I like most at Blue Ribbon these days are the sauces, well-made and balanced. Was it Garza’s touch that made the difference between fine barbecue and good? Does this mean that Causeway is on the upswing, as the staff gets trained and everything settles in? Perhaps. I’ll have to go back and find out.

In the meantime, I toddle on to another stalwart, Redbones in Davis Square. The pulled pork is dry, a rusty color, without much smoke or succulence. Brisket tastes boiled, drained of flavor. But the St. Louis ribs are quite good, smoky and slightly chewy. The mac and cheese is sorry, tasting like plastic and glue, but the baked beans are addictive — meaty, tangy, and sweet. I’d be happy to eat a bowl of those and enjoy the extensive beer selection again soon.

There is much to love at SoulFire. The original is in Allston; I hit up the Mission Hill location. Spare ribs are so flavorful you really don’t need any sauce, pink at the edges and blackened outside, clinging nicely to the bone. They are also greasy and intensely smoky, like the lapsang souchong of the barbecue world. Pulled pork is tender, tangy, and served on the squishy bun I crave.

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Ultimately, I find my barbecue bliss at two restaurants:

Sweet Cheeks in the Fenway does a great job with ribs and pulled pork. It doesn’t hurt that it has fine fried chicken and heavenly biscuits with honey butter. The thing I can’t get enough of here is the pork belly, tender, smoky, dense slices with deep, bacon-y flavor. Meats are natural and sustainably raised, which makes them a little more expensive. I like that enough to pay a little extra for it. You may not.

Pulled pork sandwich from Sweet Cheeks.
Pulled pork sandwich from Sweet Cheeks. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

And Blackstrap BBQ in Winthrop, the friendliest little hangout, serves all kinds of fine smoked meats. But it’s the pork ribs that make me swoon, rubbed in spices, with chewy, black bark and the flavor of campfire. The mac and cheese appears to be made with real cheese, and I’m a sucker for the Asian coleslaw, a spicy, mayonnaise-based version made with purple cabbage. The baked beans need to bake longer.

Does the food at these places taste like it’s supposed to? Yes. It tastes good.

Barbecue ribs with baked beans, cole slaw, and smoked sweet potato salad from Blackstrap BBQ.
Barbecue ribs with baked beans, cole slaw, and smoked sweet potato salad from Blackstrap BBQ.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/file

Causeway Restaurant & Bar 65 Causeway St., Boston. 617-227-9100. www.causewayboston.com

Blue Ribbon Barbecue 1375 Washington St., West Newton. 617-332-2583. www.blueribbonbbq.com

Redbones Barbecue 55 Chester St., Davis Square, Somerville. 617-628-2200. www.redbones.com

SoulFire 737 Huntington Ave., Mission Hill, Boston. 617-232-8000. www.soulfirebbq.com

Sweet Cheeks 1381 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston. 617-266-1300. www.sweetcheeksq.com

Blackstrap BBQ 47A Woodside Ave., Winthrop. 617-207-1783. www.blackstrapbbq.com

Related coverage:

- Boston’s 10 best BBQ joints

- How to build the perfect BBQ meal

- Which of America’s great barbecue regions does it best?


Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.