Boston’s an interesting town for barbecue. You can do a decent job with it and please a lot of people, but there are enough Southern transplants around that if you don’t get it just right, if you don’t respect the proper traditions, there will be plenty of complaints. A new contender has just jumped in the mix: Sweet Cheeks, led by chef/owner Tiffani Faison, the second place finisher of Top Chef’s first season. Sweet Cheeks might have what it takes to earn respect from Boston’s Southerners and will most likely please casual barbecue enthusiasts.
We arrived at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night to a packed house. Our party of eight had a couple no-shows, resulting in strangers being given the last two seats at our table, a high eight-top by the bar. Many of the tables are long and communal when necessary. (By the looks of it, it’s probably almost always necessary.) The space — previously home to the Fenway location of Cambridge, 1. — is characterized by rich wood paneling and rustic wood plank tables. To the right, you can peer into the stainless steel kitchen; on the far right, you can catch a glimpse of Tootsie, the nearly 5,000-pound meat smoker (named for Texas pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz). Large cans full of mismatched utensils, bell jars for drinks, and metal trays for food round out the ambiance.
Meat’s available by the quarter pound à la carte or as a “tray” with a hot side and a cold side. The standards are available: pulled pork and chicken, brisket, ribs, pork belly. All Sweet Cheeks pork is Berkshire, a heritage pork as respected as Kobe beef, and the beef is described as “never ever” – never treated with hormones, antibiotics, and such.
Amongst the six of us, we tried the entire selection of hot and cold sides, most of which are served in mugs. Opinions were mixed on the mac and cheese: I loved it, while others barely touched it. It’s on the thinner, not-too-cheesy side. The farm salad was a popular choice, complementing the massive amounts of meat with some Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and greens. The salt and pepper potatoes were outstanding. My favorite part of the meal, though, was the “bucket o’ biscuits” served with honey butter. These were among the best biscuits I’ve ever had, a close second to the biscuits at a Kentucky tourist trap, the Loveless Cafe, where I stopped on the way home from the 2005 Bonnaroo music festival, ravenously hungry and disgustingly unshowered. Back to Sweet Cheeks – the biscuits were huge, fluffy, and moist. And I wanted to eat the whole bucket o’ them.
Sweet Cheeks’ biggest hurdle might be pricing. Few people find it acceptable to pay $18 and up for a plate of barbecued meat and side dishes, although the crowds prove that enough people do seem to be willing, at least for now. Faison was quoted in many articles prior to opening talking about the authentic, no-frills, Texas-style barbecue that inspires her; she doesn’t want to do anything fancy because that would disrespect the source material. But there seems to be a disconnect between this philosophy and the prices. Even so, Sweet Cheeks appears to be on a solid path.
Will it please true Southerners? Honestly, I don’t know. My Southern experience is limited. But it’s certainly worth a try, and it’s definitely filling an empty niche in its neighborhood. And I will definitely be back for more of those biscuits.
Lunch Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner Hours: 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.