In Search of Southern Cooking in America at Large:
Sweet Cheeks BBQ in Boston
When I think of barbecue, my mind first travels back to the Memorial Day block parties held in the neighborhood catty-corner to my parents’ street. It was an all-day event filled with water-gun fights, trampoline contests, and an endless red-and-white checkered table covered in potluck spoils. The pièce de résistance was, fittingly, a slow-roasted pig, tended by as many dads as could fit around the pit, each holding a beer or two. Once the pig had succumbed to the smoldering embers, the dads would painstakingly pick it apart (saving, I am sure, the best parts as cooks’ treats) and serve the meat with an array of sweet, spicy, and tangy sauces. Piled atop a generic hamburger bun and eaten with juice running down to my elbows, this dish signaled the beginning of summer and the short two months of freedom from all of my childhood responsibility.
The New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin has a name for this kind of memory: “the fever of Hometown Food Nostalgia.” This “fever” plagues expatriates of all parts of the country, causing them to crave and wax poetic on foods of their childhood, no matter their actual quality. Given its extreme regional specificity, barbecue provokes some of the most vehement nostalgia. After all, we are bound by our upbringings; as a child of the pork belt, I am an unabashed whole-hog devotee, but I accept that those raised in, say, Texas, may swear by the cow. Call it feverous if you like, but at its core, barbecue is an intimately personal affair.
When I sat down to eat at Sweet Cheeks in Boston, my Knoxville-bred friend and I immediately began recounting barbecue after barbecue. We spoke of traveling to far-out shacks in the outreaches of the cities of our childhood, eating juicy smoked pork out of Styrofoam take-away containers and picking through massive menus at “upscale” joints to find the one dish that even money couldn’t screw up. We probably would have continued to jabber on and on about our meaty forays, but we were quickly silenced by the onslaught of food.
Cold beers and fried green tomatoes were a knockout way to start the meal. The tomatoes were just on the right side of tangy and coated in crisp, well-browned cornmeal. I could have done without the strangely spicy ranch-esque dipping sauce; these tomatoes were great enough to stand alone.
Also great: the pork belly. Ordered as one of three meats on our shared “Fat Cheeks” tray, it was tender, succulent, and carried just enough smoke in its rippling layers of fat. Low and slow brings out the best in the cut: The belly possessed none of the chewiness that can come from the slapdash preparations seen on many trendy menus these days.
Alongside the belly, we ordered brisket and pulled pork. Argue with me if you like on the absence of ribs, but I find brisket and pulled pork to be the two most important indicators of barbecue quality. Pulled pork is a staple in most barbecue restaurants in the Southeast and brisket is, frankly, hard to get right.
Neither of these meats could stand on their own at Sweet Cheeks. Both were dry, stringy, and lacked the full force of smoke that should have been imparted from their oak and maple wood-filled smoker named “Tootsie.” The staff claims a Texas pedigree to describe their style of dry-smoking each cut of meat. In other words, each piece of meat is coated in a spice rub before being placed on the smoker and then left to cook with no further addition of sauce, mop, or rub. This technique works just fine if the meat, such as pork belly, is full of fat and connective tissue; it will baste itself as it slowly cooks, resulting in rich, succulent barbecue with no need for sauce. If, however, the brisket or pork shoulder is too lean, the dry heat will gradually turn the meat chalky.
I easily salvaged the pork by dousing it in sauce, but had no such luck with the brisket. Despite its tempting burnt edges, the beef just wasn’t worth it. (When the restaurant first opened back in November, they offered a choice between fatty and lean brisket; why they took away that option and left diners with the leaner cut is bizarre and disappointing.)
Sweet Cheeks offers a few choices in barbecue sauce: A ketchup-forward tomato-based barbecue sauce and a tangier “North Carolina”-style sauce grace the table. (They also offer a super-hot habanero sauce, but this potent blend should be used sparingly, perhaps in addition to one of the other choices.) Unfortunately both were so sweet that I was hard pressed to notice much of a difference between the two once I drizzled them over my meat.
Despite these errors, I’d be happy returning to eat more pork belly, tomatoes, and perhaps the collards (meaty and tangy, as they should be) if not for the strange, Big Brother-like vibe of the place. Between the too-clever kitsch of the décor (repurposed church doors are used for tables, steel prep trays are used for plates, and a huge black and white photo of an old Southern man eating in a nondescript barbecue shack adorns the one wall not fitted with flat screens) to the all-too generic menu items, Sweet Cheeks screams restaurant concept.
It would be little surprise if, in the coming years, the restaurant branched out into several locations, each more average than the last, as it is helmed by the ever-competitive Tiffani Faison of Top Chef fame. As anyone familiar with the show knows, to be a “Top Chef,” one must first possess the skills necessary to prepare just about any dish from any type of cuisine, and, second, be focused on making as much money as possible. These qualities rarely do chefs much good—serving unfocused, generic dishes with an eye towards easy expansion often results in bland or boring food. Sweet Cheeks, unfortunately, falls into this category.
Instead of offering an expansive menu in an attempt to reconcile each regionally specific style of barbecue, Sweet Cheeks should take a cue from the beloved hole-in-the-wall barbecue shacks dotting the South and focus on one specialty. Instead of coaxing “Tootsie” into perfectly smoking so many different cuts of meat, Faison should fill the beast full of pork belly and make the ‘cue sing. There would be no need to tag the meat “Texas-style” or “Carolina-style.” Unencumbered by a menu of forgetful dishes, barbecue pork belly (served, of course, with fried green tomatoes) could be Boston’s own regional style, giving displaced Northerners a new hometown barbecue for which to be nostalgic.