“Serving all souls,” it says. This wouldn’t be one of those faith-based enterprises, would it? Actually, some very religious people have made some devilishly fine barbecue, so why not? But in fact, the soul references apparently identify an enterprise as deeply committed to ’60s and ’70s soul music as to the food that ought to accompany it. You walk in and confront the sound of horns, the good, smoky smell of real barbecue, and a lot of red-and-black wall space (original idea: decorate with soul-album covers; current idea: big photos of musicians recording; actually on the wall: nothing). The food theme is plain, dry-rubbed smoked meat. This surmounts many of the regional variations, which are about sauces. You order at one counter, and pick up at another that is equipped with various barbecue sauces to sample: a North Carolina sauce (vinegar-based with red pepper, typical for pulled pork), a South Carolina sauce (mustard-based, intriguing), and little jars of stuff like “devil relish” (habanero salsa, but not outlandishly so).
FOOD WITH SOUL: Allston gets good barbecue.
Among the appetizers, the Southern-fried mac-and-cheese bites ($5) should grab the after-school crowd, being croquettes of teen comfort. The SoulFire beef chili ($5.50) is a big bowl of Boston-style (mild spice, tomato sauce) chili with some meat and more cheese, as well as cornbread croutons that are too sweet for this purpose. They are also too sweet for the “iceberg wedges” salad ($4.50), but the house salad ($4) is a fine garden salad.
The best of the ’cue, in my humble opinion, is the hickory roast chicken ($8/half platter; $11/whole chicken). Chicken is usually a challenge for a barbecue pit that also does briskets and ribs at the same time. But the chicken here is juicy and smoky in just the right ratio, fine on its own and a great foil for the sauces. Entrées put the meat on a thick slice of white bread (soppin’ bread in some parts of the South), with sweet yellow cornbread on the side, bread-and-butter pickles, and your choice of two sides ($1.95/à la carte): cole slaw with a little caraway, excellent collard greens with a touch of sausage, “Boston baked beans” (not as sweet as some), macaroni and cheese, or potato salad.
The SoulFire platter comes with a choice of two meats, of which we took brisket ($6/sandwich; $10/platter) and spare ribs ($11/quarter rack; $12/half rack; $20/full rack). The former was nice and juicy but could have been a little smokier; still, I’d give it a seven. The ribs had probably been poached (of which I usually do not approve), as they were falling-off-the-bone tender while being just-the-right-amount smoked. The dry rub added a hit of salt and sugar to the surfaces; in summary, these are very good ribs. Pulled pork ($6/sandwich; $9.50/platter) is a fine job, juicy without the usual vinegar sauce, and with just a hint of smoke. The platter portion is outrageous, and you can use some of the North Carolina sauce to get the familiar product, or do something innovative. The fried-catfish platter ($12.50) is two pieces of fine fried fillet, for when all that meat just gets to be too much.
The beer-and-wine license is in the works, so your drink options are Harpoon sodas ($1.95), commercial sodas ($1.50/small; $2/large), rather good homemade lemonade ($2/small; $2.50/large), home-brewed iced tea ($2/small; $2.50/large), and something called an Arnold Palmer ($2/small; $2.50/large), which is a combination of iced tea and lemonade. The golfer apparently made this one up himself, let it go into the public domain, and has only recently trademarked “Arnold Palmer Tee,” distributed by Arizona.
The portions at SoulFire do not require desserts, but here they are: a two-pack of chocolate-chip cookies ($2) with more chocolate chips than soft cookie, and strawberry shortcake ($4), an entirely credible yellow-cake version with very decent strawberries and real whipped cream.
Service on a slow night was rapid, and the you-pick-up system suggests that it will always be pretty good. We also bussed our own table; that may become a problem, although the platter design (paper napkins on round metal trays) should make for efficient disposal if they set up a station or hire buspersons. The atmosphere is developing. It smells and sounds right and it looks pretty good, so they’ve built it right, priced it right, and people will come.
My original plan for this week’s column was 400 Highland, one of the dozen or so restaurants over the year that have closed between the time I ate there and the Phoenix’s publication date. At least it didn’t burn down the day before the review went to press, as happened to a pretty decent fish house. There we were on the stands with a review of merely historical interest. For the historical record, 400 Highland was an upscale move from the pizza-and-small-plates Sauce — probably a bad guess about the location and market. The food ran a little too salty and peppery, but there was a brilliant redo on Mexican posole with a strongly cilantro-flavored broth, and a memorable Meyer lemon tart. Look for them when this kitchen staff (executive chef Zachary Lord) resurfaces.
Soulfire Barbecue, 182 Harvard Avenue, Allston | daily, 11 am–11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | no liquor | no valet parking | sidewalk-level access, wide aisles | 617.787.3003
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com.