Remember when supermarkets DIDN”T have hot rotisserie chicken by the checkout? I may be wrong, but I think that Boston Chicken (later Boston Market) practically invented the savory brown takeout chicken that soon grew from its Newton base to become America’s comfort-food crack.
About 200 stores opened and about a thousand added menu items later, co-founder Steven “Kip” Kolow flew the coop in the mid-1990s, because he said he didn’t like the direction that the chain was moving. The chain filed for bankruptcy in 1998, was acquired by McDonald’s and later sold to a private equity firm in 2007.
Now Kolow is back with SlowBones, a barbecue joint in the “Fast Casual” dining category that features chicken, and ribs, and pulled pork, and other BBQ greatest hits. Debuting around Thanksgiving in a Burlington strip mall, the 10-table restaurant and takeout counter is the test kitchen for a concept Kolow hopes to grow across the country.
His barbecue is termed “modern,” in order to make sure no one accuses it of trying to be authentic Southern. What it also offers is a natural approach to a category rarely associated with an attention to food sensitivities.
“Barbecue is a genre that is really missing from the fast-casual game right now,” Kolow said in a statement. “SlowBones will satisfy your craving for barbecue but also honor the way you want to eat. The exceptional quality of the ingredients and recipes, and our desire to honor your diet and lifestyle, is what makes SlowBones stand out.”
Most products are U.S.-based, and the pork is from antibiotic-free pigs from the Midwest. The restaurant offers gluten-free and nut-free options, although everything is made in a kitchen that also contains wheat and nuts. And hey, surprise, there’s plenty of options for your vegetarian friends.
“We’re not buying commercial barbecue sauces,” said store manager Keith Szymanski. “We make our own, with fresh spices and tomato paste, turned into our house-made sauces. Exceptions for the gluten-sensitive would be the soy sauce-based Asian BBQ sauce, and that the kitchen is not free of wheat and nuts. In the next few days, we'll have a matrix of all the potential allergens listed on our menu.”
But enough about healthy and gluten and such.
There’s moist and plentiful portions of pulled pork, made from all-natural pork shoulder “rubbed and smoked low and slow” for 14 hours. The St. Louis ribs’ meat falls off the bone. There’s a choice of marinated rotisserie or char-grilled chicken, and two briskets: carved Angus smoked Texas-style, and BBQ Angus house-smoked and braised in the house BBQ sauce. Kolow’s favorite is the chopped brisket with the horseradish cream sauce.
Plates range from $7.50-$12.75, an entrée and two sides, or $15.95 for a sampler plate of brisket, ribs, ¼ chicken, and two sides.
The ribs were a hit. If you can, get a bunch of sauces to try your favorite; I kept going back to the Carolina sauce, spicy BBQ with jalapeno, and the horseradish cream sauce.
SlowBones’ BBQ sauces are all made in-house with fresh ingredients and has no high fructose corn syrup. Other choices include House, Smokey, Spicy Asian (which isn’t that spicy), cucumber dill, Gorgonzola, and horseradish.
There’s plenty of choices for sides. Most popular are the mac and cheese, topped with panko and full of flavor from the four cheeses, including a New Hampshire smoked provolone. The vegetarian version, which is also served to the kids, skips the bacon and panko and was inhaled by our 10-year-old. The sweet potato casserole featured whipped sweet potatoes, which was delicious. The mashed Russet Idaho potatoes were velvety and buttery, made with just onions, milk, salt and pepper.
The succotash is done with edamame, sweet corn and red bell peppers, for a modern twist on traditional succotash. The cole slaw is chunky and fresh, with mustard cutting some of the mayo heaviness. Beans with pork were full of flavor and had just the right tenderness without being too sweet. The corn bread was practically a dessert, with big chunks of corn and so moist it was almost a corn pudding. More of this, please. The pickles are also made in-house from fresh cucumbers: they are so good they should be sold at the counter, in jars.
Sandwiches are served on a brioche roll, Naan bread, or lettuce wraps, and served with a side of the addictive spicy BBQ chips made in-house. The chips are also sold by the bag. Sandwiches include the pulled pork with Memphis chopped slaw; Gulf shrimp burger with chipotle aioli; grilled chicken with slaw and Spicy Asian BBQ sauce; and brisket with pickles and horseradish cream sauce or BBQ sauce.
There’s also a decent kids menu. Our kid loved the ribs as well as the Asian chicken wings, proving that the sauce wasn’t too spicy. He found the chips too spicy, however.
The desserts just include shortbread tarts with pecan pie or chocolate and walnut, and a gluten-free chocolate brownie that was not too sweet, although a bit dry. If you didn't tell me it was gluten free I wouldn't have guessed.
The desserts were tasty, but I think I'd rather finish with the sweet potato casserole or the cornbread.
For the vegetarian, the vegetable sides are meat-free. The vegetarian items are made separately from the meat area, and the soups are made from a vegetarian soup base. “What we're doing is creating the base and add a chicken, chili, or vegetarian black beans. The corn chowder is vegetarian. Sometimes we have a variation, where we add house-smoked chicken and make a chicken corn chowder — that's fantastic, that's my lunch.”
“All the products feature a high degree of … sanitation and segregation,” said Keith. “We're trying to honor the way everyone eats. The shrimp burger is finished on the grill grates, on a section that’s away from the meat. There’s pork in the mac and cheese, but the alternative has the same four cheeses. It does not have the panko topping, which has bacon and vegetables. We're doing some testing to make this same recipe without the pork. We haven't made a final decision on that yet. We’re trying sautéed vegetables that are processed down to add a nice layer of flavor.
“The whipped sweet potatoes have no lard, no high fructose corn syrup. Whenever possible we're using raw things that involve the least amount of processing. The black beans are done in a vegetable base, the quinoa is vegetarian, finished with a touch of cream. Vegan is a challenge in BBQ. In the pipeline, smoked tofu is a consideration for the future. At this point we had to pare the menu down so we could make it approachable with our most popular offerings. In the next couple of weeks we’re coming out with fresh seasonable vegetables. Right now we also have a great olives recipe in the pipeline.”
For now, the flagship SlowBones is working out the recipes and will be adding daily specials soon. I hope that pipeline also has more dessert options. Beer and wine will come to a future venue. There are also plans to go GMO-free and organic.
“At this point as a one-off, we don't really have the purchasing power to influence our vendors just yet,” said Keith. “That is our goal, to serve what we term our ‘food with integrity’ approach. We plan to deal directly with family farms and local produce.”
They plan to expand to a half dozen or so in the area, and to California, soon.
80 Mall Road