PIG OUT Sweet Cheeks offers tender, juicy barbecue with a hint of smoke. But skip the macaroni and cheese.
What happens when a name chef decides to open a barbecue joint? That's the question that looms as I walk into Sweet Cheeks, Tiffani Faison's new spot near Fenway Park, and the answer is that there is a certain style on almost every plate. It's probably a terrible insult in the inverse-snob world of Texas smokers, but the meats at Sweet Cheeks are subtle. The smoke is in there, but not heavily. There's a certain pinkness, but no red lines. And none of the meat is dried out — everything is juicy and tender. Even the moonshine turns out to be an unprecedented list of all-American macro- and microdistillery products. Maybe a four-star review will take the sting out of the accusation of refinement.
The space is gloriously no-frills, with wood-and-iron tables so distressed you could use them to reshoot the egg-eating-contest scene from Cool Hand Luke. (The story is that they are recycled church doors and bowling lanes.) On your table is a jar of random silverware, and water is served in wide-mouth mason jars. Pricing is confusing: on the dinner menu, you can order "trays" with one kind of meat ($15–$25), a "Big Cheeks" tray with two kinds ($24), or a "Fat Tray" ($26) with three. You can also order sandwiches with or without sides — listed on the menu as "hot scoops" or "cold scoops."
For some people, the apotheosis of hot-smoked meat is beef short ribs, available only à la carte or as the most expensive tray ($25), and that gets you two ribs. The meat has plenty of fat to hold smoke, and is tender to the point of falling off the bone. The cheat would be to pre-poach the meat, but then it wouldn't stay this juicy or retain this much meat flavor. I see a very slow cooking process, at a temperature low enough so as not to render out the fat, with a short period of smoke (real wood stacked up in the open kitchen and into the dining room at time) and another of high heat to make a little crust.
If it's not ribs, it might be brisket, and they use the fattier point-cut and use it well. On one order, my brisket had browned and crisped surfaces, like "burnt ends," but the smoke was very moderate, and no pink lines. One the plus side, I've never had this cut so tender and juicy in any cooking system.
Where I think this method really shines is on pulled pork, which has always been an open-pit project, and thus not so smoky as the Texas style. Sweet Cheeks' pork is all Berkshire, an older breed of swine with plenty of tasty fat. It's done in the classic Carolina sauce of vinegar and a little chili, and more is served alongside. It's very, very good. Pork ribs (a half slab, typically) are pink, falling off the bone, still retaining good fat and just a hint of smoke. Here you may want the house barbecue sauce, which is fairly conventional, or the smaller bottle of "super hot" sauce, which is hotter, but not unbearable. Then there is "pork belly," which seems to be previously unsmoked (possibly brined or slightly cured) slab bacon, served in thick slices. The meat is as lean and flavorful as good ham — real pork fiends will eat it.