It’s Monday night and the new SoulFire BBQ location at Brigham Circle is empty. This wouldn’t be an unusual sight for a weeknight except that a line streams down the street for Penguin Pizza, directly next door.
There’s a reason for this disparity. Penguin offers two things that SoulFire currently does not, two things critical to the large student population at the foot of Mission Hill: TVs to watch “Monday Night Football” and beer.
The SoulFire staff is apologetic that we’re missing the game (not that we mention it), and they take turns walking next door to peer through the Penguin’s window for an update. The bigger loss is the beer, as barbecue and brew make a natural pairing.
The Mission Hill location, which opened in July, inherited the same blood red walls as its Allston counterpart, but lacks much of the charm. Or really, any charm. A little decor here or there wouldn’t hurt. A TV and a liquor license, of course, would be better. The restaurant’s manager, Marcus Harris, says they are planning to install flat screens soon and then apply for a liquor license, and that they recognize it feels “barren.”
Hopefully the growing pains come to a quick resolution, because local residents may be starting to take note. Over the course of three visits, the place is pretty much dead, even on weekends. However, the delivery service seems to have a pulse, so perhaps the neighbors have figured out that while the restaurant itself may be not be the hip place to hang out in now, the food is still good.
And that’s what makes the atmosphere, or current lack thereof, such a shame; the food is certainly acceptable barbecue. Spare ribs ($3 single; $14 third-rack; $16 half-rack; $25 full rack) are smoky and outstanding. They don’t fall off the bone, but they’re not fatty or tough. The brisket, which the waiter tells us is SoulFire’s calling card, comes either sliced or chopped into cubes, and can be served as a sandwich ($9) or platter ($13). Indeed, it’s good brisket, but it needs a bit of sauce to come alive. The best brisket option is the BBQ Reuben ($10), a hulking mess of Russian dressing, SoulFire sauce, Swiss cheese, sliced brisket, and coleslaw on marble rye.
The platters, a meat with two sides and pickles, are hit or miss. Fried catfish ($14) is too heavily breaded and seems to get more rubbery deeper into the dish. Fried chicken ($13) takes a page from KFC, but walks the walk with a peppery flavor. Half hickory chicken ($12) has potential, with good flavor in the meat.
For the sides, creamy mac and cheese ($3 half pint; $5 pint; $9 quart) comes adorned with crumbled Lays barbecue potato chips but fails to stand out. However, fried mac and cheese ($3 small; $5 large) is far better than it should be, arriving in bite-size cubes. Collard greens have a sweet sauce, but need to be more savory. Corn bread ($1.25) is good, and though it tastes like it’s from a mix, Harris insists it’s made from scratch.
With good barbecue in a strategic location, it’s a shame people aren’t packing the place. Something about SoulFire’s atmosphere rings familiar to the recently opened, just as soon closed, Union Square barbecue joint The Bearded Pig. Food is served in a similar style, arriving on large pizza trays lined with red checked paper, making portions appear smaller than they may be. The Bearded Pig also didn’t have much going on inside the restaurant, or a liquor license. However, that restaurant was done in by a smoker location issue, which seemingly won’t be problematic for SoulFire, because meats are smoked at the Allston location and sent to Mission Hill daily. There’s hope for this place yet.
Until SoulFire works on its ambience, the neighborhood seems to be figuring out the trick: Get it to go, get it delivered, just don’t dine in.
Glenn Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.