Rusty Can (Byfield, MA)

The useful thing about catching a flight out of Kona at 10pm is that, after a very short connection in Phoenix, we arrived in Boston mid-afternoon, which actually is nice for a change. Instead of an early-morning or light-night drive back home, this gave us a chance to stop by Byfield, MA and get some barbecue.

Wait, what? Did you read that right? Yes. As regular readers of mine know, fewer things invoke more more of my skepticism than the use of “New England” and “barbecue” in the same sentence. As I detailed several times (most recently in my review of the excellent Refinery in Andover, NH), there are the occasional places have served up some good barbecue, each is outnumbered a good 10:1 by other places serving up truly mediocre barbecue; overcooked meat, slathered in cloying sauce, that only vaguely resembles real barbecue. But Rusty Can had something that a lot of other places in New England lack, and that’s a solid recommendation from Gary Goldblatt (who used to run an excellent resource called that cataloged New England BBQ joints, good and bad). Gary declared Rusty Can to have the best brisket in New England, and that’s a pretty strong endorsement. So we felt compelled to finally give them a try.

Rusty Can is located in a fairly quiet shopping strip just off of I-95, next to a lumber yard. Simply walking in the door gives some good barbecue vibes: there’s a pervasive smell of good smoke (avoid places that don’t have that), a relatively compact list of meats, sides, and beer on the wall, and a lot of people enjoying barbecue off of plain brown paper. The overall ambiance is “Texas BBQ Joint”, and they’ve got it down pat. Owner Jim Sullivan (“Sully”) is no stranger to barbecue, having traveled around a lot and picking the styles that he liked best, and that mostly seems to settle around brisket smoked in oak, although on most days the menu also has pork ribs, pulled pork, and pork belly, and usually has sausage and either chicken and turkey as well.

Carol and I started out with some hushpuppies. I’m usually not all that much into sides when I’m doing BBQ, but Rusty Can won some pretty good points just having these on the menu; I don’t usually encounter hushpuppies this far Northeast, so I just had to indulge. I didn’t regret this, since these were some really great hush puppies: just the right, firm cornbread texture, fried up to just the right crispiness, and nice for dipping in some of the sauces to try out. Overall, a strong start.

For the main course meats are at Rusty Can, you can order them up two ways, either by themselves by wait (like a good, classic Texas joint), or as combos. I ended up going for a two-meat combo: brisket (a mix of flat and point), with coleslaw and black beans for sides. Oh, and the classic white bread (so you can make up a bit of a sandwich), pickles, and cornbread (which was a bit excessive after my hushpuppies). Okay, now for the run-down. Let’s start with the most important part of the combo: the brisket.

Everything here was hitting on all cylinders. The meat was tender and well-perfused with a good, oaky smoke. The meat has a good bark and a clear smoke ring. Good texture, and a bit of both flat and fatty ends to mix it up, and none of it dry or excessively falling apart. Most importantly, there was nothing “wrong” here, just some good, quality brisket that you could serve down south without shame. And in New England, that makes it some of the best I’ve had (roughly tying with The Refinery in Andover, NH). That alone will keep me coming back.

The pulled pork? Honestly, not quite in the same camp. The basics were all here: a nice, smoky perfusion through the meat, some good bark, and a good overall level of tenderness. This was good, but it had a bit of a mushy note to it, usually indicating it’s been cooked a little hot, held a little long, or both. Don’t get me wrong, this was decent (better than much of what I’ve actually had in SC and TX), but definitely not in the same class, which surprised me a bit, usually pulled pork is easier to pull off (heh, bad pun) than brisket.

The rest of the combo was surprisingly good. A nice bold slaw with some strong celery seed notes (not everyone’s jam, but I like it that way, especially if eating alongside pork). The beans were black instead of the more usual pinto beans, and that made for a nice, rich bean flavor. And the cornbread was actually quite good, even if I only nibbled on it.

Carol did the brisket as well, but mixed up her choices a bit, getting some ribs (St Louis style) and smoked mac and cheese. Both of these were stellar performers: the ribs nicely smoked, a good solid bark, fully tender and flavorful meat, and a texture that stopped just short of “falling off the bone” (which I consider a bit overdone). A strong performer as well. And the smoked mac and cheese? Probably the strongest side dish of the table: a good, rich and slightly smoky cheese, some still slightly al-dente shells, and a good overall cheesy texture. We’d happily get that again.

Well, my friend Gary hasn’t yet steered me wrong, and when he said that Rusty Can is best in class for New England? He’s not kidding, they’ve got some stellar brisket, and everything else holds its own. There’s a few rough corners, but if I go back, I’m definitely getting more brisket, and probably some ribs and mac and cheese as well.

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