The barbecue mavens in my circle have been salivating over Dinosaur BBQ since it opened in December of 2004, when it made the move down state from its original home in Syracuse. Being rather lazy (read: travelling to 131st Street for dinner was not something I was about to do without a car), I smiled and nodded when scores of rib-obsessed friends and colleagues told me I needed to check out their ‘cue, with no intention of making the trek. After all, I had RUB, Daisy Mae’s, Smoke Joint, Hill Country and Blue Smoke. I was doing fine on my BBQ fix without schlepping up north.
And that’s the way things went for almost four years, until last weekend when Craig and I headed up to Cooperstown to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame (a life long dream of his and hordes of other 12 year old boys). Like most trips we take, there is always a culinary component; for every bloody sock (baseball fans will hopefully get this reference), there’s a new place to dine. So on the way up, we stopped at the CIA for a great lunch in their Apple Pie Bakery and Café (I was thoroughly impressed), and on the way back home, we decided we’d finally take in the smoky goodness at Dinosaur and make a pit stop for Sunday night ‘cue fest.
If you’ve never been to Dinosaur, it’s worth a trip. (Smile and nod.) That being said, the place is a mad house, so be prepared to feel like you’re in Grand Central Station during rush hour, times ten. While the place is massive, with seating for close to 200 in a wood-beamed, license-plate strewn, honky tonk roadhouse, it fills up fast and even early on a Sunday evening we had to squeeze our way through the scrum of fans to find our way to the hostess station and put our name down for a table. Despite the mêlée, the people who work at Dinosaur are trained civilized professionals. No one is harried or rushed, or frantic. The crowds may be rib-crazed, but the staff is friendly and smiling, and the hostess took our names and assured us a less than 15 minute wait with the calm sweetness of someone serving fresh-squeezed lemonade on a sidewalk.
If you’re lucky, you can wait at the bar, where you can calm yourself with pint-sized glasses of sweet tea, margaritas, bourbon cocktails or a local brew like the Hook and Ladder. While waiting, you might watch one of the games playing on TV overhead, get caught up on your people watching (it's priceless here with Midwestern tourists, neighborhood folks, college kids, families, and cool downtown hipsters all sharing the same space), or get started on some appetizers. I’d recommend all three. While wings come in three ($3.95), six ($6.95) or a dozen ($11.95), you’ll want to take your usual wings estimate and double it, because these wings are special.
I usually hesitate to say that any food is the best I’ve ever had, because that’s a pretty strong statement, but in this case I feel pretty good about it. These are plump and fat with tons of meat to sink your teeth into, and they seem to be saturated with smoky flavor from bone to saucy skin. Your level of saucy hotness is your choice with mild honey bbq (beginners) to Hottest Devil’s Duel (advanced fire eaters only). I’d recommend the Hot Wango Tango, a lip-tingling balance of sweet, tangy, smoky and spicy. We only ordered only three wings (what were we thinking?) in anticipation of a larger feast to come, but if I were to do the meal over, I’d have gone for six. I suggest you do the same.
After 14 minutes passed, our name was announced over the loudspeaker (it’s a bit like waiting for your gate to be called for boarding at the airport) and we were escorted through the happy mobs to a table for two in the back that seemed large enough for a solo toddler to have some Cheerios, but not really two full-grown adults to dig into a feast (our drinks took up all the surface area on the table). But hey, we were seated and happy about it.
The menu is a mind-numbing exercise in choice, with appetizers like fried green tomatoes ($5.95/$8/95), wedge salads ($6.95), chili on the half shell (think nachos: a bowl of chili topped with melted cheese, chopped red onion, pickled Jalapeños and sour cream served with crispy, fried tortilla chips ($8.50) and Creole-spiced deviled eggs ($3.95-$10.95) leading the way into two- and three-meat combo meals, rib platters, and over-stuffed sandwiches, sides, and burgers and desserts.
As we considered the menu trying to decide what to order, we looked around to check out what others had ordered. To the right of us, a lone diner—a handsome African-American man with a shiny bald head and a neatly clipped moustache, dressed in a navy pinstriped three piece suit—was delicately working his way through a Flintstone-sized West Texas Rib eye steak, approaching his meal with such immense care and patience that it seemed as though he was eating at Jean-Georges. He was attended alternately by two very attractive waitresses who were clearly fawning. I have a feeling I should have known who he was, but I had no idea.
To our left a group of four post-college age guys who represented the opposite (and more common) spectrum of etiquette and decorum. In t-shirts and jeans, they tore through platters of ribs, pulled pork, Texas brisket and as many sides. A lone vegetarian at the table, dressed in a navy blue pull-over sweater, dined on a quartet of sides: mac n cheese, peas and carrots, salt potatoes (roasted fingerlings drowned in garlic butter) and simmered greens. While his friends gnawed on piles of meat, wiping sauce from their cheeks, he sliced up his potatoes and ate his peas and carrots and seemed quite happy.
We’re always interested in fried green tomatoes (to be honest, fry anything and we’re usually interested) and we went for the classic ($5.95) instead of the version served with spicy shrimp remoulade. These were served with a cool creamy buttermilk dressing spiked with cayenne and they did the job, though they were sliced a bit too thin, and the batter was a little light and didn’t provide that crunch that I was hoping for. They’re fine, though not as good as some I’ve had at Hundred Acres. I was contemplating more wings. But we had a lot of meat to get to.
Craig has always been a pulled pork sandwich ($9.50 with two sides) kind ‘a guy and so he had his usual, with sides of French fries and a BBQ fried rice. As for me, I’m also into the pulled pork but I also love ribs (the messier and meatier the better), and so I had a combo plate with pulled pork and ribs ($15.50). I chose sides of mac & cheese and simmered greens. And then we waited. While we probably didn’t wait for more than 10 or 15 minutes, waiting in a barbecue joint that’s filled with the intoxicating aroma of smoking meats is torture, especially when everyone around you seems to already be digging into their overflowing plates at full throttle. Our 15 minutes seemed more like 15 hours. Just as I was about to swipe a fry off a neighboring table (would he have really missed it?) our dinner arrived. The plates barely fit on our dollhouse table, and so we had to be careful and set them up strategically so that the sides and meats didn’t end up in our laps (or worse, on the floor).
And then the feasting began. The pulled pork (pork shoulder that’s smoked slow and low, then hand-pulled) on my plate wasn’t bad, but it was hard to tell really because it was unfortunately rather cold. The ribs, however, were spectacular—saucy and smoky, with a nice charred crust capping meat that fell effortlessly from the bones. Mac & cheese may look like it came from a Kraft box, with little elbows covered in a pale yellow cheese sauce, but it’s creamy and rich and tastes like the genuine article. Simmered greens are chopped up a bit too fine for my taste and were vegetarian so they were missing the hunks of bacon that usually flavor them with that heavenly smoky meatiness.
Craig’s pulled pork sammy was piled high on a soft sesame seed bun, served with a few slices of crunchy pickles and sides of some out of this world French fries—greaseless and crisp, piping hot, and freshly salted—and an interesting cross between China and Memphis called BBQ fried rice. But it’s mostly China, quite honestly. It’s pretty much your take-out favorite studded with hunks of smoky bbq pork and diced veggies. I was down with it.
In the end, my appetite was no match for the portion size (gargantuan) of my two-meat platter and after about a quarter way through I gave in and packed the rest up for lunch the next day. I’m glad I did, because desserts are too good (and too cheap at $5) to pass up, quite frankly. There’s key lime pie, a peanut butter chocolate pie, pecan pie, and our choice, a cranberry apple cobbler served warm with a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream teetering on top. We made short work of it.
We waddled out, weaving our way through the tightly knit throngs of Dinosaur fans, and back to our car which we had parked around the corner. (It’s pretty easy to park after 6pm). We zipped down the FDR to Brooklyn and were home in less than 20 minutes. As I write this, I wonder, did the meal work enough magic on me to inspire a return visit without a car? Does it offer something that I can’t get closer to home?
I think you can do just as well (if not better in the pulled pork category) at some of the lower part of the city’s great BBQ offerings, from Daisy Mae’s to Smoke Joint, Hill Country and Rub. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there’s something to the place, something in the vibe, that’s absent from anywhere below 125th. And there are those wings. They’re worth the trip.
Review By: Andrea Strong