Posted December 28, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Reviews


646 W. 131ST ST. (12TH AVE.)

I DECIDED TO VISIT Dinosaur Barbecue as a matter of research. I was curious to see how the state of barbecue in New York City was faring since last year’s boom, which in New York means two new barbecue restaurants in Manhattan, plus one in Brooklyn. These eateries and Danny Meyer’s annual Barbecue Block Party have given city dwellers access to authentic barbecue, loosely defined as meat cooked for several hours in the dry, indirect heat of a wood-burning pit. If all goes well, the meat will be smoky, the fat fully rendered and the tough cuts deliciously pliant.

The timing on Dinosaur’s part is both smart and fortuitous. Barbecue isn’t as trendy as it was a year ago, but it is more established. The folks at Dinosaur bring their operation from upstate, where they made an enormous splash with their authentic barbecue in blues-bar settings in both Syracuse and Rochester. Here, they are not trailblazers, but their presence has expanded the spectrum of New York barbecue restaurants not only by default, as there are only three other barbecue joints in Manhattan that prepare their meats in a wood-burning pit (Blue Smoke, Daisy May’s and Pearson’s)

Located on the west side of Harlem at a former meat plant across from Fairway Supermarket, Dinosaur Barbecue is a peculiar oasis. On its second Sunday night of being open, it was packed. Something about this busy place in the middle of nowhere made me feel like I was back in suburban Massachusetts, where everyone went to the same hangout for lack of other options. The abundance of space—7500 square feet of it—the manufactured, shopping- mall-quality interior (think Chili’s with hub caps and license plates on the walls and paintings of pigs playing poker), and the enormous portions that glided overhead on the waitress’ trays all contributed to my feelings of déjà vu, but there was something more.

“When you said we were going to Harlem for barbecue,” said my friend Allen, “I thought we were going to a storefront with fluorescent lights and black people.” After a little digging, we discovered that the folks we saw crowding the tables—enough young white guys in baseball caps to fill a college town—were graduates from universities in and around Syracuse and Rochester who, transplanted to New York City, were excited to revisit their old stomping grounds. And compared to the three-hour-long wait one can expect at both upstate Dinosaurs, the wait here (and thanks to the cult following, there is, after only one week of being open, a wait) is negligible.

The “authenticity” of Dinosaur is delivered in high doses the moment you walk in the door. The prefabricated honky-tonk vibe is in full force as the hostess calls for parties on the microphone (“Party of two, come on down!”); management encourages graffiti on the bathroom walls; a waitress who can’t be older than 19 calls her patrons “darlin'”; and g’s are dropped from the “ing” words in the restaurant’s menu. While doing some research on Dinosaur, I came across this quote from Barbara Lang, a restaurant retailing professor at Cornell University in Ithaca. “In Syracuse, and in Rochester, there is that sense of authenticity,” she says of Dinosaur. “It just has that outlaw quality you can’t manufacture.”

I haven’t been to either of the original Dinosaurs, but this quote struck me as ironic, since these are the precise qualities that the New York City location lacks.

The look and feel of Dinosaur’s menu best exemplifies the restaurant’s cloying down-home theme. The marketing-driven copy is both heavy-handed and relentless, but if you can tolerate this kind of talk at dinner—”These meaty muthas are marinated for 24 hours with our unique Action Spice Rub, then slow pit smoked and slathered with our Sensuous Sauce. Ribs so Good You’ll Slap Yo’ Pappy!”—you should be able to overlook the “Drunken Spicy Shameless Shrimp” or the “Dinosaur Menage A Trois (Can Satisfy Two, Maybe Three).” In fairness, the modest vibe wasn’t all put on—we did have to push up our sleeves and bus our own tables, and when Allen complained that his chair was sticking to the floor, our waitress threw him her rag.

The most attractive qualities of dining at Dinosaur revolve around the food, which is good and inexpensive. We studied the lengthy menu over cold beers—a large selection of New York micro brews is on tap—exceedingly sweet tea ($1.50), which my Texan friend said wasn’t sweet enough, and my favorite, the Saranac draft root beer ($3). We sampled a round of appetizers, which ultimately impressed me more for their flavor, delicacy and ingenuity than the main dishes did. The tomatoes in the extra-fancy fried green tomatoes ($8.95), crusted with panko crumbs and flash fried, were a cut above pedestrian. But the shrimp remoulade—the “extra fancy” part—was excellent. Smoked shrimp cut lengthwise in a creamy, pale pink sauce of mayonnaise, mustard and a reduction of barbecue sauce cooked with shrimp shells were smoky, fresh and quite refined.

Sticky, smoky garlic chipotle chicken wings were also a highlight ($4.95 for 6), as was the iceberg wedge salad ($5.95), a white hunk of crisp lettuce dressed up with house smoked bacon, grape tomatoes, spicy pecans and cayenne buttermilk ranch dressing. Peel-and-eat Drunken Spicy Shameless Shrimp (half pound for $9.95) cooked in beer, garlic, cayenne, herbs and spices with habanero cocktail dunking sauce were very good apart from the unappetizing reality of being served cold.

Dinosaur has at its disposal three pits for cooking meats like pulled pork and beef brisket for 14 hours, and chicken and ribs four hours, using hickory and fruit wood as its only fuel. At our table, we tried the ribs, the chicken, the pulled pork and the brisket. All in all, my friends were more impressed than I was (although I must emphasize that the food is good quality). Murmurs were heard over sides of coleslaw and baked beans. My sister enjoyed the ribs, which she says were smoky and juicy, but to me were a bit dry and salty and tasted like pastrami—the other smoked meat.

The brisket passed the muster of Lee, the Texan, but I found it a bit fibrous and dry. I also didn’t detect any real smokiness in the chicken, which, in addition, wasn’t particularly juicy or tender. Their strongest suit was the pork shoulder, which I got in the form of a pulled pork sandwich ($5.95), a simple mound of moist shredded pork, sans sauce, on a white bun. We also sampled the very good pan-fried cat fish ($13.95), but could have done without the sweet potato pecan ($5) and the chocolate layer cake ($5), both of which were generic.

I consulted New York’s winningest competitive barbecuer, Robbie Richter, for his opinion. He’s eaten a lot of ‘cue in his day and has visited Dinosaur twice. “Not any one of these meats is going to knock you off your feet, but all of them are up there,” said Richter. “There might be a barbecue restaurant with better ribs, but the pulled pork would be horrible. There might be a better place for brisket but the other meats would be horrible. Dinosaur’s meats were all up there, and that’s why I liked it. In competition, it’s only when you have all your meats fired up in third place, fourth place, that’s when you become the grand champion.” Richter thinks that right now, Dinosaur is the best barbecue in New York.

By competition standards and by Richter’s, it’s better to be a generalist than a specialist. This is where we differ. I would return to a restaurant for one outstanding dish—the beer-can chicken at Daisy May’s, for instance—but would be unlikely to visit a place if everything were above average but nothing excelled. If I were in the neighborhood, I would consider visiting Dinosaur again, but that has as much to do with limited choice of places to eat near the highway in Harlem as it does with the draw of another meal.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog