This BBQ is Not Extinct

The summer goes on…my trips to Syracuse for treatments continue. As I add those trips up in my head, I realize that I’ve been writing Big Hungry Shelby for more than a year, sharing my general worldview on food, restaurants and the most beautiful spots in New York, and I haven’t much mentioned one of our jewels: Dinosaur BBQ. Not that Dinosaur is located in one of the more picturesque locales in the state or anything, but it is undeniably one of the more famous and notable of our Central New York eateries. In an effort not to be remiss or neglectful, I rewarded Shawn and I twice over the past month with lunch there after my grueling doctor’s appointments.

Of course, the Walton St/Syracuse Dinosaur is the original of what is now a small BBQ empire, with locations in Rochester, Harlem and Troy. When I first dined there with my parents in the early 90s, I remember my Mom being uncomfortable about all the bikers, but reassured once we were inside, because the businessmen were shoulder to shoulder with the rougher-looking clientele at the bar. This is a joint for all walks of life who like good food. And, having sampled BBQ in North Carolina, Virginia and Texas (never Memphis or Kansas City, but I’ll get there), I would proffer that owner John Stage has done a really excellent job of making excellent, true BBQ that’s almost region-less. The variety of meats at Dinosaur, which include Carolina-preferred pulled pork, Texas-beloved beef brisket and Memphis darlins’, pork ribs, are all slow-smoked but not overpoweringly so, and served juicy and tender with the signature Slatherin’ Sauce, which is tomato-based without being cloying or sickly thick.

Dinosaur’s excellent variety of sauces

But let’s talk about the starters, you guys! If you’ve lived up here your whole life, you might never have encountered my favorite item on Dinosaur’s small and shared plates menu: fried green tomatoes. But I’m sure you saw the movie, right? How do I describe FGT to a neophyte? Well, the tomato itself is much firmer than its ripe, red sister. Its flavor is similar, though a bit on the tart side. The breading is a mixture of cornmeal and breadcrumb, which fries up super crisp. They are served with cool, clean ranch dressing spiked with hot cayenne, and sprinkled with sharp pecorino romano cheese – a masterpiece.

Another not-to-be-missed non-main at Dinosaur is the honey hush cornbread. This cornbread will make you re-examine all your previous conceptions about cornbread. My deduction is that there’s some cast iron trickery happening with this finely-textured, caramelized and yet still savory offering. It comes on the side of most plates, and you should not overlook it, because it’s divine.

A couple weeks ago during our visit, I copied Man vs Food’s Adam Richman and enjoyed the pork-sket sandwich with mac and cheese and tomato-cucumber salad on the side. My moaning and groaning meters were on high alert in a very, very good way once this plate was delivered to our table. First of all, I had just had my right ear violated in a procedure that I still can’t bring myself to describe to you in a food blog, dear readers, and I was also still enjoying the effects of some preemptive Xanax from that morning. As such, this platter of pork, beef, cheese, veggies and sauce presented to me was manna.

Pork Sket = pulled pork and brisket. Get it?

This sandwich is decadence in an entirely different way than, say, a big slice of chocolate cake, but with much the same reward. Pulled pork, sliced beef brisket, melty cheese, pickled jalapenos and crunchy slaw all party together on one bun. The meats are not drenched in sauce, which I appreciate, and somehow, the jalapenos don’t fall off the sandwich nor does the whole business fall apart. Everything has been brought into balance by some thoughtful line cook, a mega-sandwich that is pure pleasure for the eatER (that’s me!). This was my first time trying Dinosaur’s brisket, and I was thrilled with its light smokiness, tender but not falling-apart texture and luscious richness. The pulled pork was, as always, fatty and crispy and porky and salty and juicy. The slaw was creamy but not heavy, and a great crunchy, cool foil to all the fat and salt.

The mac and cheese deserves its own paragraph. An ode to Dinosaur BBQ’s macaroni and cheese:
Oh bodacious elbows enrobed in the most honorable of sharp cheeses, I hail thee!
Thou paprika-crested peaks shine with savory richness.
I bow before your cheesy, silky furrows and firm pasta crescents.

Oh, and those pickles you can see over on the side, there? Pretty fly, too. Homemade. Crisp. Fresh.
Shawn gets embarrassed when I photograph his food in public, and it’s dark in Dinosaur, so you’ll have to excuse the inferior photography. But his sampler of ribs and chicken with dirty rice was a thing of beauty in its own right. I looked up a recipe for this dirty rice, rich and deep with chicken livers and pulled pork bits, and found that it contains 700 calories a serving. That’s a fine how do you do!

Please note: I ate most of Shawn’s cornbread. It’s not my fault. I had just had a “procedure”
Trip two, and two more plates of awesome ‘que. Actually, I was so busy with mine, I don’t even remember what Shawn ordered. And it’s not important, because I think I’ve established by now that there are no wrong choices at Dinosaur. Well actually, going there on a weekend night at around 7 p.m. might be a wrong choice, as it’s infamous for long lines and no reservations. But if you’ve made it to a table, consider yourself on safe ground. Here’s what I got:

I spy collards!

Pulled pork, brisket, collard greens, mac and cheese and cornbread ALL FOR ME! Do you see how there’s just a little bit of sauce on each, and then they let you take the controls from there? I like that. Do you see those collard greens? Have you ever had them before? I have, and never liked them. However, wrapped in the warm embrace of the Dinosaur BBQ, I somehow knew they would be good, and I was right. They were vinegary, bright and savory, cooked down without being cooked out. Fantastic.

If you haven’t made a pilgrimage to Dinosaur BBQ yet, then you are missing out, plain and simple. I won’t insist you hit up the Syracuse location, although I do feel that going to the original holds a certain appeal. But in this Northeastern dearth of fine BBQ, Dinosaur shines like a beacon to those of us who are fans of tender, smoked meats. Ahoy, it blares, all ye who seek southern comfort food, alight here!

The décor and service both fall in line with the biker bar aesthetic – neither is fancy, and that’s OK. The restrooms are clean, the service is quick, and while the waitresses are brisk, they also are completely knowledgeable about the menu. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything to improve at Dinosaur BBQ, and for that, and it’s legendary status as New York’s one true BBQ Heaven, I’m awarding it 10 points on the BHS Scale. I don’t want them to change a single thing! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

You know this drill, right? I publish expanded content regularly over on my Facebook group, Big Hungry Shelby, and you can follow me on Twitter @BigHungryShelby. I’m known to post product recommendations, one-off reviews or updates of places we’ve already been, etc. Get social!

Dinosaur BBQ on Urbanspoon

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