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Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem is the third outpost of the legendary “honky tonk rib joint” that originated in Syracuse, NY in 1988 and later expanded to Rochester, NY. It’s somewhat of a New York BBQ institution that’s received national attention due to its popular barbecue sauces and a recent cookbook. Discussing barbecue with anyone who went to college in Syracuse or Rochester—or anyone who knows someone who went to college there—is almost guaranteed to get a fervent recommendation for Dinosaur. Long before I even thought about doing this site, I had Dinosaur on my radar.
The Harlem branch of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, open since December 2004 and relocated in October 2010,
sits at the corner of 12th Avenue and 125th Street, right off the West Side Highway and about halfway between Columbia University and CUNY. Outside, it has the look of an old warehouse or meat packing plant, with “BBQ” painted in faded lettering on the brick wall. Outdoor picnic tables are a nice touch too. Inside, you’ll find the obligatory (for NYC, at least) stack of firewood as you approach the hostess stand. Further back is a takeout area. To the right is a bar with a spacious seating area; to the left is an even more spacious dining area. Here, there are high ceilings, lots of brick and even more firewood. Ornamental motorcycles are a nod to the flagship Dinosaur’s biker roots.
The Dinosaur menu is fairly ambitious. Appetizers include deviled eggs, peel-and-eat shrimp, soup and chili, two kinds of fried green tomatoes, two kinds of salads, and, of course, their famous chicken wings. The ‘cue here is pretty basic: just one kind of rib (St Louis cut), barbecued chicken, pulled pork, sliced brisket and sausage. Sandwiches include burgers, a Cuban, several varieties of chicken, several permutations of the basic sliced brisket (including a barbecue Reuben), and a smoked Portobello sandwich with zucchini. For entrées, Dinosaur appeals to the non-BBQ fan with Korean style beef ribs, a rib eye steak, fried catfish and chicken with Chimichurri sauce.
I dined solo on a Sunday afternoon in 2007, then returned a year later with two friends for another Sunday afternoon visit. A Friday lunch visit with two different friends proved to be the best of the four, with another Sunday visit shortly thereafter pretty good but nothing special. Visit 5, just a few days into dinosaur's across-the-street relocation, started out weak but finished very strong.
Wings: On my first visit, I wanted to focus on the most heralded items, so I started with a small order of the “Jumbo Bar-B-Que” wings ($6.95 for 6), half with Wango Tango sauce and half with garlic chipotle. These arrived quickly, with the customary celery and bleu cheese. The wings were lightly charred and lightly sauced, with both sauces fairly pleasing, though not all that spicy. I thought the wings were pretty good, but they certainly weren’t jumbo (I'd say average size) and I’m not so sure they were smoked. From all the raves I had heard, I was expecting the earth to move beneath my feet, but that didn’t happen. Like I said, they were good, but not significantly better than what you’d get at hundreds of pubs and wing joints between New York and Boston. I tried the wings again on my next two visits, and they reinforced my first impression both times: very good but short of wow-inducing.
Swag Sampler: From the second visit, this combo ($9.95) included the aforementioned wings, along with spicy boiled shrimp, devilled eggs and fried green tomatoes. I really enjoyed the tomatoes, which had nice tartness, a good crunch without being heavy and the refreshing addition of Pecorino Romano cheese.
Chili: A giant bowl of chili ($8.50), served with tortilla chips for dipping, is a competent straightforward variety, but if you're expecting any kind of heat or a smoky barbecue chili, you're in for a disappointment.
On my first visit I tried the “Traditional Sampler” combo ($17.95) that includes ribs, brisket and chicken, specifically leaning toward the chicken based on reader suggestions.
Ribs: The ribs were a smallish cut that, while not wet, appeared to have several layers of glaze applied. They didn’t separate that easily and were extremely chewy. From what I’d heard, I expected fall-of-the-bone tenderness. I prefer more chew than that, but these swung the pendulum a little too far the other way. The flavor was decent if light of smoke.
Brisket: The brisket consisted of about a half dozen slices about 1/4” thick, with a dollop of barbecue sauce and some jalapeño peppers for a garnish. Half of the slices were fantastic: a light, flavorful char along the edges, hugged by a beautiful pink smoke ring, cradling tender, tasty meat. The other half were drab, gray and dry. The first few slices were among the better pieces of restaurant brisket I’ve sampled; the remaining slices were below average.
Chicken: This was the highlight of the combo. The skin was borderline crisp, the meat was very juicy and the flavor was very good, with just a hint of sweetness that didn’t overshadow the natural chicken taste.
A year later I shared the same Traditional sampler with a couple of friends.
Chicken: The moist chicken was again the highlight, with good flavor, good moisture and a semi-crisp skin.
Ribs: Slightly better than the first time but still underwhelming, especially considering the Dinosaur hype and all the good looking photos I'd seen previously. Flavor was okay. Tenderness was okay, but cooked past optimal. Crust was minimal. Freshness wasn't a strongpoint.
Brisket: Also not bad but not quite as appealing as the first time.
Pulled pork: The standout of this visit was the pulled pork sandwich ($9.95 with 2 sides): the sesame seed bun was extremely fresh, the meat was tender without being over-tender, the bark was plentiful, the sweet-tart sauce was restrained and the smoky, porky flavor was quite pleasing.
The improvement continued and the sandwiches were again at the forefront on the third (and possibly best) visit.
Pulled pork: A pulled pork sandwich was an improvement on the already-good previous one in all aspects, this time tasting even fresher and with some extra crispy cracklins for textural contrast.
BBQ Reuben: This was a somewhat unorthodox version, served on a classic (and very fresh) sesame seed bun instead of grilled rye, but it worked. The best brisket served at Dinosaur to date not only hung out of both sides of the sandwich but also presented a beautiful smoke ring. The tenderness of the meat was perfect from the edges all the way to the center. The flavor had just the faintest hint of gassiness among the more noticeable smoke, but was pleasing overall. Creamy cole slaw was a nice foil to the beef. Cheese, if it was in there, didn't make itself known, but the brisket, bread and cole slaw combined to make this an excellent sandwich.
Ribs: That third (Friday lunch) visit also produced the best ribs at Dinosaur up to that point, though as a general rule the ribs have been just a little disappointing. They've always had a nice bark and good flavor, but the texture and moisture have fallen short. I've seen photos from other sources of Dinosaur's ribs, and they've looked good, so maybe I've been unlucky. The ribs from that visit shared space on a barbecue combo platter that also featured a "hot sausage link from the legendary maker in Elgin, Texas."
Sausage: The sausage was good: crisp on the outside, loaded with hot juices inside and nicely flavored, like a more intense version of a hot dog.
Visit four yielded another good pulled pork sandwich and a superb brisket and bacon sandwich that must be tried. Ribs this time were typical.
In the fall of 2010, Dinosaur moved to a new location diagonally across the street, so I visited with a few friends that first week to get a look at the new digs.
Pulled pork: Foodwise, the new location did not get off to a good start with the pulled pork sandwich, ordered as a shared appetizer. It had good tenderness but a turkey thigh consistency, very little smoke, very little moisture and practically no flavor. This was a surprising departure from my previous four Dinosaur visits where the pork was one of the highlights. The Wango Tango sauce on the table helped.
Ribs: The ribs took the opposite route. My first four visits to Dinosaur yielded average to above average pork ribs, but never the home run I'd heard so much about. On this visit they were fantastic. The exterior had a nice bark with some bumps from the rub; the interior was perfectly tender while retaining a nice snap; the saucing (more of a layered basting) was generous enough to impart extra flavor into the meat without taking over the show; smoke was noticeable; the flavors of smoke and spice penetrated all the way to the interior of the meat.
Chicken: The chicken served on the combo platter with the ribs had semi-crisp skin and a light glazing of sauce. Inside, the meat was tender and moist (even the breast), but the flavor came mostly from the sauce. Smoke was barely noticeable.
Brisket: Also on the combo platter, the brisket was sliced fairly thin, had some good pink coloring and the crispy edges I like. The flavor was also quite likeable, with a faintly hammy taste that complemented the beef flavor nicely. Texture was ideal, with good tenderness and just enough bite-back.
The B&B: Another sandwich rounded out the tasting: the bacon and brisket, topped with cheese. The brisket here was just as good as, if not better than, what was on the platter, and what sandwich is not improved by bacon? You could not ask for better crispness on the exterior or a pinker smoke ring hugging the outer edge. Tenderness was fine; flavor had more of that slightly hammy taste complementing the natural beefiness.
The chicken served as the perfect vehicle for sampling the various Dinosaur BBQ and pepper sauces. All were pretty good, though all were fairly commercial tasting (you can buy them in many supermarkets). I found the pepper sauces to be pretty similar to each other, with cayenne the dominant flavor.
I like how Dinosar sauces their meats, with a light drizzle that adds a little moisture and flavor but without obscuring the meats' own flavors. Their go-to sauce is a good compromise between sweet, tart and spicy.
The sides here have been uniformly good, possibly the best among Manhattan BBQ joints. The fries were hot and crisp, with the skin on. Mildly sweet cornbread was fresh. Collard greens were finely chopped, with small pieces of carrot and a faintly sweet taste that didn’t mask the flavor of the vegetable. I appreciated the fact that these were contained in a basket to prevent leakage into my meats. Blackeyed peas and BBQ fried rice were both excellent.
On my first visit my server was friendly and checked back several times to make sure everything was OK. Soda refills were free and arrived without my having to ask for them. Friendliness and hospitality have been recurring themes on each return visit to Dinosaur. The servers all seem to really enjoy what they do, as if it's not just a job to them. I couldn't help but notice how many of the staff went about their business with genuine smiles on their faces.
No discussion of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que would be complete without mentioning the men’s room. The aged wooden substructures in the first Harlem location reminded me of something Leonardo DiCaprio would encounter in Gangs of New York. You’ll find plenty of graffiti and artwork on the walls, much of it house-generated. I didn’t want to stay in there long enough to inspect the details, but it was an experience. In the relocation, the men's room is a little less grungy, a little more arty and a little more girly (vintage "adult magazine" covers hang above the urinals).
The Bottom Line
A fun place with good barbecue that can sometimes fail to live up to the hype but can just as often verge on great. Dinosaur's atmosphere, service and sides are as good as any among Manhattan BBQ joints. The sandwiches, at least according to my limited sample size, are the real unsung heroes here.
BBQ Pilgrim's profile of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse
my October 2010 preview of Dinosaur's move, with many site photos
Hot Sauce Blog's review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
New York Magazine's profile of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
New York Times review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
NY Press review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
Urban Spoon reviews of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que