Review Date: 09/29/15
Visit Dates: (12/11/12) (03/29/13) (05/22/13) (09/26/13) (04/21/14) (04/02/15) (09/25/15)
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is a New York BBQ institution that expanded into New England with its sixth location in late 2012. Not too far off I-95, the Stamford outpost has a factory exterior with seasonal outdoor seating, a separate bar area, seating in a main dining area as well as a few nooks, and a retro vibe throughout. As with all Dinosaur locations, the wood is on display and the smoker is a J&R.
The "honky tonk rib joint” known as Dinosaur Bar-B-Que originated in Syracuse in 1988 and soon expanded to Rochester. Recent expansions include Harlem, Troy, Newark, Stamford, Buffalo, Chicago and Baltimore. 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.
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, burnt ends meatballs, chili, poutine, BBQ sliders and, of course, their famous chicken wings. The ‘cue here is pretty basic: just one kind of rib (St Louis cut), smoked chicken, pulled pork, sliced brisket and sausage. But the options are myriad: you can get ribs in four different quantities and you can get meats on preconfigured combos or 1-, 2- or 3-meat platters of your own choosing. Pulled pork and brisket, besides being available on platters and sliders, can be had on four different sandwiches each, plus the "Pork-Sket" that combines the two. There are four different chicken sandwiches and three different burger creations, plus a turkey burger and three vegetarian options. If you're not into traditional barbecue but like wood grilled fare, there's jerk salmon, a ribeye steak, BBQ catfish and "Chicken Steak."
A couple of friends and I stopped in for their first weekend lunch service and found the joint jumpin' at 12:30. There were very few signs of rookie jitters; on the contrary, Dinosaur performed to a packed house like a well oiled machine, thanks in part to an influx of talent from upstate New York.
Since then, I've returned one to three times a year, mostly for weekday lunches, with a few early dinners thrown in, sometimes joined by a various barbecue cronies.
Wings: The first visit got things off to a very good start. I've never had a bad wing at Dinosaur Harlem—all have been good—but I have had moments when I wondered what all the fuss was about. A dozen jumbo, smoked-then-grilled wings well coated in Wango Tango sauce delivered the nirvana moment that I kept hearing about. These wings might have been extra sticky, but the flavorful sauce did not even come close to obscuring the delerium-inducing rub and smoke below. The exteriors were crisp (even with no deep frying), the interiors were tender and juicy, and char was just right. Not only were there more drummettes than wingettes, but they even went over the allotted twelve pieces by at least three. Simply put, these were among the best smoked wings I ever had.
The bad news is that this batch has never been equalled here. The good news is that they've come reasonably close a few times.
By the most recent visit, some new flavors were listed, so I ordered two batches of three ($3.95 each). Jerk didn't taste anything like jerk, but it was a very tasty, light and slightly spicy glaze with rub sprinkled on top. The wings were crisp outside, slurpingly juicy inside. Wango Tango wings on the same visit were slightly ketchupy, with a bit of a habanero kick. These were just as juicy, not as crisp (close) and not as compelling, but executed well enough to get again.
Ribs: Ribs here are St Louis cut spares, generally a smallish cut that, while not wet, appear to have several layers of glaze applied.
Included on two different 3-meat combos ($21.95), the first visit's pork ribs were large of size (not always the case), thick of rub and strong on flavor—but curiously, sausage flavor more than pork rib. Texture was softer (and therefore more sausagelike) than ideal, making them good instead of the hoped-for great. While taking photos, I noticed a nearby table receiving a full rack that looked gorgeous (see photo), so maybe that's the way to go.
A Thursday lunch visit in fall 2013 hit them at the tail end of the rush, but that might have been to my advantage: all I ordered was ribs and they were fresh out of the smoker. Dinosaur is one of the few "important" barbecue joints that I rarely visit at night, save for a couple early dinners at dusk to combat traffic, but I have had some very good lunchtime visits at both Harlem and Stamford; this was one of them. The ribs had just about all of the qualities you look for, from the size to the smoke to the crust to the tenderness that still had some resistance. Sauce added just a hint of sweetness, making it a complement and not a detriment. These were the best ribs of my Stamford visits and among the top 20% I've had ever. Who knows, maybe they're like this all the time later at night.
An early Monday dinner in 2014 hit them with no rush at all, and the rib quality suffered. Flavor was there, but with only borderline moistness and freshness.
So how about an early Thursday dinner in 2014? A little more of a rush, a little more quality, great flavor, good crust, but not much more than the crust clinging onto those bones.
Visit 7's ribs from a 3-meat combo had smaller bones from the short end of the rack, so they gave me four instead of the promised three. These also had enough juiciness and tenderness that I concluded they were (just like the chicken and brisket beside them) recently out of the smoker. Surfaces weren't crisp, but they did have some crusting helped out by the standard light glaze (they weren't sauced). Solid but nothing special aside from the freshness.
All things considered, there have been mild highlights, but the track record for ribs doesn't match the legend.
Pulled Pork: Looking back now, I'm surprised pulled pork only made three appearances, but sometimes that's how it goes.
The first visit's pork was a mixed bag. It was so tender that I'd call it downright delicate; there's a good chance it came right out of the smoker with no refrigeration in between. Bark was minimal. While the ribs reminded me of sausage, the pork reminded me of turkey thighs: very moist but not very flavorful. The saucing was heavier than the minimal approach promised by our server, but that turned out to be more of a blessing.
Fast forward to 2014 for an early dinner visit where everything (pork, ribs, brisket) on a 3-meat platter looked, felt and tasted old. The pork was mushier than usual and had a muted flavor.
Tried again in early 2015 on another early dinner visit's 3-meat combo, the pork impressed as a bark-filled pile strong in both smoke (the J&R is hard to mistake) and natural porkiness. Moistness was AWOL, requiring a sauce addition, but it was a very promising upturn from the previous visit.
Brisket: I'm not sure why, but when New Yorkers rattle off their favorite joints for brisket, Dinosaur never gets mentioned (ribs and chicken seem to be the recs among the hardcore), but the first visit's melt-in-your-mouth brisket—as had my last few orders at Dinosaur Harlem—was the highlight of all the entree meats. It basically had everything you look for in brisket: a dark and well rubbed crust that's not mushy, a bright pink smoke ring, plenty of juiciness with no steaminess, a strong beefy flavor without any pot roasty flavor, and good marbling that gives just enough fat to favor it but not so much that it's in the way. Perhaps not life altering, like some of the other New York briskets can be, but solid for sure.
Brisket fared similarly on the follow up visit, coming in with more vibrant color, a little more smoke and a little more fat.
On the next try, an early Monday dinner visit, the brisket was, as Donald Trump might say, "a disaster." Thick slices had surfaces looking more like elephant skins than the appealing examples submitted earlier. Moistness? None. Freshness? None. Tenderness? None. Smoke? Sure, but muted. This was old. Maybe disaster is an understatement for this batch. Fortunately, it was the one outlier.
The 2015 dinner at dusk's brisket serving rebounded nicely, emerging as the star of the plate and among the top 5% of all the brisket servings I ever had. The requisite topping of sauce (a small dollop) and jalapeño slices could not derail the beauty of the slices that all exhibited a crunchy, salty-peppery crust contrasting a moist and perfectly tender (almost buttery) interior. Flavor was exceptionally smoky and nicely beefy. Again, would it top or even match NYC's elite brisketeers? Again, perhaps not, but it's right there in the mix, at least on this one visit, which surpassed the level of the first. And I suppose you could make the argument that the slightly resistant texture here was closer to the textbook ideal than what the Brooklyn boys serve with their even-more-tender examples.
For my Friday lunch entrée on the seventh visit I did a 3-meat combo, picking ribs, chicken and whichever the kitchen believed was better and fresher of the brisket and pulled pork. My server asked if I wanted her to come back and tell me what the answer was or to just put the order in; I said I trusted her. A few minutes later she brought back a small plate with a mini pile of pulled pork and a long, thin slice of brisket for me to sample. Really nice touch. Both were smoker fresh; the brisket was deli thin but echelons above deli meat—juicy, barky, salty, smoky. I went with that. Alas, the slices on the plate were thicker and not quite as tender and moist as the sample, but still among the top third or so. Slightly moist, definitely smoky, and with good flavor throughout. They had the standard dabble of sauce on the top, but the slices underneath were left intact. There was enough quantity to get a good taste of both.
Chicken: A half chicken from the maiden voyage had flavorful skin, excellent moisture and tenderness but no flavor—neither rub nor smoke—once you got more than a half inch from the surface. On the trip down I had been praising Dinosaur's chicken to my crawl mates, insisting that unlike at most barbecue joints, chicken should not be left off the agenda. I was wrong, at least this time.
On the most recent visit I realized that it had been a while since I had the chicken at this location, so I decided to correct that. They give you a choice of white or dark; I went with the latter. The well rubbed skin wasn't well crisped or even close, but it was tight enough that its pullback revealed some attractive pink meat at the edge of the thigh. Pulling the skin back revealed even more, and all of the meet was profusely juicy. Squeezing the end of the thigh ejected a sliver that separated easily from its well lubricated home base. The bite lived up to expectation with extreme moistness and a very pleasant smokiness that showed more finesse than the brute force exhibited by the meats whose cooking times are longer. The leg had all of the same characteristics. Though not sauced, the meat had some sweetness that was likewise complementary. Sure, I wish the skin were crisp, but this chicken did just fine.
Sausage: I only tried a bit of this from the first visit's combo plate and didn't find as much smoke as expected, but snap, tenderness and overall flavor were decent.
Two visits later, a six inch link ordered as a stand-alone item (no longer offered other than on a combo) arrived with a light sprinkling of sauerkraut covering the dark casing that looked quite crisp and slightly moist. The crackly skin had a good snap, releasing some crumbly, spicy ground meat bits with slight heat and slight moisture. Gushing juices never came—if they had, we might be talking about a top 10 sausage—but I liked the pebbly texture and strong flavor enough to call it a good one. There was another sausage presentation (also no longer offered) that included an assortment of slices and crackers, but full links at least allow the possibility of gushing. Maybe that's why that's all they offer now.
Brisket Melt: If you're a purist, traditionalist or in the mood for brisket, get the brisket sandwich, but if you're in the mood for something different and something a little saucy, this sandwich ($10.50 with a side) might just hit the spot. The meat is chopped, fairly heavily sauced with a mix of sweet and heat, strewn with cheese and packed into a toasted baguette, so the end result is a barbecue twist on a cheesesteak or a meatball sandwich.
Dino Burger: Usually burgers at a barbecue joint are a peacemaking option geared for the less barbecue enthused, but this one ($11.50 with the bacon add-on and one side) showed some effort. The bun looked like a bulkie but was far less bulky. Yellow-orange cheddar got nearly a full melt and nearly covered the sides of the patty as well as the top. Dark, crispy bacon strips jutted outward with no droop factor whatsoever (overdone, but good flavor). The burger cross section revealed as-specified doneness to medium (I usually order medium rare, but I was sharing this one). I'm going to be honest and admit that I couldn't pinpoint the source(s), but this burger had a truly unique and pleasing flavor. Suspects included the wood fire grilling technique (that infuses light smokiness along with the char), the cheddar (sharpness), the beef (I spotted a Pat LaFrieda truck in the parking lot next door), the caramelized onions (the least noticeable of the bunch), the barbecue mayo (think rub, not sauce) and the pickles, but none of these elements stood out on its own; it's truly an ensemble piece. Overall, a good burger that I wouldn't put in my pantheon, but one that I genuinely look forward to getting again.
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. It's a little on the thin side for me and a little too tomatoey, but effective.
Three sauces grace the table in jars, not squeeze bottles. Wango Tango is tomatoey, slightly ketchupy and kicked up with habanero heat. Sensuous Slathering, the defacto selection for meats served sauced, is similarly tomatoey/ketchupy, with some tartness and little bits of what might be minced onion.
A garlicky hot sauce is much thinner and more vinegary, like a more advanced version of Tabasco.
BBQ Fried Rice: One of my favorite specials at Dinosaur Harlem made it as a standard side here, and it's just as good. Imagine old school Chinese American restaurant fried rice, but with barbecue meats thrown in. A one-two punch of pork fat and sesame oil lubricates this dish just as much as it needs.
Cole slaw: I know I've had it here but it's missing from my notes and my usual instant recall isn't recalling anything. It must not have made much of an impression either way.
Mac and Cheese: One of my favorites, this rendition is closer to old school than a trying-too-hard gourmet version, but there are some nice cheffy touches. Served in a separate bowl, the elbows are fully coated in a rich and creamy sauce with a very adult sharpness. Elevating things further are some heat and herbs integrated into the cheese sauce and some rub sprinkled on top. The basic cheese is liquid enough to be super moist but thick enough so that it doesn't move around.
On both the first and most recent visit, the pasta hit the sweet spot in doneness, avoiding both mush and al dente.
Potato salad: If you're not a fan of egg salad or heavy mayo, this potato salad might not be for you. I enjoyed the intensely flavored concoction fueled by vinegar and myriad seasonings in addition to the miraclewhipesque mayo and hard boiled eggs.
Salt potatoes: I was hoping to find these here, but they're not on the Stamford menu. I've been told it's a recurring special.
Baked Beans: Sweet without being molassesy sweet, these have a refreshing peppery component and some shredded meat. A good collaboration of meat, savory and sweet.
Greens: A little more finally chopped that I like, and a little bit sweeter, with smoked turkey rounding out the flavor. Those who don't like vinegar won't have a problem here.
Cornbread: A little round hockey puck of cornbread is included on the platter—a rarity these days, so I give them points for that. Also different is that it's not the sweet cakey version served at most places; this one's very corny.
In the early days I had a hard time understanding the Dinosaur faithful, because it took a few tries at Harlem to reach the level I had heard about, and even then it was fleeting. At Brooklyn (only two visits), it's been downright elusive. But Stamford has chugged along with only one clunker, a few good visits and a couple of very good ones, reaching great on a few items here and there. It's not a lock, but generally speaking, the 'cue is fresh and the flavor is high.
More constant are the fun environment and the higher level of hospitality that's been evident on every visit. You can tell that the staff is well trained and enthusiastic about the Dinosaur brand. It can even get infectious enough to overlook the inescapable fact that they've become a chain and that the 'cue sometimes falls short. But chain or not, more often than not, Dinosaur submits above-average barbecue—again, occasionally reaching great—and a well-above-average overall experience that'll keep you coming back.
The bathroom has none of the intentional bad ass graffiti that's become a signature design element. Speaking of which (design elements, not bathrooms), there isn't any bad ass biker presence either.
The Bottom Line
A fun place with barbecue that can sometimes fall short of the hype but can still occasionally reach great, even after numerous expansions. On the off nights, the enjoyable space and attentive service usually bridge the gap.
BBQ Pilgrim's profile of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse
My review of Dinosaur Harlem
Yelp reviews of Dinosaur Stamford
Zomato reviews of Dinosaur Stamford