October 31, 2013
When you first walk into Dinosaur Bar-B-Que—the Syracuse original that all Hamiltonians “must” visit before they graduate—it’s hard not to feel like a first year on the first day of orientation. What, exactly, have I gotten myself into? Unlike most of the restaurants within the Hill’s local radius, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is popular. Like, where-did-all-these-people-come-from popular. Hence, after you wedge your way through the door, like the waiters, you’ll have to navigate through a (seemingly dead) sea of people. Some are waiting to be seated, others are sipping icy beers and others are still sitting at the unfortunately, but cleverly, located tables between the packed booths and the even more packed bar. Luckily, unlike the waiters, you won’t be juggling two racks of ribs as you make your way to—and, ah, and there’s the question. When all you can see is people and ribs and more people and more ribs and cornbread and—dear God, does that cornbread smell good—where the heck do you go to get less of the people and more of the ribs and cornbread?
In most places, it would seem tacky, but at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, it serves as practical, even hospitable. A neon-lit sign reading “HOSTESS” smiles at you from across the room. And just like that, there’s light at the end of the biker gang tunnel.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que first opened in 1988, even though the essence of the operation started first appeared years earlier in the form of a makeshift food truck that served quality bar-b-que at motorcycle shows around the northeast. Now with seven locations in three states, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has gone from something that travels for you, to something that you travel for. The marker of any true phenomenon, today you can even order some of the hype online: say, “Sensuous Slathering Sauce” for $3.99 a bottle.
But, is Dinosaur Bar-B-Que really about the sauce? Is that why eating there is on the Hamilton bucket list? Part of me doesn’t think so. Like salt and pepper shakers at other restaurants, our table came decorated with a basket of sauces: Devil’s Duel (habanero, naturally), Garlic Chipotle Pepper Sauce, Wango Tango Hot Bar-B-Que Sauce (habanero, again), and the original, provocatively-named “Sensuous Slathering Sauce.” The hot sauces were decent, but nothing to mass-order and collect (is that only a thing in my family?). Wango Tango was not as “hot” as it might like to consider itself, nor was the slathering sauce all that sensuous an experience. Would I order them online like my parents do with Anchor Bar buffalo sauce? Probably not.
Which begs the question: Why is Dinosaur Bar-B-Que so packed with people that the hostess would get lost without her trusty fluorescent sign?
Let’s start with the “Half Bird,” an apple-brined, pit-smoked chicken served with barbecue sauce (your choice of original or jerk). Adam Gertler pegged this dish in the “Bar-B-Que” episode of Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate, and while my restaurant reviewing partner-in-crime protested against the “boringness” of chicken, I stand a firm believer that a chef can almost always be fairly—and fully—judged by the chicken on his or her menu. The simpler the ingredient, the more obvious the technique, or lack thereof.
It just may have been the best chicken I ever ate. So juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender, I found myself wondering why we grill, roast, poach, and pan-sear chicken when we could just smoke it and make it taste this good.
That’s the thing, though, right? “Apple-brined” and “pit-smoked,” how would anyone without a restaurant kitchen do that? Better yet, even in the restaurant kitchen, how, exactly, do they do that? What’s in the apple brine? What kind of wood do they use? How long do each of the steps take? All of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que’s signature items end up feeling this mysterious, and tasting just as good. The ribs are as tender as the chicken, but also with a crisp, charred crust, and the pork and brisket (you can get a combo plate for $14.95) show off just as much. I mean, the brisket is pit-smoked for up to 14 hours. Even my Jewish grandmother wouldn’t put in that kind of effort for an annual holiday.
Each Bar-B-Q pit plate comes with honey hush cornbread and two homemade sides of your choice. We ordered beans, fries, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy: ate all and enjoyed them enough to eat more than we, perhaps, should have. When we originally placed the order, the waitress smiled and offered us “plenty of boxes” to take home the leftovers, but there wasn’t all that much to take home. (I wish there had been.)
If anything, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que accomplishes everything a restaurant should. The ambiance is overwhelming, but only until you yourself disappear into the crowd. Then you can write your name on the wall like everyone else, admire the cartoon dinosaur murals, and, like your dinner, become marinated up to your elbows in barbecue sauce and grease. (Don’t worry. No one will judge you.) The food, moreover, is something you can’t get elsewhere and definitely can’t replicated at home—even if you do order the sauce and buy the cookbook. Though, between you and me, I may or may not be considering the latter, entirely to secure the honey hush cornbread recipe. It was that good.