After driving 14,783 miles around Texas to write a book on the state’s barbecue, I certainly never expected to discover some of the best smoked brisket, pulled pork and ribs of my life in New York City. Then again, I can take some solace knowing that the guy who gave the world Dinosaur BBQ did so originally up in Syracuse, and that he did so only after riding his motorcycle on several tasting tours of Texas and the rest of the South.
To say that the Harlem – yes folks, that Harlem! – outpost of Dinosaur serves Texas BBQ would not be accurate. There’s a whole lot of big Texas flavor served up ’round the clock here; but that doesn’t keep its founders from celebrating the best of Memphis and Kansas City, Mississippi and Alabama, even the far-distant BBQ mystery known as The Carolinas. If it’s BBQ and it’s delicious, it’s probably on the menu. And having tried a few places alleging to make BBQ around touristy Midtown and its Times Square, I’ll now choose a subway, bus or taxi up to Harlem every time.
The folks at Dinosaur BBQ know their way around the Texas Hill Country, and they saw the way the old German or Czech butcher families resisted being in the “restaurant business,” instead of the “meat business.” That, for instance, is why such places in Texas have been slow to introduce appetizers, like that would mean actually taking care of people. There’s no such silly reluctance at Dinosaur, where you can get a sampler of starters that includes everything from kicked-up deviled eggs to super-spicy boiled shrimp, with stops for fried green tomatoes along the way.
When it comes to sides, same story. The next time some Texas BBQ joint offers what amounts to a choice of white bread or Saltines, I’ll wistfully remember the embarassment of riches alongside the meats at Dinosaur. The “salt potatoes” belong to Syracuse as much as wings belong to Buffalo, and they are terrific, but everything else is delightfully all over the map. There’s lush mac and cheese, an amazing swirl of sweet potatoes and even a BBQ “fried rice” that keeps one foot firmly planted in Chinese food, where I say it belongs. Most things come with a Deep South vision of cornbread that’s hot, sweet and moist.
There are significant desserts offered at Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, some dipping deliciously into the soul food tradition, along with a list of local and other craft beers that just won’t stop – including two brews I tried that are made in Syracuse just for these restaurants. On the sweet side of things, the customer favorite may well be the key lime pie, which may strike you as oddly non-Texas and even non-Alabama, until you remember that guys traveling the country on motorcycles couldn’t possibly resist heading down that highway of bridges to Key West.
Totally different but every bit as good is the new apple cake with a whiskey caramel sauce. Talk about tasting homemade! And somehow, the whole thing kept coming into my mind with the word “Dutch” in front of it… thinking of Johnny Appleseed and his adventures through countrysides tamed by Dutch farmers, thinking of “Harlem” itself, even thinking of a city long ago known as New Amsterdam before the redcoats decided they couldn’t leave well enough alone.
At Dinosaur BBQ in New York, just as at any BBQ joint worth its dry rub in Texas, if you ask enough questions about wood, seasoning, time and temperature, you’ll probably luck out and get a tour of the pits. Here, a company stalwart named Garth seasons meat just beginning to get real good, the way each of perhaps 30 items at our table already was. And since there’s a new Dinosaur opening in Newark, with others on tap for Connecticut and, yes, even Brooklyn… this Syracuse-born BBQ chain has no intention of letting us ever “fuh-get-about-it.”