For years, I rankled at complaints that Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, New York State’s most successful chain of barbecue restaurants, had not opened in Buffalo. Go to Kentucky Greg’s in Depew, Suzy Q’s in Tonawanda and One Eyed Jack’s in Lockport, I would retort. But Dinosaur fans were not so easily soothed.
In February, the Buffalo restaurant opened, and it’s been crowded since. A recent visit showed why. The barbecue was excellent, from ribs to brisket, but what has made Dinosaur so popular is more than meat. It’s mastering the art of the barbecue joint.
First, a note about the location. Buffalo’s Dinosaur is in the Theater District, a stone’s throw from Shea’s. It may seem odd to check the theater calendar before you plan to eat barbecue, but if you don’t, and street parking is nonexistent because of a show, it will cost $15 to park nearby.
When Cat first called, she was told the place was booked for the weekend, but later discovered that wasn’t so. It turns out half of the restaurant’s 180 seats can be reserved. The other half are for walk-in business. Call or check the app OpenTable to make sure of a reservation, or arrive prepared to wait.
If only all waiting rooms were like Dinosaur’s. There are benches and lots of stuff to look at on the walls inside the rehabilitated 1920s film depot. Customers are tended by a personable serving staff.
There’s blues music in the background, not loud enough to interfere with conversation. (That changes when live blues bands play on Fridays and Saturdays.) There’s a roomy bar with places to sit and wait, and a long lineup of beer taps to help while away the minutes before you’re seated.
The appetizer and side-dish lineup is a mix of barbecue standards and tweaked originals. We asked for a Swag for Two platter ($12.95), including two fried green tomatoes, four peel-and-eat shrimp, two deviled eggs, two jumbo chicken wings and a variety of sauces, including barbecue blue cheese and cayenne ranch. A chopped salad ($6.95), Dino poutine ($7.95) and BBQ “burnt ends” meatballs ($7.95) rounded out our appetizers.
We got the four basic food groups of barbecue: spare ribs ($22.95, full rack), pulled pork plate ($15.95), brisket plate ($16.95) and half-chicken plate ($13.95), plus one original entrée, chicken steak with chimichurri and smoked onions ($15.95). Those all come with two side dishes and cornbread, adding up to a real spread.
Dishes started arriving in less than 20 minutes, though it’s fair to note the place was half full.
“Burnt ends” are intensely salty-spicy nuggets of black pepper, beef fat and meat trimmed from the outside of briskets smoked for hours. In Buffalo, Dinosaur mixes that into beef meatballs that are smoked, sauced and served over barbecue-tinged sauerkraut, with a dusting of grated blue cheese. The moist, tender bites delivered smoke-on-smoke delight. It’s a good example of the way Dinosaur elevates the standard barbecue menu.
The poutine wasn’t as good. Excellent fries, house-made and double-cooked crisp, were topped with decent brown beef gravy and shredded pork. But the advertised pimento cheese was scarce to the point of disappearance, even though it’s orange, and poutine needs cheese.
The fried green tomatoes were the best I’ve had north of the Mason-Dixon line, still juicy inside their snug panko jackets. The medium-sized shrimp were firm and fresh. The wings were glazed and grilled well, but a side order of wings was underdone to my taste, pink next to the bone.
Brisket is the hardest barbecue to get right, and Dinosaur’s is a contender for the best in town. A half-dozen slices of beef, rimmed with a black crust of salt, pepper and smoke, were still moist enough to cut with a fork. A hefty chunk of rich “burnt ends” was included, to my delight.
Chicken, so often a letdown, was excellent. Tender, permeated with smoky flavor, slathered with sauce, this bird was anything but boring.
Ribs were spot-on, too, sweet pork crusted with smoke and spice yet tender enough to pull cleanly from the bone. Dinosaur cuts most of the way through the ribs so you don’t have to.
Pulled pork was smoky-enough shredded meat punctuated with “bark,” hunks of dark exterior. It was good, but it wasn’t as supple and naturally sweet as the best versions. Barbecue plates were accented with house pickles or a chow-chow relish of green tomatoes, onions and jalapenos that added a refreshing crunchy, sour note.
The chicken steak entrée was a mostly deboned half-chicken sautéed and topped with smoked onions over a herby green chimichurri sauce. The bird was cooked well, and the vibrant sauce gave it gumption, a simple pleasure.
Real crowd-pleasers among the side dishes included the black-eyed peas, with chopped kale, pinto beans fortified with smoked pork and mashed potatoes and gravy. A surprisingly good fried rice was light, alive with ginger and fragrant with sesame oil. The mac and cheese was firm and not gooey, and the tomato-based chili was robust. Macaroni salad and the coarse coleslaw were mild and pale.
Cornbread comes in muffin form, not squares cut from a sheet. They were flavorful enough but less lush than Dinosaur’s honey hush cornbread of memory. It’s the same recipe, said general manager Robert Rush.
Dessert was not a letdown, either. Peanut butter, key lime and chocolate icebox pies ($5) were well-executed, with a minor argument over whether you can have peanut butter pie that’s too peanut-buttery. The cheesecake ($6) was in another league, though: fluffy, soaring, a prudent indulgence.
John Stage, the barbecue joint whisperer, has done it again. Dinosaur’s Buffalo edition is a delicious homage to the Syracuse original that captures the essence of what made it great, right down to a cadre of smart, sassy and amply tattooed servers.
Its barbecue is the best in city limits, supported by a varied, competent supporting cast of dishes, and it contends for regional supremacy. What it really kills at, though, is being a barbecue joint.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: 8 Plates (Out of 10)
Buffalo store of barbecue chain delivers meat, smoke, sides and that joint feel.
WHERE: 301 Franklin St. (880-1677, www.dinosaurbarbque.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $3.95-$22.95; sandwiches, $8.95-$17.50; entrees, $10.95-$69.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.