When I mentioned at work that my next Syracuse New Times assignment was to take another look at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, I was bombarded with unsolicited testimonials about the side dishes people love.
The first thing that popped out of Linda’s mouth was, “Oh I love the pickles!” Really, the pickles? “So Linda, what is so special about the pickles at the Dinosaur?” She told me they are crunchy and crispy with a flavor unlike anything she can get in the grocery store. Apparently the waitresses will walk past her table and ask her if she is once again getting the pickles, so I am guessing they must be calling her the “pickle lady” behind her back.
But this scenario repeated every time I mentioned to someone that I was going to the popular restaurant. Don got misty-eyed talking about the deviled eggs. This surprised me since I have eaten his wife’s deviled eggs and they are fantastic.
Jim loves the cornbread—says it’s got real corn baked in and is properly moist. Martha loves the black beans and rice. She says the rice is all perfectly glopped together (her words), and they are not too spicy. Mike likes the barbecue beans because they are sweet and tangy and have what he described as a “wow” factor. Shayna loves the fried green tomatoes, nice and thin and breaded just right.
These conversations inspired me to, once I got to the restaurant, concentrate my reportage on the side dishes that people love, with a goal to encourage my readers to try something they had not tried before.
So I arrived at the appointed time on a Wednesday night, but my husband and the four 20-somethings I had invited kept me waiting until after 6 p.m. and the place was hopping by then. Hostess Marie Baoff, a.k.a. “Sarge,” scurried by, but not without looking up to give me a big hello. Everybody was having a great time. My group included “Virgin Dan.” Can you believe I was able to find somebody who had never been to the Dinosaur before?
We were seated and warmly welcomed by Missy Schortemeier, a waitress at the Dinosaur for 18 years. We started with the Swag Sampler Plate that consisted of wings, fried green tomatoes, deviled eggs and spicy boiled shrimp. Don was right about those Creole-spiced deviled eggs— they sure don’t skimp on the filling—and the medium wings had a real kick to them.
The menu boasts 16 sides plus daily specials, with entrees generally served with two sides each. I instructed my group on their assignment, with no one permitted to get the same side as anyone else. As the choices were quickly taken by the hungry young ’uns, my husband whined, “Oh man, I am going to get stuck with the cottage cheese.”
Fortunately he did not, and alongside his mojito chicken, topped by a complex-tasting chimichurri sauce, he tried the Simmered Turkey Neck Collard Greens. Must have been the neck, because these were sweet and vinegary-tart at the same time. The tomato-cucumber salad offered a cooling respite to his tongue.
Thomas dug into the AK Chili and, after instructing me not to tell his mother, indicated it was some of the best chili he had ever had. There was a great balance between the beans, the meat and the spices so that you could taste every part of the mix. With his pulled-pork sandwich, Virgin Dan enjoyed the coleslaw on top: not soggy, still crunchy and not too wet, he explained. He found the macaroni salad unique, attributable to the special Dinosaur spice rub that is used to flavor the dish. I have had this side myself at catered affairs and find it irresistible, and when I made it at home using the Dinosaur cookbook recipe, it was even better, if I do say so myself.
Hannah, who survived for years on macaroni and cheese as a child, dubbed this rendition as having the right amount of cheese. Apparently you can have too much cheese in mac-and-cheese; you want to taste the pasta, too.
A delightful surprise that I would not have tried ordinarily was the carrot and raisin salad. This dish was delicious—the carrots had lost just the right amount of raw while still being crunchy—and it was sweet, which created a nice flavor foil to Hannah’s barbecue ribs. I would have that side again.
Another surprise was found on Fritz’s plate: mashed potatoes and gravy. I had been told about a friend who always chooses the same two sides at the Dinosaur: mashed potatoes and mashed potatoes. As the menu pointed out, they are “real” and really good, homey and yummy on a cold winter night. The gravy is savory, too.
Fritz also got that night’s special, a cheesy broccoli casserole. He said that, again, the dish was balanced; he could taste the broccoli over the cheese, and it was not overcooked or soggy. He thought that in general the kitchen was putting out a lot of common items, but doing them really well.
Since I read somewhere that salt is good for battling the case of tendinitis I have, I opted for the fresh-cut french fries. Being a dipper of all things potato, I enjoyed the dipping sauce flavored with the signature Dinosaur Bar-B-Que rub. The Bar-B-Blues house dressing on my salad was a buttermilk ranch dressing flavored, again, with the signature spice rub. Ranch dressing is what it is, but this adds a little zest to the iceberg.
Owner John Stage kindly paid a visit to our table. I asked, “What is new at the Dinosaur? What do you want folks to know about your restaurant?” He said he wanted me to try his sausage. He was obviously very proud of his sausage.
Syracuse, being a very competitive sausage town, is tough
to impress, and this is seriously. . . yum! This appetizer can be found
at the very bottom of the “Shared Plate” menu and is, frankly, too
simply labeled as a platter of sausage, cheese and crackers. It is so
much more: homemade crackers, homemade pimento cheese, homemade sausage
made from beef brisket and pork shoulder, and homemade onion relish.
Devoured in a minute by all, this tasted like “more,” the ultimate food
compliment in my family, so be sure to ask for John’s sausage.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 246 W. Willow St., is open Mondays to Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; and Sundays, noon to 10 p.m. For more information, call 476-4937 or visit dinosaurbarbque.com.