Hatchet Job


Why am I so obsessed with wood? The barbecues I love—City Market in Luling, Texas; Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina; and George’s Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Kentucky, representing three distinct traditions—bombard their meat with thick wood smoke, running through hardwood by the cord (128 cubic feet) every day. Above these enterprises the pit master towers, a Christ-like figure who selflessly stays up all night cutting lumber, stoking the fire, constantly turning the meat, wiping soot from his brow, then collapsing in a heap after delivering a near-perfect product each morning. We had only one barbecue in New York with that dedication—Pearson’s in Jackson Heights. Perhaps coincidentally, it closed the week Dinosaur Bar-B-Q opened.

The lack of serious wood is why I can’t join the hosannas of praise for Dinosaur, an affable joint originating in Syracuse that opened recently in West Harlem under the Henry Hudson viaduct, a gritty area of warehouses, meat purveyors, and auto body shops currently being annexed by Columbia University. In the days prior to the opening, I haunted the locale, searching for telltale signs of hardwood delivery (wood splinters, scurrying insects, pieces of bark) on the freshly poured concrete sidewalk, probing the trash pile for messy evidence of wood ash. Especially, I sniffed the air in every direction, only to be disappointed.

The hulking interior is pleasant enough, a former meatpacking plant where the bare concrete walls and joists have been retrofitted with plenty of antique wood. Whimsical signs and trashy movie posters complete the decor. Bringing a crew of discerning barbecue fiends on the way to a Pixies reunion concert, we commandeered a large table and ordered a substantial proportion of the menu. While the pork ribs (half-rack $13.95, full rack $20.95) aped the texture of wood, they lacked smoky flavor. I watched through the kitchen window as ribs were “finished” by being brushed with barbecue sauce and reheated on a gas grill. According to the label, the sauce contains smoke flavor. I guess that finished them, all right.

That evening the sliced brisket was a little more smoky, but as dry as a Southern Baptist convention, which is why, I suppose, that the “original Texas beef brisket” sandwich ($8.50) comes weirdly smeared with horseradish mayo. “Damn, there’s fried onions on my brisket sandwich,” the actress from College Station, Texas, complained, demolishing Dinosaur’s claims to authenticity. I can well believe that the meat had been cooked for 18 hours, as boasted on the menu. What I can’t believe is that much wood saw the inside of the smoker. The chicken (one-half $9.95) fared better than the ribs and brisket. A chicken that is merely smoked develops a skin like a latex jumpsuit—repulsive unless you’re a rubber fetishist. Dinosaur manages to make chicken skin desirable, while imbuing the flesh with a quasi-smoky flavor and pleasantly moist texture.

The best thing I tasted on three eating visits was the “big ass pork plate” ($12.95), pale meat pulled in clumps, quite smoky-tasting. The two piles constituted only a very small ass, though, and the cloying sauce is for the birds. Unlike a real barbecue, you can’t skip the sides and order ‘cue by the pound. As with a real barbecue, the sides at Dinosaur are mainly forgettable, including some awful baked beans, decent fries, and creamy cole slaw. Now that’s authenticity.