For a taste of what many have named New York City’s best barbecue, you must venture up to 131st Street in Harlem, take a gander under the Riverside Drive Bridge, and viola, Dinosaur BBQ. John Stage, the owner of the original Syracuse roadhouse and its satellite locations (Rochester, Harlem), sat us down at the roundtable, gave us a tour of the slow-roasting barbecue pits, and explained the art of making beautiful meat.
How did Dinosaur BBQ come into being? I started Dinosaur BBQ in 1983 as a mobile concession business, doing biker events, fairs, festivals. I was a gypsy BBQ guy for five years. I ended up in Syracuse and opened up my first Dinosaur location in 1988, opened up my second one in Rochester in 1998, and my son went to college around 2004 so I decided to move back to New York. That’s when I opened up Dinosaur here.
So, you started out feeding bikers? I was at this event in 1983 called the Harley Rendezvous, and it was a big gathering of hardcore bikers. I wasn’t doing anything really significant at the time, so I was looking around, and saying, “Man, I should get in the business of feeding bikers. They’re some hungry men.” Back then, it was a very, very close society. It’s not like it is now where everybody rides a Harley. I literally cut a fifty-five gallon drum in half and went to the organizers of these bike events and asked them to let me cook. That’s how it started. I called myself Dinosaur BBQ, but I really wasn’t barbecue. I was grilling. As I started cracking the Mason-Dixon line in the mid-80s I realized what I was doing; as a matter of fact I was told what I was doing. People would say, “Son, this is good but it ain’t barbecue.” I didn’t know what the hell barbecue was. I was raised in New York. To me, barbecue was throwing a hamburger or hot dog on a grill. I started learning about pits and slow cooking, and it really intrigued me. I eventually got on my bike and took a tour of the south to get a taste of what real barbecue was. It became a life’s pursuit from that point.
How do you describe the Dinosaur BBQ recipe? We smoke in the traditional southern manner. In Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina, we’re all pretty much doing the same thing — cooking meat for long periods of time with an indirect fire. If you had to categorize it, our pulled pork is probably the most Memphis-based, our brisket is definitely Texan. Our barbecue pits are made in Mesquite, Texas, but we’ve got our own style. I can’t say I’m ever one to try and duplicate any one region.
How’d you choose this location? I was living on 101st Street at the time, and every time I went on the West Side Highway on 125th Street, I liked the feel and the vibe of it. I just loved the idea of being under this bridge. If you walk out, take a look at this bridge, it was the same architect that built the Eiffel Tower. There’s such a power and presence here.
Describe the Dinosaur BBQ clientele. We probably have the most diverse clientele in New York City. We get everybody from my neighbors, the Harlemites, people from all over Manhattan, the Bronx, Jersey, Westchester, some Columbia University students. You name it, we get it. You come here on any night and you’re going to see black, Latino, white people just mixing it up having a good time.
All coming together for the love of barbecue? Barbecue defies all socioeconomic boundaries. I’ve always said that. You know, rich and poor — it don’t matter. People feel good when eating barbecue. It’s really diverse and I like it that way.
How do your restaurants upstate different from this one? They’re all different. You can never duplicate an original. I would never try to take the Syracuse restaurant and put it anywhere else. I had to go with the architectural integrity of each building. The one in Syracuse is an old, turn-of-the-century auto dealership — it was the first Cadillac dealership in Syracuse. The Rochester location is a 1905 train station. It’s on the water, and it’s an incredible piece of architecture. They all feel like a Dinosaur, but they look a little bit different. They have the same vibe and flavor, but I would never try to copy any of them. I want them all to be slightly different. If someone goes, “Well this don’t feel like Syracuse” … well good, it’s not supposed to.
Was the first joint a hit from the start? It wasn’t at first. Again, back then it was a different environment. If there were motorcycles parked in front of a restaurant years ago, it had a bad reputation. Now nobody cares. Back then it was different. So the first year, nobody really got us, and then it started catching. By the second year, it was big. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I finally got a liquor license. We were a place just to get a good plate of food. But no one was going on dates there; no one was making it a night out. Once we got our liquor license, then the whole vibe of it changed, and we became a real place to go to. Then we started adding live music.
Do you guys do music shows here in the New York location? On Monday night we have an open jam, and on Friday and Saturday. We have music three nights a week, sometimes four.
Do you have any interest in expanding? We’re looking at a space in Brooklyn right now. I take one at a time. We may put another one upstate, but I’m not sure yet. There’s three balls in the air and I’m not sure where they’re going to drop right now.
What should someone order their first time here? Our number-one selling item is the ribs. Our ribs are St. Louis cut, and we slow-smoke them for up to four hours until the meat pulls off the bone. We rub them, smoke them lightly, and put light sauce on them. Our brisket is all about that slow-cooking process. We’ll smoke the brisket for up to 12 hours. and all the fat and all the connective tissue is based out. It ends up having slightly more fat than a bone of skinless chicken breast. The fatty part of the brisket drips out. I’ll put a plate of lean brisket up against any order of skinless breast, and it’ll have a lower fat content and be healthier for you. Pulled pork is the same thing. It’s a pork shoulder. If you put a nine-pound pork shoulder in the pit, you’re going to end up with four pounds of usable meat, because all that fat drips out of it. That’s what makes good barbecue. You want to start with a fatty piece of meat, and then the cooking process leaves it with a good flavor. It’s lean, and you’re never going to see hunks of fat on a piece of pulled pork.
What time do you have to start cooking the meat to get ready for lunch hour? What you would be eating for lunch today went into the barbecue pit last night. We load it up about 1 a.m.
Does someone have to be here 24 hours a day? No, we’ll build a fire that will take it until about six in the morning. The barbecue pits maintain a certain temperature, and they cook very slowly at 250 degrees. The fuel self-regulates. If you’re burning low, that fire takes a long time to go down. If we were cooking at 500 degrees, that fire would be gone in an hour and a half. Because it’s at 250 degrees, we can stretch it until about 6 a.m. Another guy comes in around 7 a.m., puts another log on the fire, and builds it back up again.
Where do you go out in this neighborhood? My favorite bar in Harlem is St. Nick’s Pub on 148th Street and St. Nicholas. It’s a great old-school jazz club. Showman’s on 125th Street is a blast. Lennox Lounge is cool. I go around the corner to my friends at Toast — that’s a good Dinosaur watering hole. Those are my Harlem haunts.
How much barbecue do you eat on a daily basis? We’re going to sit down at 11:30 a.m. and do a big tasting. We do this every day in the morning, and then again at 5 p.m. When the barbecue comes out, we inspect it and taste it. I eat barbecue every day. I’m not sitting down with massive plates of it, but I’m sampling it everyday. We get a team of the general manager, the kitchen manager, and my service director. We all sit down to sample our food each day, and then we have a roundtable discussion about it. If something’s perfect, it goes over here, if it needs a little something more, it goes over here. We just re-tweak everything.
Best barbecue joints in the country? I loveThe Salt Lick right outside of Austin. It’s the quintessential Texas barbecue restaurant. It’s about 22 miles outside of Austin, in a dry county, and it’s nestled on this very picturesque road. You start smelling it about a mile out. If I’m in Memphis, I like the Cozy Corner.