The first complete dinosaur skeleton (a Hadrosaurus, now our state dinosaur) was unearthed in Haddonfield in 1858. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is a discovery of another kind: hearty rural chow in the heart of downtown Newark.
This sixth location of a popular, Syracuse-based chain opened in May in a sprawling, circa 1890 red brick building still flaunting its original stamped-tin ceiling and mosaic floor. It once housed a boxing gym where Paterson-based Rubin “Hurricane” Carter trained.
Carter won about half his bouts by knockout. Dinosaur’s winning percentage is about the same. Beef brisket arrived dry and grayish. Smoked St. Louis-style ribs were dry and not very smoky or meaty.
House-made Texas hot links, usually fiery and rough-textured, were tamely peppered and hot dog-smooth.
I was assured by a dining companion, a Syracuse University sophomore and Dino devotee, that the mother ship’s meats are more tender, with a surer jab. “In Syracuse, they’ve been doing it since 1988—before iPhones!” he marveled.
On the winning side, pulled pork was moist and delicious. (The kitchen’s designated “puller” hand-shreds every order of smoked butt, which is actually shoulder.) Plump barbecued shrimp were delightfully dusted with Dinosaur’s own Cajun red spice mixture with a kiss of brown sugar. Chicken and sausage gumbo was lush with smoked chicken, okra and Portuguese chouriço sausage from Newark’s Lopes Smokehouse.
The Newark outpost is big and brawny, with 120 seats, a busy bar, about 45 cooks, and scores of vintage American collectibles on the walls. It draws a young crowd, a mix of business people, Rutgers and Seton Hall law students and fans headed for games or concerts at the Prudential Center a block away.
The Brontosaurus of a menu is divided into Small and Shared Plates, Bar-B-Cue Pit Plates, Custom ’Cue Plates, and Specialty Sandwiches. Diners can choose from among 15 sides and a half-dozen sauces, from subdued to habañero-strafed. Portions are two-fisted and tabs are featherweight.
Dinosaur’s Newark pitmaster and top toque, Matt Samaan, 38, worked at Dinosaur’s Harlem location a few blocks north of Columbia University. In what he called his “scratch kitchen,” in a phone interview after my visits, he said only the bread, from Newark’s Teixeira Bakery, is not made in house.
Samaan’s Korean-style beef ribs were thick, tender and imbued with a delectable soy, sesame and ginger marinade. His smoked, grill-crisped, jumbo chicken wings came out swinging. I have had the marquee item at the Gumbo Shop in New Orleans, and Samaan’s gumbo is better. Another winner is his smoked pork with white bean soup, a sometime special he likened to “a Cajun cassoulet.”
Vegetarians needn’t feel neglected. Newark Mayor Cory Booker doesn’t. Dinosaur general manager John Tirch told me the mayor often orders fried green tomatoes, deviled eggs and a smoked portobello sandwich, and has them delivered to City Hall.
The best desserts were a dense, deli-style cheesecake and a peanut butter pie made with (unbeatable) Skippy creamy and a crunchy ganache of roasted peanuts and milk chocolate. Like a fondness for dinosaurs, a hankering for peanut butter is hard to outgrow.