Not long ago, the father and son who smoke what's arguably the best barbecue in the city closed their doors in Bucktown and relocated to a former beauty salon on 43rd Street in Bronzeville.
"The neighborhood just wasn't supporting us," Honey 1 Barbecue's Robert Adams Sr. told me. They're crushing it now, operating at twice their former capacity with an enormous new custom-made Belvin smoker, and the go-to order there—a classic Chicago tips-and-link combo, sauce on the side—is as good as it ever was.
That's the north side's loss, although I'm beginning to suspect that much of the north side just doesn't know what good barbecue is. That part of the city's been ground zero for an unstoppable plague of mediocre-to-terrible new barbecue restaurants that I've had the misfortune of documenting over the last few years.
And now there's Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the ninth spawn of a Syracuse-based chain that's migrated from the hallowed barbecue country of upstate New York and planted its sizable footprint right in the middle of one of the most odious big-box commercial districts in the city. Superficially, all the signs of a crappy barbecue experience are present. There's a faux ghost sign painted on the outside wall of the former Mask and Zentra nightclubs that's supposed to indicate REAL PIT BBQ has been available in the building since the days when it was a pump manufacturer. There's the usual affected cornpone and gerund-mangling dialectical signifiers ('que! stylin'!). And among the unfocused multitude of options on the menu there's a smoked portobello mushroom—and a cocktail called the Donkey Punch.
Most troubling of all is the restaurant's regrettable policy of saucing all the barbecue before it comes to the table. By now most adults realize that reflexive saucing is emblematic of a problem. It shows a lack of confidence in the pit master's product. It's the beard that bad barbecue wears.
It's all the more unfortunate because Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's smoked meats aren't awful. In fact, the brisket—one of its signature items—ranks among the best in the city. Sliced through the point and the deckle (if you're lucky), it's unashamedly fatty, with a dark, crispy bark and a lacy interior that holds its juices like a sponge. On occasion it arrives sliced with the grain, but that sin is more forgivable than smothering it with sugary sauce. Garnishing it with sharp pickled jalapeños, however, is a good move; they're the only things needed to cut through the meat's richness.
Of course you can always ask for sauce on the side, though the request seems to inspire panic in otherwise capable servers. And if you want the ribs dry, they'll say there's nothing they can do to about it; the ribs here arrive in a candy-sweet coating that degrades any savory bark they might have built up in the smoker.
Consistency is the holy grail of barbecue (as it is of any type of restaurant) and underneath that sauce, the quality of the ribs varies depending on how long it's been since they were in the smoker. On one of my visits they provided a nice amount of mandibular resistance. On another occasion they'd gone soft; meat slipped from the bone like a wet sock, recalling the dreaded meat Jell-O that's the bane of all things good and true.
Inconsistency across barbecue platforms might also be due to the restaurant's equipment. Dinosaur is currently operating two kinds of smokers: massive wood-fueled Oylers for the brisket and gas-assisted Ole Hickory pits for smaller stuff. That might explain why the brisket tastes a whole lot more like real barbecue than the chicken or the much-vaunted wings, both of which taste more roasted than smoked. But hey, there are seven different kinds of sauce to obscure that problem.
All of these traditional barbecue options can be ordered solo, in sliders, wraps, sandwiches, and salads, or in a multitude of combos. There's also a selection of "custom 'que" that includes a smoked catfish plate, a boneless half chicken, and a combo with three pork products: ribs plus a smoky, spicy, and dense house hot link and slices of pork belly, which seem to be fried before they're served. There's also a Korean-style smoked and seared lamb shoulder, which is shredded and then fried crispy along with some spicy rice. It would be a truly memorable twist on barbecue if it weren't served in a such an insultingly small portion.
Dinosaur's sides and other peripheral items are hits as often as they're misses. The restaurant is renowned for its mac 'n' cheese, and justly so. Cooked al dente, the macaroni is sauced with a sharp, almost funky four-cheese blend and seasoned with a mere hint of cayenne. Hand-cut fries are lightly crispy with soft, creamy interiors, while a fermented cabbage salad is a sweet alternative to creamy coleslaw. Meanwhile fried green tomatoes are marvelously hot and crunchy and crowned with melting pimento cheese and chow-chow. But the oversweet beans are cooked down to a point where they become porridge, and a soupy cauliflower and sweet potato curry is barely cooked. Finally, there's an unadventurous selection of beers and spirits, and a handful of southern-style desserts, among them an unattractive but surprisingly rich chocolate icebox pie.
But these ancillaries really shouldn't matter. It's the barbecue that counts. And while the barbecue isn't transcendent, it can be good. If you find yourself trapped in the neighborhood in dire need of smoked meat, you might have a hard time choosing between Dinosaur and Whole Foods. v