Why do most people go to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Troy? Well if you ask general manager Joe Soldo, he'll tell you it's for the pulled pork. That's the big seller -- followed by ribs and then brisket, with chicken lagging way behind in the rear.
Chicken gets little respect at a barbecue joint.
When I think about barbecue, it conjures up images of long, slow cooking that breaks down the collagen in tougher pieces of meat, renders their fat, and turns them into unctuous smokey masterpieces. But when I hear the words "barbecue chicken" it's hard to picture anything but a dry, flavorless chicken breast slathered in sauce.
Barbecue chicken has a marketing problem. But I'm far from alone in thinking that Dinosaur's chicken is among its best offering. I recently got to sit down with the regional chain's CIA-trained executive chef Jeffrey "Cooter" Coon to find out why it's so good.
Little did I know that this is the chicken that changed his life.
When I commented on how much I enjoyed the restaurant's chicken Cooter perked up and said:
"The chicken's slammin'. That's why I took this job. I started going to the Dino, and I was ordering the half chicken. And that was before we even started brining it, back in '97. I was like, 'This is the juiciest, best chicken I've ever had.' To this day, it is still. Between the smoke, the meat, the moistness, and the char. You got to have the char, and it hits it. Yeah."
When Cooter first ate at the Dino in Syracuse, it was owner John Stage doing the cooking. The two bikers happened to meet on the side of the road. Cooter tells the story: "I just got done being pulled over and I had a broken throttle cable. And John and Mike, one of the old partners, came riding by. And they stopped and they said, 'We have a little barbecue place around the corner with a motorcycle shop above it if you need a cable.'"
Since then, John and Cooter have worked closely together, fine tuning and continually improving the food at Dinosaur. Of course they are both passionate barbecue lovers -- and don't always agree. The move to "all natural" chickens was John's idea. Cooter, on the other hand, is a proponent of high-quality conventionally raised meats to serve as the canvas for his smoke.
But the brine was Cooter's idea. He describes it as, "Pretty basic. Some good amount of bay leaf, black pepper, salt, sugar, some vinegar, and those [birds] get brined for a good 12 hours. And it makes a difference."
What you have to remember about this chicken is that it's truly barbecued. It's cooked in a wood pit smoker for three hours at a temperature that hovers between 225 and 250 degrees.
Low and slow may be great for cooking a tender and juicy chicken, but it has a tendency to turn the skin into leather. So before being served, these smoked birds are brushed with sauce and finished on the grill.
The result is fantastic: juicy, smoky, spicy, sweet, tender and crisp. Don't be fooled into thinking that chicken is the healthful option and a cop-out in a temple of pork and beef fat. You are conflating chicken with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. With the skin on a leg/thigh it is totally a decadent treat, and an entire half chicken is a feast.
In fact, you'll want to make sure you have some kind of side on your plate to help cleanse the heaviness of the chicken fat and clear your palate for subsequent bites. I'm a fan of their chopped collard greens for this task.
There's another reason to get the half-chicken, too: because you get to experience every part of the product pulled from the smoker. The only other way to achieve this on the menu is to get the full rack of ribs (which isn't a bad way to go either). Cooter agrees that getting an entire slab of ribs is the only real way to understand how Dinosaur actually cook ribs, and further explains, "A quarter rack is just a small cross section of what's going on."
Surely one could order an entire brisket or pork butt to get the full experience of these cuts. But you would need a lot of hungry friends to help you eat it. A half-chicken can be a one-person job.
Anyhow, it's an absolute crime that the best thing on the menu at this fabled institution has so few admirers. It also happens to be one of the least expensive things at $12.95 for a half-chicken with two sides and corn bread. I wouldn't hold it against you either if you opted for the "house special" combo that, for an extra buck, pairs a quarter dark meat chicken with a quarter rack of ribs.
Honestly, it's more food than even a hungry adult needs for dinner, and could easily be split two ways. Especially if you wanted to take a scenic walk along the river to Dante's for dessert afterwards. I hear they've got new spoons.
Daniel B. is the proprietor of the FUSSYlittleBLOG.
377 River St
Troy, NY 12180
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