Harbor East already features a menagerie of bars and restaurants, from chains to local spots with a range of cuisines, and when chain restaurant Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (1401 Fleet St.,  708-9070, dinosaurbarbque.com) decided to settle in, locals had mixed feelings. While diners were enthusiastic about a casual meat joint in the otherwise upscale neighborhood, and Dinosaur's reputation as a quality barbecue spot preceded it, the chain represented yet another shift in Baltimore neighborhoods traditionally populated by locally owned bars and restaurants. A visit to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que didn't resolve those mixed feelings—if anything, the inconsistent quality of the food, even across multiple servings of the same dish, reinforced them.
The place wasn't packed when we stepped in on a weeknight, and we unexpectedly spotted a few friends with beers at the bar. The long and shiny wood bar is the real centerpiece of Dinosaur BBQ in Baltimore, and is the best place to get a seat, if possible. The surrounding bar area, where we settled in, features large, long high-top tables (perfect for supporting lots of meat dishes). There are typical tables and booths in the dining area, but unless dining with family, the drinks area is the place to park. Once we settled in, service was fast with flights (four for $6), cans, bottles, and drafts ($4-$9 for pints, and the local/craft options are plentiful) of beer and cocktails ($9-$12) on the table quickly.
The Swag Sampler Plate ($22.95 for four) arrived on a large family-style plate with more than enough deviled eggs, chicken wings, steamed shrimp, and fried green tomatoes for our group of four. Deviled eggs were the favorite of the table, with ideal firm whites coddling an extremely generous helping of prettily piped, smoothly whipped yolk with mayo that sported a healthy (though not overwhelming) kick of cayenne at the back end. Chicken wings were equally impressive—all drum sticks with tons of meat. They were smoked then grilled to get their char, and doused in Wango Tango sauce (other options include honey barbecue, Korean glaze, garlic chipotle, jerk glaze, or devil's duel, ranging from very mild to extremely spicy). The wings were accompanied by the standard blue cheese and celery.
But the other half of the sampler was mediocre. Steamed shrimp were well-seasoned, but a tad overcooked. Granted, it's difficult for a meat-based chain restaurant to prepare seafood in a waterfront town, where diners are spoiled with an abundance of restaurants that prepare seafood so frequently it's second nature (and therefore nearly always perfect). While the shrimp weren't flawless, they were passable, with an enjoyable habanero cocktail sauce accompanying them. The fried green tomatoes were so evenly shaped and coated we couldn't help but think they looked pre-made, and the taste was average enough to suggest the same. The house-made cayenne buttermilk ranch served with the tomatoes was only a welcome addition in terms of creaminess, while the ranch flavor was overwhelming and the cayenne wasn't detectable.
The Dinosaur's menu had all the barbecue standards—brisket, pulled pork, ribs, etc. The most efficient way to sample as many meats as possible is to choose from the Custom 'Ques ($16.95 for two meats, $19.95 for three), which also come with two sides. The meats were inconsistent, though, even between different servings of the same dish at our table.
Ribs, which come in a sampler size of about three when part of the Custom 'Ques, were still a hearty portion. Some at the table complained theirs were dry, while others were pleased with a fair amount of tender, moist quality to the meat.
Pork belly is fatty—that's what pork belly is. However, Dinosaur's pork belly had a much higher fat-to-meat ratio than we would normally expect, and was a bit disappointing in that respect. But the crunchy, caramelized exterior was nearly heavenly enough to excuse the misstep on the cut.
The pulled pork was tender, but still not as moist as expected. The brisket was equally dry. Even the sausage, drizzled in a cayenne-spiced sauce, neglected to spill out the typical juices when cut open (and while two of us ordered sausage, only one was came with the sauce).
There aren't a lot of vegetarian options at Dinosaur—outside of a chopped salad, one is a fried green tomato sandwich and the other is a portobello sandwich. Dinosaur toasted up a gorgeous buttery brioche roll, and the zucchini and onions in the sandwich were gorgeous and abundant. The portobello was smaller than usual, though to the kitchen's credit it was firm and devoid of extraneous moisture. The spicy seasoning made it feel like a sandwich in the style of the other food on the table, rather than a vegetarian afterthought, though we still wished it was a little heftier in size.
The sides were hit-or-miss, much like the meats. BBQ beans with pork had a creamy consistency and a subtly sweet flavor with the depth of the pork shining through, and the turkey neck collard greens were a solid example of the dish, with the wilted greens retaining their texture while imparting the hearty flavors of meat. BBQ fried rice (with barbecue meat) was on point with the exception of some oiliness, but while the Harlem potato salad was a welcomed carb-y side dish, it lacked moisture and could have benefited from the addition of onions or spice.
Putting the dryness of the meat aside, our real issue with the meal came down to the side dish of macaroni and cheese. Two of us ordered the mac and cheese as sides with our meals, and they came in different portions—one in a ramekin (larger) and one on the plate (smaller). The disparities were minimal compared to the taste. As we both tasted and shared information, we realized we couldn't be tasting the same dish. We traded dishes. One was briny, drier, with stringy cheese and somewhat overdone pasta. The other was creamier, sweeter, with no strings of cheese, and pasta that was barely al dente. They were clearly not the same.
When our amiable server came back to chat with us about our meal, after sharing that he sometimes also works in the back of house and in other roles within the restaurant, we asked about some of the inconsistencies. He acknowledged them and said he, and others, are working with the kitchen to standardize preparations. While Dinosaur itself has set recipes and techniques across its restaurants, our server admitted that not all kitchen staffers adhere to the guidelines and that it has the potential to hurt a restaurant that relies on its name to get people in the door.
The restaurant has some inconsistencies to work out, but I have hope for this spot—and would definitely return to the bar. Still, Dinosaur might need a few months more under its belt before I venture in again for a full meal.