Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 10, 2017

Bringing the meat to Market Street

Moe’s co-owners are Levoy Knight, left, Jason Jones, center and Travis Griffith. - Photograph by David Laprad

I had never eaten ribs while avoiding the icy stare of Christopher Walken. But as I plowed through one smoky bite after another, I knew the actor was looking directly at me. The trick was not minding.

I was sitting in a booth at Moe’s Original Bar-B-Cue on Market Street working my way through a six-rib platter and enjoying the classic rock tunes playing at just the right volume in the background. John Fogerty was singing about rollin’ down a river when I cracked.

I looked up and returned Walken’s deadpan gaze. He didn’t flinch. I was impressed. Then someone opened the door to the “Christopher Walken cooler” behind the counter and I lost site of the actor for a moment.

I counted it a victory, sucked the meat off the last bone and reached for the roll of paper towels.

Located in the former Rhythm ‘n’ Brews site at 221 Market St., Moe’s makes a good first impression.

To the right, an open kitchen, order counter and bar have sprung up where a stage once stood. Beyond that, booths and tables stretch all the way to the back, where Rhythm ‘n’ Brews regulars will be glad to know the bathrooms can still be found.

You might be thinking, “Sacrilege! The building should have been left empty, like an abandoned church.” Rhythm ‘n’ Brews was sacred to some folks.

But the owners of Moe’s have paid homage to building’s former tenants by hanging a gallery of Rhythm ‘n’ Brews playbills on the back wall. (Posters of Angie Aparo and Jump, Little Children stand out.) A painting of a concert at the former music venue also looks out at diners.

It’s a nice touch. When a business comes into a place, it usually removes every trace of the former occupants and starts fresh. The owners of Moe’s chose to preserve a piece of cherished Chattanooga history instead.

Returning to the front of the establishment, a large, plywood framed blackboard offering Moe’s menu hangs directly above the order counter. It needed to be big because there was a lot of stuff to squeeze onto it.

Thankfully, the selections have been neatly arranged to keep the decision-making simple, which is important when most of the people entering your restaurant are going to be teetering on the edge of hangry.

Feeling a little edgy myself, I mentally erased most of the board and focused on the two most important categories: sandwiches and platters.

Moe’s offer five freshly-smoked entrées: pulled pork, smoked chicken, smoked turkey breast, ribs and wings. The latter two are available only on a platter.

If you’re in the mood for barbecue but your mealtime companion is not, he or she can order the Fried Shrimp Moe Boy, the Southern Fried Catfish sandwich or the Blackened Mahi sandwich.

In addition to smoked meats, Moe’s serves a rotation of 60 Southern-inspired side dishes and house-made desserts. Baked beans, potato salad, marinated slaw and banana puddin’ are offered daily, while mac and cheese, skillet corn and Mississippi Mud Pie might or might not be on the menu.

Perplexed at the lack of a ribs and wings combo platter but wanting to try both meats, I did the only sensible thing: ordered both separately.

When I picked up my food at the counter a few minutes later, I experienced a moment of bewilderment: the wings were naked and the ribs had just a drizzle of sauce on them. Clearly, I was not going to have to worry about sticky fingers...

The young man behind the counter must have seen the puzzlement on my face, as he pointed at several bottles of red sauce in a warmer near the counter.

“Which one is sweet?” I asked “I don’t care for hot.” He told me every bottle contained the same house-made sauce.

In Chattanooga, barbecue joints are like Baptist churches – there’s one on every block (or so it seems). So if you’re going to stand out, you’ve got to go the extra mile.

Jason Jones, Levoy Knight and Travis Griffith, co-owners of Moe’s in Chattanooga, didn’t just go the extra mile, they traveled nearly 1,400 miles to Vail, Colorado to learn smoking techniques from Moe’s pit masters.

If my first taste of ribs at Moe’s was any indication, they learned well.

As I tore into my first rib, I didn’t even notice the lack of sauce. All I tasted in that first chewy, meaty bite was the perfect degree of smokiness. If you’ve ever had bland ribs smothered in sauce to make up for the lack of flavor or ribs that seemed to have been smoked in the pits of hell, then you know the importance of achieving a good balance.

While the sauce had too much of a vinegar tang for my taste, I didn’t mind. If you’ll pardon me for leaning on a cliché, it was love at first bite.

I liked the wings, too. The skin was crunchy, there was a lot of meat on the bones , and they tasted great dipped in the house-made white barbecue sauce Moe’s put on the side.

This brings me to the sides, which come in small cups. While I enjoyed the baked beans, mac and cheese and cole slaw I sampled, I devoured the skillet corn. Not only is Moe’s not afraid to throw in enough butter to notice, the recipe calls for something that gives it a nice kick.

Moe’s has a menu of family-sized portions you can take home. One of these evenings, I’m going to take a pint of skillet corn home, load Netflix and forget my troubles.

“Comfort” is one of the defining qualities of the menu at Moe’s. Nothing fancy or experimental gets in the way of the enjoyment of simple foods cooked right. (At the same time, Moe’s reserves the right to put their own twist on things.)

The second thing that stands out at Moe’s is the freshness of the food. Jones told me they never serve day-two meats but take a get-it-while-it-lasts approach that ensures everything is as fresh as possible.

Good food sometimes has a history. That’s certainly true of Moe’s.

Moe’s got its start 15 years ago when three guys from Tuscaloosa bought a gooseneck trailer and started a summer barbecue business on a street corner in Edwards, Colorado. Each day, they put out hay bales for seats and wire spools for tables, and diners lined up to enjoy their freshly-smoked meats.

When the partners sold out of food for 100 days straight three summers in a row, they decided they were onto something.

Ben Gilbert, Mike Fernandez and Jeff Kennedy learned their old-school meat smoking techniques from backyard barbecue master Moses Day, also known as “Moe.” He taught them to use fruit wood to smoke the meats, and Gilbert, Fernandez and Kennedy developed the red and white sauces that bring out the flavors of the meats.

Moe’s has since expanded into a nationwide chain with locations in 10 states, each operated by local franchise owners.

Jones (who also owns both local Mellow Mushroom restaurants), Knight and Griffith opened Chattanooga’s first Moe’s in late February.

Even though Moe’s is a franchise, it doesn’t feel like one, partly because the three partners were able to put their own stamp on the place.

Most of the wood at Moe’s came from Jones’ family farm in Rabun County, Georgia, where the lumber was left over from a summer camp project. Jones and his partners spent hundreds of hours milling it, planing it and fashioning it into tables and beams for an indoor roof.

The only wood that didn’t come from the farm were the thin branches that make up the mosaics set into the walls. These came from a burn pile at a Signal Mountain tree service.

Chain restaurants usually feature the same décor at every location. But at Moe’s, Jones, Knight and Griffith made every decorative choice, from the larger-than-life Walken portrait glued to the outside of the cooler to the photo of Moe’s patron saint, Willie Nelson which overlooks the bar.

However, the most distinctive artwork at Moe’s wasn’t hung or embedded but was painted directly onto the red brick walls of the building: a mural of a flying pig and sunbeams being sucked into a psychedelic vortex.

That painting, along with the classic rock tunes that play at just the right volume in the background, sets the tone at Moe’s.

While renegade décor and Southern comfort food might sound like strange bedfellows, I can’t think of a single aspect of Moe’s that doesn’t hit all the right notes. Eating there is fast, easy, satisfying and enjoyable – and I can say that my first time won’t be my last.

Moe’s serves lunch, dinner and drinks from a full bar seven days a week from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Catering is available for off-site events.