"The woman doesn't know how to dream," says Moses "Unkl Moe" Smith when his wife, Bernice, complains about his having dragged her from retirement to run a restaurant. But the tension is an act; the Smiths are clearly in this together. And though they claim not to have known what they were getting into, they seem very much on top of the elements of success.
Moe had been catering with his "grills on wheels" since he and Bernice retired in 1999, and customers had been pushing him to open a restaurant. He considered a spot on West Main, but it would have required a complete renovation. The mayor wanted him to take over the old Louie's Sweet Shop location, but the parking situation worried him. Then came the opportunity to take over Tommy's, across from Tops on West Avenue. It was already a restaurant, and had plenty of parking. The Smiths put their money and time into brightening up the place, and opened in September. Almost from the start, they had plenty of business.
Getting people in the door is good, but repeat business is all about quality and consistency. Moe says he's not serving fast food; when he tried having ribs ready to serve in a steam tray, they just weren't good enough. So, now everything that needs to be made to order is, and the quality shows.
Moe's ribs are dry-rubbed, slowly smoked, barbecued, then finally sauced with Unkl Moe's Sauce. For $8, you get three meaty ribs, two generous sides, and cornbread. The flavor is deep in the meat, and the sauce is sweet, smoky, and spicy. I've had more tender ribs, but the flavor is exceptional. If you're looking for tender meat, try the BBQ pork. It's not technically "pulled," but better than most that is ($7). Slowly smoked then chopped up with sauce, it had my wife and daughters fighting over the last bits. (Iris, our three-year-old, won.)
Moe says, "I want to do for turkey what the colonel did for chicken." After trying Moe's BBQ turkey ($7), burgerologist and dining companion Stan Merrell said he'd found a new family takeout staple. Moe wouldn't tell how the turkeys are done, other than to say it's a slow, two-stage process. Rounding out Moe's BBQ offerings is chicken ($7), and all BBQ meals are always available. A friend recently asked where she and her boyfriend could eat a good meal out for under $20 (which means under $16, when you consider tax and tip). Unkl Moe's provides many good options that fit that budget.
I just loved Moe's fried chicken ($7). It's dusted with flour, salt, and lots of black pepper, and fried to order. The coating was crisp and piquant, and the chicken was delicious. I ate most of the rib bones and really labored to get every edible scrap. In addition to barbecuing and frying chicken, Moe also serves a Cajun version.
Barbecue is a constant, but otherwise the menu changes daily. On Mondays, there's meatloaf with mashed potatoes ($5.50); Wednesday brings chicken and dumplings ($5.50); and on Saturdays there are oxtails ($9). Thursday through Sunday, you can get three types of fish --- haddock, whiting, or catfish --- fried or grilled ($7.50). My wife ordered fried haddock, but fell in love with my pork, so I ended up with the fish. She prefers a battered fish fry, but Moe's corn meal coating is lighter and lets the taste of the fish shine (catfish is great that way). Moe says grits and catfish is one of his most popular breakfasts.
Unkl Moe's sides are a major attraction. The yams are sweet and buttery (I prefer a bit more spice, but Stan said they were ideal). Mac and cheese is light with crispy bits on top. Collard greens, cooked perfectly, come two ways: with smoked turkey to go along with poultry, or with ham hocks. There are many others, including black-eyed peas, corned beef and cabbage, corn, or good-old mac salad.
But the side that really got me going was the fried okra, which is often either overcooked and slimy, or breaded beyond recognition. The trick is to lightly dust it with corn meal and spices, then fry it fast and hot; it retains its character, and the coating is magic. Unkl Moe's is the best you'll find around these parts. You might not think you like okra, but try Moe's and let me know what you think.
Moe's sister, Jerri Peterson, does most of the baking. Sweet potato pie is available most days, with banana pudding on Fridays, and peach cobbler on Saturdays. The homemade lemonade is delicious, and if you have a taste for genuine sweet iced tea (I don't), Stan says Unkl Moe's is the Real Deal.
The menu says "gourmet food prepared with the health conscience in mind," which, malapropism notwithstanding, isn't entirely empty rhetoric. The fried foods are carefully drained, fats are skimmed out of the stewed dishes (oxtails), and grilled foods tend to be relatively low-fat. Also, the light corn meal or flour coatings retain less fat than batters would. A sure sign is how you feel, and I felt great after every meal at Unkl Moe's.
Moe Smith was raised primarily by his great grandmother in Florida. She ran what was called a "delicatessen," serving hot dogs, hamburgers, and milk-bar items like shakes and sundaes. "She was 50 years ahead of her time," Moe says, "and I grew up knowing I could do things if I wanted to." Working on a new business venture after a full career, raising a child, and being in the military, he certainly has done things.
Unkl Moe's food is some of the best available at any of the area soul food spots, but the restaurant is larger, more comfortable, and easier to get to than most of the others. Service is attentive and friendly. The restaurant needs a high chair, but Moe says he'll take care of that. The value is very good as well; portions aren't monstrous, but you get plenty of food for seven or eight bucks. If Bernice can put up with Moe's dreaming, we can hope to have Unkl Moe's become an institution.
Unkl Moe's Bar-B-Que & Catering, 493 West Avenue, 464-8240. Hours: Monday and Wednesday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
A new Ethiopian restaurant called Dashen has just opened at the corner of Alexander Street and South Avenue (no connection to Abyssinia). Sam Ezzezew, an optical engineer, named his restaurant after the tallest peak in Ethiopia, Mt. Ras Dashen, at 15,157 feet (for comparison, Mt. Rainier is 14,410). Dashen is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to midnight at (232-2690). A sad additional note: Jared's Global Cuisine, 2500 East Avenue, has closed, and Jared and his wife, Colette, have moved back to Ohio.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon); and on Sundays for antiques and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.