By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2004
I ADMIT to a decadent streak of sentimentality -- or perhaps it's simply a southern weakness for slumming -- but I like an unabashed dive. I like guys who play pedal-down blues well past 40. I like eating with my fingers, so long as there's running water nearby; and I like hearing the sizzle of the french fries hitting the oil. Diners, cheap eats, honky-tonks: I like joints.
Half Moon Bar-B-Que is definitely a joint and, to anyone who can remember when Silver Spring's downtown pretty much ended at Colesville Road, a throwback to a bygone era (minus the cigarette haze). Inspired by the bar-dance-hall-carryouts of Louisiana -- themselves a threatened species now that Cre-jun culture is busy caricaturing itself all over the Food Network -- Half Moon takes a retro-grungy attitude toward decor: You can take the smoker out of the garage, but you can't take the garage out of the smoker. A corrugated iron bar runs along one side of the narrow dining room, old-style booth seating fills the other, the ceiling is pressed-tin painted hot-sauce scarlet, and old posters and photos of musicians in dime-store frames line the walls.
These are just as much to the point, as Half Moon also serves as one of the few venues left around Washington for serious roots, rockabilly and western swing. It belongs to Marc Gretschel of the old Twist & Shout and Tornado Alley clubs (and Paddy Mac's, despite the name), and the concrete block backroom, a half-flight up a la Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (now there's sentimentality), has live music Tuesday through Saturday, including local favorites such as the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours, Ruthie and the Wranglers, Grandsons of the Pioneers, Hula Monsters, Bill Kirchen (still a near-regular despite his recent move west) and Sleepy LaBeef.
The menu is intentionally limited to carryout-shack length (the kitchen's only shack-size itself), but it has its happy moments, and one is almost oxymoronic; this is about as lean as barbecue gets, even the ribs. They're perfectly tender, but even for fat-phobics, there's nothing left but the bones. And the kitchen isn't afraid to send them out on their own: The sauce, which is a sort of compromise between North Carolina and Texas, slightly vinegary but not thin, is not slathered as flavor camouflage (ever been to one of those places where everything smells like Liquid Smoke?), but applied in judicious amounts. (How good are the ribs? Good enough that even on nights with no music, some of the musicians drop by for a fix.)
That's actually one of the keys to the cooking here. By "barbecue," the kitchen means meats rubbed and slow-cooked over hickory, not some spicier form of sloppy Joe. The chicken comes in quarters (dark or white) or halves, and though the white meat unavoidably winds up drier, it's still pretty good. (If you prefer your chicken pulled rather than on the bone, as in the sandwich version, it takes really well to the Pete's Texas hot sauce on the table.) The pulled pork sandwich is probably tied with the ribs for most popular entree, but fortunately you can create your own combo plate. The hot sausages have great flavor, though sometimes they're grilled beyond the juiciest point.
The buffalo wings are hard to pass up, a welcome respite from over-battered soggy drummettes drenched in salad dressing. They're not battered at all, in fact, just submerged in really hot oil and served on a bed of Pete's. The hand-cut french fries are a little uneven, the timing being so crucial, but even when hauled out a minute too soon, they are a Texas two-step above fast-food fries.
The beans taste pretty much right out of a can, which is okay, because if you're a baked-bean person, you're a baked-bean person. The collards are also canned to begin with, but doctored up to a nostalgic success. (The restaurant's Web site says all the side dishes are vegetarian, but the staff says otherwise, mentioning beef broth and pork bits; double-check with your server if you have concerns.)
Brews, blues and barbecues is the mantra, and Half Moon is stocked with about 50 bottles and a couple (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Newcastle Brown) on tap. Half Moon is, not surprisingly, popular with kids, and the menu also lists a hamburger that, at a half-pound, is big enough to split. There are some occasional nightly specials, especially on busier nights, such as crab cake sandwiches.
Note that although the music room itself is upstairs, the bathrooms are in the hallway between the dining room and backroom and are wheelchair accessible. A faux "window" painted in the women's restroom shows a Half Moon Bar-B-Que at the famed corner of Royal and Orleans in New Orleans. (And don't worry, the music carries.)