Party at the Moon Tower
Check out more photos of the hot dogs and horseshoes that make Moon Tower unique in our slideshow.
The first time I pulled up to Moon Tower Inn — and saw the solitary, softly glowing sign that reads only "No. 3004" jutting up from a curb on Canal Street — the thought that went through my mind was this: "Am I cool enough to eat here?!"
I am rarely cool enough to eat anywhere, by all rights. And I was going there on the advice of my friend, Houston Press Assistant Music Editor Craig Hlavaty, who is far cooler than I am or ever was when I was his age. So that simple sign at Moon Tower Inn was somehow more imposing to me than the grand staircase at RDG + Bar Annie or the operatic curtains that hang from the two-story ceilings at VOICE. Perhaps it's because Moon Tower Inn is — intentionally or not — a carefully composed study on how not to be a restaurant.
There is no indoor seating at all. The bathrooms (and the walk to get to them at night) are something out of Friday the 13th. There are only a handful of items on the very small menu, and you eat what the guys currently have in stock. Some nights, there are only four types of "hot dogs" — they're really more like sausages — to choose from. You'll get Zapp's chips and beer with your hot dogs and like it, since there's very little else here to speak of. And, as the sign says, "This isn't fast food. Shut up and wait."
It's exactly this devil-may-care attitude that makes Moon Tower somewhat imposing at first: It's as if young owners Brandon Young and Evan Shannon have created a members-only club out here in the wilds of the overgrown Second Ward. But just because it's members-only doesn't mean it's exclusive: All are welcome here, and you'll be a full-fledged member in no time.
To quote Hlavaty, who showed up a few minutes later ready to dig into some dogs and spout some of his own personal philosophy on the topic: "If you don't feel cool somewhere, that's your problem." And he's right; it certainly isn't Moon Tower Inn's problem, as the open-air patio and the relaxed attitude quickly make you feel right at home.
I once described Moon Tower Inn to a friend as being "a hipster and hot dog paradise," but that's a bit uncharitable to Moon Tower. The hipsters can't be helped; they're naturally going to gravitate to a scruffy beacon like this, as it embodies everything they stand for. Pride is taken in the food, but not so much pride that there isn't still a detached irony behind it, particularly visible in the dogs' various nomenclatures. Koozies are sold bearing the phrase "Light beer is for pregnant ladies and kids." Musicians and artists flock here by the dozens. There are hooks to hang your fixie from. There is Lone Star on draft.
Instead of focusing on the young clientele and the bike culture that is almost a force of nature here, focus instead on those dogs. The hot dogs here are like nothing you've ever had before, even if you've been to Hot Doug's, the Chicago joint that Moon Tower has been subtly accused of copycatting. Not true. And that's because they aren't really hot dogs. They're creatively and lovingly crafted sausages, but call them what you like.
There is a rotating list of about a dozen dogs to choose from, each one made with a different kind of meat, most of those wild game meats. They have darkly clever names, yes, like the Talilamb (rhymes with "Taliban," in case you weren't following) made with lamb and a fiery blend of Middle Eastern-inspired spices, and the Piggie Smalls, made with wild boar and cranberries. But the dogs themselves have so much more going for them than that.
Served on a soft Slow Dough pretzel bun, each dog is handcrafted by Young and Shannon, who are mum on the subject of where they get their meat. They add in spices and other ingredients, like foie gras in the duck sausage (this one is called the "Scrooge" — someone here is clearly a Duck Tales fan), and apples, pears and port in the elk sausage. My favorite, the Ghetto Bird, is pheasant tempered with a healthy dose of cognac, the rich brandy working its magic to enhance the fatty flavor of the fowl.
But what would dogs be without toppings? Moon Tower — like the restaurant we reviewed last week, The Burger Guys — makes its own sauces from scratch. Those include a sambal-spiked mayonnaise that's good on pretty much every sausage made here, as well as a peppery whole grain mustard that peps up the otherwise bland rabbit sausage, especially when topped with some sauerkraut from the little wooden condiment bin that's a repurposed ice chest from H-E-B (I know this because I have the same one on my own patio at home).
Those seeking to put a little hair on their chest will get their dogs "Ross sauced," meaning that all four homemade sauces — including the subtly flavored black pepper ketchup — will be squirted wildly and madly across the top like something Pollock would make.
Speaking of a bit of hair on the chest, my most recent trip to Moon Tower Inn culminated in a competition of sorts between myself and my dining companion, a ferocious pastry chef, to see who could ingest the most blackberry-ghost pepper sauce that was a special that night.
The sauce came on a smoked brisket sandwich that accompanied the usual selection of dogs. I was pleased to see something else on offer, even if was only for a limited time. When I mentioned this to the guy behind the counter in the little red shack that serves as Moon Tower's base of operations, he told me the one-day-only brisket sandwich was due to higher demand for the dogs, which meant that Moon Tower had brought in a smoker. This new addition accounted for the pleasant smell of charred wood that hung in the air and the smoked brisket that night, as well as a new expediency at the counter.
"We've started smoking them all day," he said. "So we can serve them up almost as soon as you order them." This is far better than the initial system, in which poor Evan Shannon manned one solitary grill all by himself as orders poured in. The wait back then could stretch into the 45-minute-to-an-hour mark, although the copious amounts of beer always made that wait mostly bearable.
The brisket had been thrown onto the smoker that day just for fun, then coated with a sauce of Shannon's own creation, the dark, sweet fruit hiding the almost concussive burn of the ghost peppers until it was too late. "There isn't enough of this stuff!" crowed my friend as she stalked back up to the counter for more. They gamely filled a plastic cup with the blackberry-ghost pepper sauce and handed it back, after which we played a game of chicken with it — the aching burn in our chests eased slightly by copious amounts of Stash IPA — as we watched the crowds pour in throughout the evening.
Moon Tower really gets going each night around eight p.m. at the earliest, so you're advised to go early if you want to stake out a good seat under the awning, next to the barely burbling fountain that looks as if it's been there for at least 50 years.
"You know, it's funny," the pastry chef said as we finally got up to leave for the night. "I thought this place would be too cool for me to eat at, but it's not." I laughed and told her I'd felt the same way on my first visit.
I thought of something else Hlavaty had said that first night: "If you think that going to a place makes you cool, you're an asshole." Going to Moon Tower doesn't make you cool by proxy. Cool doesn't enter into it here. It's nothing more than good food, cold beer and enjoying your friends' company over those two things on a breezy night. It's an icehouse for the young or just the young at heart, a restaurant without walls, a refuge for those who want high-end food but don't want to dress up (or pay up) for it: Moon Tower is all of these things, and Houston is better for it.
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