"What took so long?" asked a recent commenter regarding Moon Tower Inn's almost 18-month absence, pointing out that the East End hot dog stand looks -- at first glance -- largely unchanged.
Here, still, is the canteen-style window that doubles as counter service and bar. The patio too is largely intact, with new picnic table seating. We'll forgive if you don't notice, however, that while Moon Tower may look similar, it is an entirely new building that's been constructed largely out of shipping containers. It has been over a year since you've seen the place, after all.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, hipsters and yuppies: Moon Tower Inn is back at 3004 Canal and it's as if nothing ever changed. That's because much of the change is intentionally below the surface, according to owners Evan Shannon and Brandon Young, who spent a lot of time and effort making sure that when they re-opened, the new Moon Tower would be as close to the original as possible.
Built from shipping containers, the new building has a fit and finish the old re-purposed building lacked. The salvaged wood facia around the top of the building was salvaged from former slaves quarters in Louisiana, and close inspection shows craps of fabric and bits of newsprint still tacked to the timbers. Young says he found a scrap of newspaper during construction that dated from the 1800s.
"I'm the guy that stops on the side of the road and picks stuff up," said Young, who has a passion for offbeat odds and ends. "I have more stuff back at the house, signs and things."
Believe it or not, the wood wasn't the first construction material with a backstory the guys at Moon Tower sourced.
"The wood we originally had came from the old Coney Island Boardwallk," said Young. That wood ended up rotting in storage, unfortunately, but led to the discovery of the slats from Louisiana.
The new building houses two key items. The first is a brand-new tap wall complete with 66 separate lines, among the largest in Houston. Outfitted with copper sheeting and simple, clean, unmarked tap handles, customers choose from the ever-rotating beer list typed up on-site. I watched as the bartender counted off handles in denominations of 11 to find my choice -- Cedar Creek Alt -- at the number 37 spot. I'm sure as familiarity sets in, the folks behind the counter will be pulling tap handles in their sleep.
The second important addition purpose built from the ground up is entirely new: the kitchen. Designed around Moon Tower's signature hot dogs and burgers, it's built for speed. While the lines at Moon Tower are still as long as ever, the kitchen -- owing to the new design -- cranks out made-to-order dogs at record pace.
So how are those dogs? My first and second hot dogs -- the second one was ordered to rule out nostalgia bias -- fared well. The Slow Dough buns are as awesome as ever, now with a nice crispness thanks to a layover on the grill, I imagine. Leaving the toppings all to the kitchen is another smart move; it eliminates sanitation concerns, and the kitchen elegantly packs on far more toppings then I was ever capable of. Those two dogs, an elk and a boar, were top-notch and among the best I've had at Moon Tower.
Another late night visit on MLK Day -- the first full weekend open -- found that the long holiday weekend had taken its toll on the hot dog stand, however. It had nothing but vegan dogs when I arrived that Monday. That's not a completely bad thing, however; the apple-sage dog is excellent topped with sambal mayo, onions and feta.
The crowds may have taken a chunk out of the kitchen too, though, as our dog came out just above lukewarm. I know the vegan dog doesn't need cooking, but you might as well throw it on the grill all the same. With a vegan sausage this good, the only real way to foul it up is to serve it cold.
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All told, that's a slight nitpick for one dog out of five on opening week -- and a dog served at 11:30 p.m. no less. Once the kitchen is used to Moon Tower's grueling open-till-3 a.m. schedule, I'm sure the batting average will increase.
There is still a list of finishing touches left. Artwork from local artists like Dual will be added in coming days, and more lighting remains to be added. And as Moon Tower has learned, construction work is never quite finished the first time: It had to close up shop recently with plumbing issues, but has since reopened.