After the success of his Copper Moon Bar & Grill in McAllen, Joseph Salinas wanted to open a second location of the restaurant in South Texas. His stepfather and business partner, Bernard Watson, had other ideas. “My stepdad was like, ‘We need something good in barbecue,'” Salinas said. He shifted gears and opened Smokin’ Moon BBQ and Beer Garden in Pharr in October 2018.
To learn the trade, Salinas dove into the barbecue culture. He spent months reading barbecue books and watching cooking videos. He sought the advice and instruction of local competition pitmasters Arnie Segovia and Fred Robles, whom Salinas credits with helping him understand seasonings, technique, and the importance of consistency. He went against their advice in his choice of smokers and now runs two Oyler rotisseries fueled with Central Texas post oak. “We go up to Luling, Texas to get it,” Salinas said, as if the 500-mile round trip drive was nothing.
Salinas also went to Central Texas in search of a pitmaster. Joel Garcia was working the pits at Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin and cooked with Evan LeRoy at Freedmen’s Bar before that, but the Weslaco native was happy to come back home for a job in barbecue. He admits that after working on offset smokers for years, the rotisseries have taken some getting used to. The environment inside the cooker is more moist with less air movement. Still, they’re cranking out 25 to 35 CAB Prime grade briskets from the smokers every day.
It’s worth the splurge to get one of the massive beef short ribs. They’re slathered in hot sauce and seasoned with just salt and pepper before smoking. Tender beneath the stout and smoky bark, it was my favorite meat on the menu. The brisket gets a bit more in the rub like cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, and and mustard powder, but despite all the powder, there’s still a great bark. Lean slices were a bit dry, though. I noticed two warmers behind the counter set at 167 (too hot) and 145 (just right) degrees. The briskets came out of the hotter one, and ours was steaming like a mug of hot coffee in an ice storm when they sliced into it. Salinas said the warmer’s temperature setting was an error that he’d remedy.
The spread at Smokin' Moon in Pharr
Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Smokin' Moon's new El Chile Sueño sandwich
Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
The slices of fatty brisket were better on a hulking sandwich topped with brisket chili, shredded cheddar, and fresh-sliced jalapeños. It was so new that it didn’t have a name and so good that it needed a permanent spot on the menu. I jokingly suggested El Chile Sueño (the chili dream), and according to the newly posted menu, it seems to have stuck. The foundation of the sandwich is a sweetened sourdough bun that’s just hefty enough to hold up to the fatty brisket and chili combo, and the thinly sliced jalapeños provide just enough heat.
There’s plenty more to work through on the menu. Commercially made sausages using Akaushi beef are adequate if not very exciting. A half chicken was juicy with beautifully crisp skin. They grill the birds rather than smoking them to get that texture. I also appreciated that each meat was seasoned a little differently: The beef options were purely savory, and the pork spare ribs were seasoned with a sweet, butter-and-sugar rub before getting cooked to tender inside a foil wrapping.
The side options include plenty of the classics, each with their own twist. A crunchy slaw gets some sweetness from honey in the dressing. The street corn is a bowl of roasted corn kernels throughly tossed in butter and dressed with a spicy crema and cotija. Rather than pinto beans, they serve sweet barbecue beans. The potato salad is a good homemade version that’s pretty standard. Opt for the excellent brisket chili, made from the brisket trimmings, if you’re feeling the need for more meat.
Smokin’ Moon is serving some excellent barbecue in an area not known for premium brisket (its meat costs just shy of $20 per pound). Besides The Smoking Oak (featured on our 2017 Top 50 BBQ list) twenty miles west in Mercedes, this is the best barbecue I’ve had in Hidalgo County. It’s nice to see a new spot adding to the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s barbecue presence, and doing such a solid job just a month after opening. I told both Garcia and Salinas as much during my visit, and Salinas did his best to stay humble. “We’re just trying to make some good Texas barbecue,” he said.