Barbecue joint brings a taste of Alabama to Tahoe City
Special to the Sun
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Barbecue is one of those cuisines that is wildly subjective to regional preferences.
Take Texas, for instance, where meat is king and sauce comes second, and compare it with Kansas, where a sweet molasses-and-tomato-based barbecue sauce reigns over its meaty counterparts.
Then there’s Alabama, where anything from catfish to pulled pork is smoked and smothered in the state’s original tangy, mayo-based white barbecue sauce.
With endless possibilities and high expectations to live up to, it’s not easy to please the masses with one style of barbecue — unless, of course, it’s done right.
“If you walk into Moe’s in Birmingham, Ala., you’re not going to see the exact same menu that you’d find here in Tahoe City because not everyone likes their meat smoked as hard, and people here tend to pick healthier side options, but that’s what makes the whole restaurant work,” said Eric Pilcher, co-owner of Tahoe City’s Moe’s Original BBQ.
Founded by three friends from the University of Alabama (Ben Gilbert, Mike Fernandez and Jeff Kennedy) in 2001, the privately owned chain of barbecue joints originated as a slope-side trailer operation in Colorado, and has since expanded to more than 30 locations around the country.
“We like to call it a ‘friend-chise,’ instead of a franchise, because that’s really what it is — we all know one another, we help each other out when needed, and each location is pretty much run by someone who’s already worked for the company,” Pilcher said.
IT STARTED IN THE SOUTH
When Pilcher was 17 years old, his father sold a rustic restaurant space in Orange Beach, Ala. to Mike Fernandez, who brought the Colorado-based flagship back to its southern roots, launching the second Moe’s location.
The smokehouse style originated from a backyard barrel pit owned by Moses Day, a southern-Alabama native who taught Fernandez his unique take on fire-roasted meats.
When Mike set up shop in Colorado with his college entourage, Moses gave him the green light to use the fruit-wood-fired technique, so long as he was given credit, hence the name “Moe’s.”
“If Moses were still around, I know he’d be amazed at what those guys have been able to accomplish,” Pilcher said.
Still in high school at the time, a young Pilcher lent a hand in front of the house operations until he left to study building science at eastern Alabama’s Auburn University.
“When I finished college, I knew I could either keep doing construction, or I could go back and do the restaurant thing,” Pilcher said. “I realized construction wasn’t really my thing because with the restaurant, every day is a new day, but in construction, when you finish one day, you still have three months to worry about that day’s problems.”
By that time, Moe’s had set up shop in a number of new locations, including another joint in Vail, Colo., where Pilcher was asked to put his skills on the line.
“I didn’t have any training as a cook, but Mike (Fernandez) wanted me to learn the kitchen side of things,” Pilcher said.
The college graduate quickly relocated to the Rocky Mountains to work alongside his now-partner, Josh Wallick, who taught him the ropes of Moe’s slow-cooked, smokehouse ways.
“Most of what I do in the kitchen I’ve learned from Josh, so we rarely have disagreements because it’s not about how I do things, it’s about how we do things,” Pilcher said.
ON TO TAHOE
After five years running the show in Vail, Pilcher and Wallick started scouting new ski locales with their vision of spicing up the restaurant scene, and that’s when they set their sights on North Lake Tahoe.
“I had never been to Tahoe before, but when Josh brought me here, we rode around the lake and that was pretty much all it took for me to move here,” Pilcher said with a grin and a slight southern drawl.
During that initial visit, they stumbled upon a lakefront restaurant space behind Tahoe Dave’s in Tahoe City.
“When we walked in and saw the view, we immediately started thinking about all the things we could do with the space, so we called the guys (Mike, Ben and Jeff) up and they were nothing but supportive,” Pilcher said.
With the help of a third owner — Luke Dannals — Pilcher and Wallick worked hard to get the new location up and running by summer 2014.
“Any time you’re opening up a restaurant, even if it’s part of a larger establishment, some things might not go the way you had visualized, but at the end of the day, the three of us work so well together we’re able to handle whatever is thrown at us,” Pilcher said.
Each owner’s unique personality allows the business to stretch its legs when it comes to menu options, draft beer selections, entertainment and the music line-up — elements that will help keep Moe’s afloat in a town where businesses run the risk of drowning in seasonal fluctuations.
“All you can do is roll along, lean forward, keep your head up, and see what happens,” Pilcher said.
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at email@example.com.