Southeast’s New Moonshot Tavern Offers Elevated Yet Unpretentious Southern-Influenced Cuisine

The creole barbecue prawns and smash burger are highlights from the menu.

Moonshot Tavern (Chris Nesseth)

Lately, you can find bars popping up around town featuring elevated food and cocktails in a setting that feels more like a neighborhood watering hole than an uptight restaurant. Sit Tite’s red sauce Italian cuisine, The Houston Blacklight’s “nostalgic party food,” and Take Two from the Gabbiano’s team are all new to the scene and fine examples of places that appeal to barstool beer swillers and foodies alike.

Joining the party is Moonshot Tavern, which recently opened in the former Goose space. It’s here that Kevin Jones—the culinary mind behind Moonshot who previously worked at places like Yonder—draws from the regional cuisine of the South. Little has changed from The Goose in terms of look and décor other than a dark blue paint job. Except now, the corrugated metal behind the bar feels more reminiscent of the tin roofs one finds across the Deep South.

As if taking you on the kind of road trip that Jones might have experienced during a childhood that took him from Florida to Atlanta, Alabama, and places in between, the menu touches on Cajun, Creole, and Southern cooking with the occasional but never braggadocious burst of cheffy flair. It’s a good fit for this unpretentious space where the customers seem to be yearning for something a little more refined than typical dive bar fare without breaking the bank.

On my first visit, I bellied up to the bar for snacky staples like golden cornmeal hush puppies ($12) and the firecrackers (spiced saltines) with pimento cheese dip ($9) with a peppery kick slicing fiercely through the cheddar. The only downside of this otherwise tasty dish was the saltines that crumbled apart when I tried to dip them. I had high hopes for the bacon fried cabbage ($8), a uniquely Southern dish served quartered that carried a mysterious vinegary zing and slimy texture that sadly couldn’t be salvaged by the pile of bacon chunks.

The real standout of the starter menu is the creole barbecue prawns ($14), which can easily serve as an entree. As if lounging in a kiddie pool on a summer day, plump shrimp sit lazily in a party-in-your-mouth sauce that’s smoky, spicy, just a touch sweet and tangy, and packs an herbaceous thyme-laden punch. The sauce begs to be sopped up with the kind of crusty pistolette you find throughout New Orleans instead of the chewy baguette it’s served with.

I was eager to try the two mains at Moonshot because they each nod to different types of Southern specialties. Even if it felt a little weird eating pot roast in a bar instead of Grandma’s kitchen, the pot roast and grits ($20) is serious comfort food, with its bold and soul-warming tomato-based sauce and a hefty slab of tender beef resting atop an island of creamy grits. The handmade pasta ($21) stirred memories of Italian-Creole dishes found in parts of Louisiana and signaled the level of quality Jones is going for, even if the sausage lacked andouille’s signature smoky punch.

Sandwiches are a popular fixture at Moonshot, with the standout being the smash burger ($9). As tired as I am of this trend, it was impossible to resist the level of deliciousness contained within the soft potato bun. The meaty amalgamation of crispy, salty bits leveled up by pieces of fried onions and addictive donkey sauce (think Big Mac sauce but better) all sang in harmony, making this a contender for Portland’s best smashie. The Filet-o-Rockfish Sandwich ($13) was less titillating, with its unmelted slice of cheese and a lack of crunch from the breading that I’d hoped for.

While the Southern influence is obvious at Moonshot, the cocktail menu is less thematic with more of an influence on the housemade syrups to make drinks that veer from tiki to Tex-Mex and places in between. I found the Port of Oregon ($14), with its quintessentially Northwest mix of hazelnut, blackberry and fig, striking in its purple appearance, yet the sweetness masked the bourbon more than I preferred. The Chupacabra Cadabra ($13) also skews sweeter, with the watermelon overwhelming the mezcal. After sipping the Moonhatten ($13)—where the Cynar and bitters beautifully contrast with the spicy rye—I may have found a new favorite drink.

Then again, the food at Moonshot is best accompanied by ice-cold lager like a High Life, which also reminds you that you’re in a humble bar. The fun of a place like Moonshot is that it isn’t trying to give its patrons pure authenticity or James Beard-worthy cuisine; it is focused on giving us unpretentious food that’s several notches above your typical dive bar fare. Luckily for us, Portland now has a healthy handful of these joints, and give or take a few stumbles, Moonshot feels like a worthy addition to the kind of scene that may finally get us back to hanging out in bars.

GO: Moonshot Tavern, 2725 SE Ankeny St., 971-386-5115, 3 pm–midnight daily.

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