By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
Full Moon Bar-B-Que is a favorite spot for lots of Birmingham-area customers, who come in for the restaurant’s sliced outside pork, crispy chow-chow and chocolate-dipped Half Moon cookies.
But Full Moon owners David and Joe Maluff recently learned that their food has some pretty big fans outside the Magic City.
Last month, the Huffington Post and Gayot.com, an internationally-known guide to dining, hotels, travel and lifestyle, named Full Moon one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the U.S.
The restaurant’s meat, slow-cooked over a fire pit, is the star of the show. But in a review on the Guyot.com website, critics heaped praise on said some of the extras on the menu.
“The Full Moon likes to call itself ‘The Best Little Pork House in Alabama,’” the review says. “Not that we’re arguing, but it’s the zingy sauce and crunchy, peppery chow-chow that sets this barbecue haven apart from the others whether you choose pork or poultry.”
Brothers David and Joe weren’t surprised that their pickled relish tipped the scales in Full Moon’s favor.
“Our chow-chow made the difference,” David said.
The Maluff brothers, who grew up on Birmingham’s Southside, were already in the food business when they bought Full Moon in 1996 from Pat James, one of the city’s most well-known restaurateurs.
The only catch was, they had no experience with barbecue.
“We’d been in hamburgers, hotdogs, steaks and seafood,” David said. “We just fell in love with the food here.”
The brothers not only retained James’ steady business but soon expanded it. There are now eight Full Moons in Alabama with a ninth set to open in Jasper in October.
One secret to their success, the Maluffs said, is the way they cook their meat.
“We use a fire pit,” David said. “A lot of restaurants have smokers, but smokers don’t give you that crust on the outside of a butt.”
Full Moon does use smokers for some menu items, such as brisket, which needs to be slow-cooked, or turkey, he said. But what David calls “true-blue barbecue” is always cooked on the fire pit.
Each Full Moon restaurant has its own pit, which isn’t cheap, David said.
“It costs about $40,000 to build one,” he said. “And you have to hire and train a pit master—there’s no such thing as a ‘smoke master’–and you need a load of wood every day.”
Joe and David became pit masters themselves when they bought Full Moon.
“We just had to learn it,” Joe said.
“It’s hot work and hard work,” David added.
The original Full Moon on Southside is still operating.
“It means a lot to the community, David said.
The Southside establishment is much the same as it was in Pat James’ day, from the menu and sports-themed photos on the wall to, as Joe said with a laugh, “the same toilet.”
“We do lunch only here,” David said, “and are open from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The other restaurants are all open seven days a week.”
The other stores are also different in their appearances and menus.
The new Tuscaloosa Full Moon was built after the April 27, 2011 tornado destroyed the existing store. It’s a little fancier than the plain Jane Southside store and will be the prototype for future Full Moons, David said.
“You’ll see a broader menu, too,” at Full Moon locations other than Southside, he said. “Our catfish has really gotten to be popular.”
Other options that weren’t on the original menu include salads, chicken wings, pimento cheese, kids’ meals, turkey and Full Moon’s “big bakers”—overstuffed potatoes.
The brothers divide up the duties of running their business. David visits their stores every day while Joe is “our ambassador,” his brother said.
Joe also handles marketing and catering, a big part of Full Moon’s business.
The brothers said they stick close to James’ original recipes for their staple items.
“We don’t put things on the menu if customers don’t like them,” David said, adding that new foods don’t make the cut until they’re taste-tested by family and friends.
Joe, who lives in Mountain Brook, and David, who lives in Vestavia Hills, both have young children. Family life is important to them, they said, and their restaurants are staunch supporters of local schools.
“We try to help inner city schools, elementary schools, all schools,” Joe said. Full Moon is also involved with Nick’s Kids, the charitable organization started by University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban and wife Terry.
While Full Moon’s chow-chow tickled the taste buds of the Huffington Post and Guyot.com judges, the Maluffs think there are other reasons for their restaurants’ success.
“We have good, fresh products,” David said. “Ninety percent of what we have is made from scratch and cooked fresh daily.
“Our price point is good, too. You get true value here.”
The recent national award isn’t the only honor Full Moon has won. Its Half Moon cookies and marinated slaw both made the Alabama Tourism Department’s list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama before You Die.”
Also, Birmingham Mayor William Bell presented Full Moon with the City of Birmingham Crystal award in recognition of the business’ national award.
Besides the soon-to-open Jasper restaurant, the Maluffs have other expansion plans.
“We have about 10 more stores on the books to open in the next five years,” David said.