Owensboro, Kentucky, considers itself the barbecue capital of the world. Of all the top smokestacks in this part of the state, Moonlite is the grandest: a huge establishment with spacious dining rooms and an annex selling sauce, meats-to-go, and souvenir hats. The parking lot has one space reserved for the house fork-lift, used to tote cords of hickory to the smoke pit.
In the tradition of an old-time southern pig-pickin’, the buffet is spectacular. It occupies its own dedicated room, with salads and desserts on one side, vegetables and meats on the other. There are barbecued chicken, ribs, pulled pork, spectacularly succulent beef brisket, and even a pan of non-barbecued sliced country ham that is firm and salty.
And there is western Kentucky’s favorite barbecue meat, mutton. Cooked until pot-roast tender, it is set out on the buffet two ways: chopped or pulled. Chopped mutton is pulverized to nothing but flavor: tangy lamb and wood smoke in a bold duet. The pulled version is a textural amusement park – rugged and chunky with a lot of hard outside crust among soft, juicy chunks of interior meat. Apply your own sauce at the table from the pitchers the waitress brings. One is a dark orange emulsion with gentle vinegar-tomato zest; the other is known as “mutton dip,” an unctuous gravy that is used to baste the mutton as it cooks. For those who need heat, Moonlite also supplies bottles of “Very Hot Sauce,” which is brilliantly peppered and will set your lips and tongue aglow.
Beyond meats, we need to mention the impressive deployment of vegetables, including cheesy broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese, creamed corn niblets, ham and beans, and butter-drizzled mashed potatoes, plus the Western Kentucky soup/stew of mutton and vegetables known as burgoo … pronounced BUR-goo.