Shari's Drive-In was a food stand of a near bygone era, one that most people traversing the length of First Avenue, either heading towards downtown or the outer territory of Oro Valley, would pull in, grab a relatively decent burger and continue. When it shut down in 2008, some residents that have been going there since they were barely able to sip one of Shari's famous shakes treated it like an itchy phantom limb: It was there but now it isn't, yet they can still feel and maybe even taste it.
The worst part was that the façade stood dead and dormant for years, a grim reminder of past glories. But recently, a new barbecue joint moved in—but it's not a chain, even if it shares a name with one.
"First off, we are not a chain," says Smokey Mo owner and namesake Telahoun "Mo" Molla. "And we are not part of the Smokey Mo's Barbecue franchise. We are independent, and we are 100 percent Tucson."
Calling Ethiopia native, Molla moved to the United States in the early '70s, following an older brother studying law in Wisconsin. He eventually wound up in Tucson, where he attended Sabino High and earned a degree in applied mathematics and physics at the UA. Through the years, he sponsored various family members who, after moving here, worked in restaurants. They had a dream of operating a food truck, but they eventually opened downtown's Café Desta. As his family ran a beloved Ethiopian eatery, Molla was working as a medical software developer but needed something more in his 9-5 desk life.
"When the old Shari's became available I just thought it was really cool," says Molla. "Originally, I just wanted to do burgers, to sort of honor Shari's. But there are burgers everywhere. So, we moved into sandwiches that are smoked. When people saw that we had a smoker, they asked 'Where are the ribs? Where is the brisket?' That is when I knew we had to evolve into traditional barbecue."
Although Molla loves some good barbecue, it is not his specialty. Fortunately, he met up with Terry Skinner, a transplant from Kansas City, which is well regarded for its slow-roasted barbecue smothered in a thick tomato-based sauce. Skinner came aboard and agreed to be the Smokey Mo pit master.
"I've worked over 26 years doing barbecue," Skinner boasts with a proud Kansas City drawl. "I worked just about every barbecue joint there is in that city. When I came out to Tucson because my wife and I can't deal with the humidity, I met Mo and he said, 'I got you.'"
But the culinary compass did not end with the fortuitous acquisition of Terry. Molla, through a mutual acquaintance, brought aboard Connor Jensen, former chef at 5 Points Market. who joined the Smokey Mo family. Between the three talented gentlemen, Smokey Mo is patiently growing into a joint that serves decadent, mesquite-grilled BBQ.
"We are something totally unique," says Jensen. "Our style is completely new, with hints of Texas style, and obviously Kansas City, yet with a southwest flair. People keep saying that we have big shoes to fill, so we hope we are doing things right. I think we are."