Barbecue has become so fetishized of late that I almost hesitate to write in praise of a modest joint that is good rather than destination-quality, leave-at-the-crack-of-dawn, OMG great. But I keep going back to Ray’s BBQ Shack, which occupies part of a gas station on Old Spanish Trail, for the kind of solid hickory-smoked ’cue and homey sides that make life on my southeast side of town a little sweeter.
After all, as Oxheart chef Justin Yu told me earlier this year, confessing that he’s used plain old Adolphus rice in one of his rarified crawfish dishes, “Not everything has to be special.”
I’ve thought about that wise remark a lot. There’s a place for the day-in, day-out pleasures of the good neighborhood spot that may not make any super-duper “Best Of” lists or get written up in a national magazine. Modest restaurants such as Ray’s help a city work better for its harried inhabitants, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a high calling.
I know I can swing by Ray’s on my way home and grab a comforting meal that reminds me exactly why I live in Houston. It might be a gorgeously constructed sandwich of spicy homemade pork-and-beef links on a butter-grilled hamburger bun, stashed with just the right amount of pickles and onions and sweet/tart sauce. Or, if I’m feeling particularly puny and shameless, a humongous baked potato piled with chopped brisket and laced with cheese, sour cream and green onions that are interwoven, quite magically, through the core of the potato.
It’s not a meal for a barbecue purist, this potato, I’ll give you that. But it’s massive (my last one clocked in at 2.8 pounds on my kitchen scale) and massively soothing. I like it a lot.
Not as much as I like Ray’s various sausage iterations, however. They’re top-notch here, from the frisky red-pepper-quotient of the coarse-ground mixed pork-and-beef links, encased in nicely snappy skins; to the finer grind of the Lott’s Links, an all-beef, salty-smoky sausage that hearkens back to the days of Houston’s historic African-American barbecue places, such as the late Green’s on Almeda.
If the spicy link sandwich at Ray’s is ready for a photo shoot, its bun glistening and its bias-sliced links stacked high, then the Lott’s Link sandwich is a museum piece out of a Texas that is all but lost: just a fat round unsliced sausage slapped between two slices of white bread with a bit of pickle and onion, not a jot of sauce. It’s startling in its bald simplicity. At bit of black and red pepper comes up on the finish, but in a lower key than the spicy mixed pork-and-beef links.
The sliced brisket sandwich is a standby for me, too, most always with that moist, pebbly grain I prefer, a sign that there’s sufficient fat in and on the cut of meat. There’s a decent rosy smoke ring, but the hickory smoke flavor is pretty laid-back, and while I could stand a stronger effect, the mild smoke is hardly a deal-breaker. Nor is the barbecue sauce, a thick, sweet/sour, deep-russet potion with just a tiny touch of liquid smoke.
Ray’s pork ribs come second only to the spicy pork-and-beef links in my affections. They’re good-size, neatly trimmed, smoky and clad with a dark-lacquered bark that’s unusually well-seasoned. They strike the right balance between tenderness and meaty chew.
The best way to get a sense of what Ray’s can do is to order a three-meat platter with two sides, which rings in at $11.75. I’d counsel spicy links, ribs and brisket as the meats, no contest. (Pause to admire the butter-toasted white bread triangles on the side, a nice touch that echoes those lovingly toasted sandwich buns.)
Things get trickier when choosing sides, which are largely from scratch and can be terrific. Don’t miss the barbecue beans, which start out their lives here in a can and finish transmogrified into a celestial dish jumping with red pepper, cumin-spiked chile powder, plus smoky chunks of sausage and brisket, all boosted by a richly sweet-sour tang. If there are better barbecue beans in this town, I’ve forgotten them.
For refreshment and crunch, try the coarse-cut cabbage slaw laced with carrot and red cabbage; it’s only slightly sweet and has had a sprightly texture every time I’ve sampled it. So has the tart cucumber and tomato salad, a church-suppery dish that’s a welcome antidote to the richness of many dishes here.
The potato salad has that partially mashed texture I associate with deep East Texas, and it’s heavily seasoned with mustard and relish and scallion. On one occasion I rejoiced in its bite; on another, it struck me as too sour. It’s worth rolling the dice, though, because it’s the endangered real deal and not scooped from a Sysco vat.
Of course, you could go the Texas rice route for your starch, too: either with Spicy Rice, a kind of jambalaya cut with scallions and hunks of sausage; or classic dirty rice bursting with liver and giblets and black pepper. I usually grab a stack of sides by the half-pint to have on hand on home, along with a big old strawberry lemonade, on the sweet side but suitably refreshing, to see me through the hot drive.
Eating in here is not the “shacky” experience the name implies.
The gas station Ray’s shares a building with is new and nice, and the barbecue end has booths and a big flat-screen that’s often tuned to sports, namely football. Co-owner Maxine Davis’ son is a pro football player, which accounts for the football memorabilia on the walls.
Pitmaster/co-owner Ray Busch started out as a moonlighting sheriff’s deputy serving ’cue from a trailer, and you can still see that storied vehicle out back, along with stray hunks of half-burnt hickory wood. Now Busch has graduated to a slick brick-and-mortar at the southern gates to the University of Houston, and he and Davis serve seafood dishes and burgers in addition to their barbecue.
I tried the gumbo they had on special one day and was wowed by how it grew on me as I went along, swept up by its heat and earthiness and pell-mell tumble of chicken, sausage and half a blue crab body. It tasted as if someone’s auntie had made it for me.
Then again, so does Maxine’s sock-it-to-me cake, presented in baby Bundt form with a trove of butter and brown sugar winding through it. The peach cobbler may have been too sweet and stodgy for me, but the sock-it-to-me cake was just how I want a neighborhood place to send me off, feeling cosseted and reminded of the simpler things in life.
Ray's Real Pit BBQ Shack
4529 Old Spanish Trail
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.