Goode, Killen’s, Pizzitola’s, Virgie’s, The Brisket House. These are some of the answers you’ll get if you dare to ask the question, “Where is the best BBQ in Houston?’. You’ll get more answers depending on who you ask because its a topic of local debate and Texans are quite passionate about their BBQ. Often times you’ll get answers reflecting the speaker’s personal relationships with the owners of one place or another, aka, the good ol’ boy network.
Ray’s BBQ came as a recommendation from two people who know their BBQ but appear to be objective enough to focus on what’s on the plate; neither are related to or friends with the owners.
Ray’s is located on Old Spanish Trail, ‘under the bridge’, which means deep east of 288 in what Houstonians often refer to as a bad part of town but to me seems innocuous enough to call suburban.
You might miss Ray’s on the first pass since it looks like its part of the gas station anchoring the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Calhoun. Its part of the same strip but you’ll be able to identify it by the overflowing number of cars crammed creatively into its scant parking spaces.
Don’t even consider dining in. There’s not much atmosphere, its clean and bar-bones efficient but the 20 or so seats inside are all occupied by people patiently waiting for their takeaway. That’s what you should do and its going to work out better if you scan the menu beforehand and phone in your order about an hour in advance.
This is why you drove out to the east side of 288. The BBQ is moist, smokey and sans sauce. Don’t worry about the lack of sauce, they will give you any amount you want on the side. The sauce itself departs from the typical Texas variety with mustard overtones complimenting a smoky tomato base.
I went off the grid and ordered the Catfish plate, which was excellent. The casing was definitely a combination of cornmeal and something else but I couldn’t tell you what the something else was. The fish was squeaky fresh and moist. The casing was greaseless, crunchy and flavourful; I tried it with and without the accompanying red sauce – better without. I’ve tasted many renditions of fried catfish across the Gulf Coast, this one was my favourite.
Homemade, single-serve pies adorn the small case atop the counter. If you can bully your way to the front, take a look at these – peach, pecan, sweet potato, German chocolate and one called ‘sock it to me’, which kind of looked like a small Bundt cake with white icing.
You’re going to wait. Yep, even if you phone in your order beforehand. Its an artifact of being wildly popular and having a small kitchen with only two guys working the back. Granted, they are working beyond a furious pace. The two people working the front are friendly and infinitely patient, I’m sure they get their share of whining from hungry people who have waited a bit. When they were packing our to-go bag for 13 people, they read each order back, opened the corresponding box with the item and waited for acknowledgement it was correct, occasionally deflecting a complaint or other interruption. Extra sauce, naps and plastic-ware was packed without prompting.
Ray’s is reasonable. It’s inexpensive considering the portions are massive and the quality is exceptional. 2-meat BBQ plate with two sides, $11. Just need a nibble of a sliced BBQ sammie and a side of fried corn – $8.
As a non-Texan and infrequent BBQ consumer I’ll throw in my recommendation for BBQ – its Ray’s. Others I’ve tried have been good but Ray’s screams old family recipe perfected over generations. The constant crowds willing to brave the neighborhood and the wait corroborate its place in Houston’s best BBQ lineup.
Lunch: October 2014
Ray’s BBQ Shack | 4539 Old Spanish Trail | HTX 77021