Monday, June 10, 2019

Rays Real Pit Bar-B-Q Shack - Houston Bar-B-Q Restaurant - A Closer Look

Rays Real Pit Bar B-Q Sample Mix of Brisket, Ribs, Sausage

"The first thing I did was walk to the back of the building, to try to snoop around. I wanted to see the pit.."

Rays Real Pit Bar-B-Q Shack - Houston Bar-B-Q Restaurant - A Closer Look

The first thing I did was walk to the back of the building, to try to snoop around. I wanted to see the pit. And I wanted to see the stacks of mesquite wood that get tossed into the pit. Here was my chance to gawk at one of those custom-made contraptions that Bar-B-Q restaurants typically use to “slow cook” their meat.

By the time I reached the rear of the building however I began to worry about being arrested for trespassing. That would hardly be dignified.

So I turned around and entered Rays Real Pit Bar-B-Q Shack in Houston through the front door. A woman behind the counter graciously answered a few questions. Tell me about your pit.

We have three pits. She further described a large kitchen, with multiple ovens and grills.

Out of that large kitchen walked owner Herb Taylor, who shook my hand and made me feel welcome. It was stupid to worry about being arrested.

As my readers know, I’m not a food critic. I am however intensely interested in people who do interesting, fun things, and do them exceptionally well.

The restaurant’s website provides informative biographical material on Herb Taylor and his partners Ray Busch and Maxine Davis. You’ll learn that Ray Busch began selling Bar-B-Q in nightclub parking lots in 1985. After ending his day job with the Harris County Sheriff's Department in 2011, Ray partnered with Herb Taylor’s mother, Maxine Davis, who retired from her day job as a bank vice president, and together they opened Rays Real Pit Bar-B-Q. You’ll also learn that Ray Busch learned his pit skills from legendary Third Ward pit master River Falls.

Not on the restaurant’s website is that River Falls peddled Bar-B-Q under the radar of the bureaucracies that regulated the sale of food.  I knew entrepreneurial types like River Falls in south Louisiana in the early 1970s, ambitious Cajun capitalists who improvised home-spun pits alongside rural-area nightclubs and dance halls. Part of the fun was to stand near the pits with a drink, and watch them cook. More than once I sipped bourbon near a pit that held an entire hog.

Herb Taylor had an admirable resume when he joined Ray Busch and Maxine Davis as co-owner of the restaurant. He had played professional football, and he had a university degree in advertising and public relations, which landed him the added duty of restaurant marketing director. Nevertheless, he was missing one tiny thing.  He needed to learn how to cook meat on a wood burning pit. So he began to apprentice with Ray Busch.

A customer eats Ribs at Rays new location

How many people work here? Another question for the gracious lady behind the counter. About twenty-something.

Given the staff’s size, it is unlikely that Herb Taylor and Ray Busch spend extended periods of time manning the pits. You can be sure, though, they closely monitor the people who man the pits. I watched Herb monitor his dining room before he shook my hand.

Some of the staff’s time is taken up serving booze. There are imported draft beers, including Stella Artois and Karbach, as well as bottled Modelo, Dos Equis, Corona, Budweiser, Bud Lite and Busch Lite. The restaurant serves daiquiris, and Herb seemed particularly excited about his South African wines.  I wandered over to the bar to check them out, and saw Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet, there were more.

When Donnie was seven or eight years old, in 1952 or 1953, he regularly ate lunch at Hinkey’s Meat Market in downtown Kerrville Texas. He walked to Hinkey's during his school lunch break, the restaurant was located about four blocks from Notre Dame school. At Hinkey’s, Donnie paid 25 cents for a Beef Brisket sandwich with onions and pickles. His Coke cost one nickel.

The German immigrants who operated Hinkey’s served the “Central Texas” style of Bar-B-Q, which food-writers differentiate from the “East Texas” style of Bar-B-Q served at Rays. According to experts who study Bar-B-Q, the East Texas style is essentially characterized by sweet tomato sauces and Cajun spices, and includes pork dishes on the menu. The East Texas style dominated Houston’s African American neighborhoods.

I’m tempted to link a popular Bar-B-Q sauce to the East Texas tradition. Sugar-y, tomato-y, spicy, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q sauce was originated by Christopher B. Stubblefield who was born in the east Texas town of Navasota. In the 1930s, his parents who taught him to cook, split Navasota with their nine sons to pick cotton in Lubbock, where Stubb cooked in restaurants and hotels. After he served in Korea, he returned to Lubbock, and in 1968 opened his first restaurant, with a hickory-burning pit behind it, and a jukebox filled with vintage blues. There, Stubb’s Smokey Mesquite Legendary Bar-B-Q sauce was born. Famous musicians, including Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Gatemouth Brown and Linda Ronstadt frequented his restaurant, the relocated business remains connected to Austin's music industry. Donnie, who was eating Central Texas style Bar-B-Q in Hinkey’s in Kerrville when Stubb was a staff sergeant and gunner in Korea, often mops Stubb’s Bar-B-Q sauce over our grilled chicken.

On one of his television interviews Herb Taylor made a significant point about passed-on traditions. He told the audience he applies “house rub” on Beef Brisket before he cooks it, a reference to home-made seasoning mix concocted by his ancestors. “The spices were passed down,” he said, “from generation to generation, we took what our grandfathers and uncles used.” Herb’s comment resonated because I witnessed Cajun cooks pass down their home-made seasoning mixes, which typically had as ingredients ground Cayenne or black pepper, and onion and garlic. Look no further than Tony Chachere, who raked in the bucks after he invented his version of house rub in his kitchen in Opelousas Louisiana in about 1970. Today, Tony’s descendants manufacture his “Creole Seasoning” mix for customers around the world. In my own family, my Daddy sold home-made seasoning mix, and now two of my brothers manufacture seasoning mixes, the brothers actually compete.

If home-made seasoning mix is an important element in Bar-B-Q, so are quality meats and patience. Herb Taylor marinates Beef Brisket for 24 hours before cooking it for 14 hours, he marinates Pork Spare Ribs for 24 hours before cooking for 4 to 4 ½ hours.

Herb might be savvy in front of the camera, but Ray is equally slick. Ray dances on video, got some fine moves. I want to dance with Ray! His meat, Ray says on video, is “smoking-good with a whole lotta soul.” It’s hardly dumb to associate food and passion and music.

Rays Fried Catfish with Fries
Rays Bottled Beers
Rays Grilled Catfish with Shrimp
Rays Cakes

All images taken from Rays Real Pit Bar-B-Q Shack Facebook page and Instagram page.
3929 Old Spanish Trail
Houston Texas 77021

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