Even for a food writer, restaurant weeks are one of the best incentives for me to try places that have long been on my to-eat list, but that for one reason or another I just haven't been able to hit. Houston Restaurant Weeks doesn't take its thirteenth bow until August, but thanks to brand-new Houston Black Restaurant Week, I don't have to wait for the dog days to enjoy special menus at some of Houston's best restaurants. In its first year, the event has attracted 20 restaurants either owned by African-Americans or run by a chef of color.
The diversity of participating eateries highlights how many of Houston's favorite restaurants are "black restaurants." From upscale American-style Holley's and Lucille's to African spots Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge and Café Abuja Nigerian Restaurant, there's something to represent practically every stripe of African American cuisine. But I couldn't resist a trip to the Old Spanish Trail Shell station for some old-school East Texas 'cue.
A dear friend who lives near the OST had been singing the praises of Ray's BBQ Shack since we met and a great restaurant week deal was the push I needed to brave the rush hour traffic. The smiley counter staffer who helped us recommended that we pair our meal with what I merely identified as "red stuff." She assured me it was strawberry lemonade, but in the same breath said it tasted "like Kool-Aid, but better." That was pretty accurate, though my friend may have been even more on the money with her description of "melted ice cream." Suffice it to say, it was viscous and sweet.
After a short wait, the staffer called "Miss Alice" to let me know our meal was ready. For Black Restaurant Week only, Ray's is stuffing nearly every protein on its menu (only burgers are missing) into a single, glorious basket of southern-fried love. And though it's a barbecue joint, "fried" is appropriate. The shining star of the collected victuals was a pair of cornmeal-crusted catfish filets as moist and glistening as I'd ever tasted. Right next to it, a small piece of deep-fried corn reminded me of the good old days when KFC used to serve greasy, fake-butter-topped cobs. Except this time the grease was from the fryer and a crisp jacket of batter.
The baby back ribs were the best of the meats, meltingly tender, but not fall-apart mushy, and swathed in a whisper of smoke. There was no need for the too-sweet sauce to flavor that succulent meat. The thinly sliced brisket, juicy sausage and chunks of chicken were all solid, but not as notable as the ribs. The spicy rice, which we ordered as an extra side, along with cucumber salad (just chunks of cucumber, tomato and onion in a cup full of sticky Italian dressing) was worthy of more than supporting billing as well for its fierce heat and big ol' chunks of meat. And for $25, we ate a substantial chunk of the Ray's menu, with enough left over to fill two take-out containers. No wonder our friend at the counter told us they'd been running out throughout the day to buy more meat to smoke. Too bad every week can't be Black Restaurant Week.