Houston barbecue has enjoyed a massive growth spurt over the last few years. The innovation from the city’s pitmasters is rivaled only by Austin, but one joint that has stuck to its roots is Ray’s BBQ Shack, run by Ray Busch and Maxine and Herb Taylor. The Third Ward restaurant, which just celebrated a grand opening in a new location at a larger space—just down the road from where it had been since 2011—represents the food heritage of Houston better than any barbecue joint in the city. The fried surf and smoked turf menu at Ray’s is a unique one with plenty of Cajun influence and a few surprises.
Smoked boudin is one of Busch’s specialties, a craft he learned from a man named Johnny in Coldspring, a town about an hour north of Houston. Ray’s is a rice-heavy version with far less pork, and none of the pork liver that you’ll find in Louisiana boudin. It eats like a side, but at over a half pound per $4 link, and with some Saltines and hot sauce, it’ll fill you up. Cased meats are a hobby of Busch’s. A garlicky beef “Lott link,” as it’s described on the menu, is an homage to Lott’s BBQ (now closed) in Houston’s Third Ward. Busch also makes his own sausage (which he doesn’t call links because they’re not all beef), and when I told him the sausage, with a bit of spice and herbs, reminded me of a Chicago-style hot link, he said, “That’s because it is.”
Of all the sausage Ray Busch’s team churns out, the most coveted and rare is the “muddy water” sausage. I had only heard whispers of its greatness. It’s not on the menu, but Busch sometimes serves it at festivals. While eating at Ray’s with J.C. Reid from the Houston Chronicle, I had to confess I’d never tried it. Reid said Ray would be making some for an interview with the paper the following week, so I made a special stop to try it. The smoky link is of the same heft as the boudin, but with a deeper color on the casing. Ground pork is the base that holds together bay shrimp, crawfish, and crab. It’s heavily seasoned, like a smoked crawfish boil in a casing. The sausage is as labor-intensive as it is expensive to make. It’d be easier if the seafood was ground finely within the sausage, but Busch likes to taste big bites of each type of seafood. That makes it harder to bind with the pork within the link. All of this is to say that Busch is hesitant to put it on the menu, but the muddy water sausage is really the one dish that best represents Ray’s BBQ Shack. It just tastes like Houston. I begged, as did his business partner Herb Taylor, for Busch to at least add it once in a while. With any luck, it’ll become the Tuesday special.
The Thursday special is smoked oxtails. The once cheap cut now comes at more of a premium. The tough beef with lots of collagen is perfect for smoking, though Busch says it needs to be wrapped in foil for the finish to reach the proper tenderness. Each fatty morsel was rich in smoke and seasoning. Dip it into some of the Louisiana hot sauce on the table for the perfect bite.
There are also some Texas barbecue standards on the menu. Spare ribs are heavily seasoned and tender. The smoke is a bit heavy on them, but Ray’s is still trying to get the ventilation right in their new pit room. Roof-mounted exhaust fans attached to the smoker exhausts were stifling instead of promoting air flow when I visited, and heavy smoke was seeping from the doors of the big cabinet smoker. A rotisserie next to it is used for briskets and didn’t have the same issue. The brisket could have been cooked a bit more for some of the fat to soften in the fatty end, which Busch refers to as “loose-cut.” I liked the black pepper bite. Busch said that was Herb’s idea, and that it was the only offering where black pepper is heavily featured in their seasonings. Juicy smoked chicken was seasoned liked the ribs, with plenty of salt and just a bit of heat.
You can try four of those barbecue meats on a platter called the Max. Priced at under $25, it might be the best deal in Houston barbecue because it also comes with three fried shrimp and two fried catfish filets. The fried side of the menu gets equal billing with the barbecue at Ray’s. The catfish is milky white without a hint of muddy flavor. Just like the shrimp, it comes coated in a crisp, well-seasoned breading. It’s excellent catfish but is child’s play compared with the whole catfish. This whole fish used to be reserved as a weekend special but is now available every day. The coating is more crisp with more spice than the filets. The filets are cut away from the ribs for easy picking, but Busch said the best bites are from the collar (he’s right). He even eats the tail. “It’s like a potato chip,” he told me.
I loved the sides at Ray’s too. The potato salad is heavy on the pickles. The chunky vinegar slaw goes perfectly with the fried catfish (but I’m not convinced about those raisins), and Maxine’s smoked mac and cheese is decadently cheesy. They’re most known for the half cob of corn that gets breaded and deep fried, something akin to chicken-fried corn on the cob. Order it. I was too deep into the muddy water sausage on one visit and forgot to go back for the great-looking peach cobbler, but I did enjoy some banana pudding with more wafers than normal, as well as some crushed graham crackers.
Much of Ray Busch’s cooking is old-school because of where he learned it. The restaurant has only been open for seven years, but the sign says “Since 1984.” That’s when Busch began cooking in a trailer-mounted pit outside clubs in Houston. He did this while working security at these clubs as a side job to his full-time position in the Harris County sheriff’s department (he opened the restaurant when he retired). Did I mention he’s the entrepreneurial type?
Once Busch decided to focus more seriously on barbecue, he went to what he called “the hard-knocks school of River Falls.” Falls was a legendary pitmaster in the Third Ward who would travel with his pit from parking lot to parking lot and sell barbecue. After a while he got too old to keep moving around, so he parked at his house. He was selling out of his driveway illegally, but he counted Health Department employees as loyal customers. “If there got to be any kind of problem, they would let him know,” Busch said. “They’d tell him, ‘Slow it down for a little bit.'” It was during this time that Busch spent a couple years learning from Falls, whom he credits as his barbecue mentor. That’s why the barbecue at Ray’s is so emblematic of old-school Houston. “I like to think we have a distinct taste that other people don’t have,” Busch told me, and I couldn’t argue with that a bit.
3929 Old Spanish Trail, Houston, TX, 77021
Pitmasters: Ray Busch and Herb Taylor
Method: Hickory in a gas-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 2011