This beloved Norman smokehouse is known by locals for expertly cooked meat served up by unfailingly friendly folks in an immaculate kitchen and dining room. The meat, oddly, lacks just a sole key element: smoke.
|Ray's set up shop in this distinctive and easily-recognizable building when popular chain restaurant that previously occupied the building relocated to a strip-mall next to the interstate.|
(Norman, OK) -- Legend has it that the son of a career soldier, Darrol Ray moved around a lot as a youngster. His family eventually settled in central Texas -- the region being a barbecue Mecca as well as a fertile recruiting ground for the University of Oklahoma. Darrol was recruited personally by Barry Switzer to play for OU and starred as an all-conference DT/DB along side some of the program's biggest names (including Heisman winner and fellow Norman barbecue purveyor Billy Sims). After a successful career in the 70's and 80's in Norman and then as a pro with the New York Jets -- Ray promptly returned to make his home in Norman. Today -- about a mile west of venerable Owen Field on Lindsey St. -- you'll find Ray's Smokehouse BBQ.
Ray's is a family-owned establishment and they are there every day the doors are open. Everyone is unfailingly friendly and really seems to enjoy working here. The place is spotless. From the kitchen-area to the dining room -- appointed with plenty of decor including the predictable Sooners memorabilia.
The food presents something of a conundrum. More specifically the meat. The sides are fine -- some of them excellent -- but we are more about the meat.
Brisket is the most popular smoked meat in Oklahoma and Ray's brisket scores high in almost all of the criteria used by the rank-and-file barbecue judge. Perfect on the "pull test" -- it doesn't fall apart but rather resists minimally and is moist and tender. Has a very appealing smoke ring and some nice dark brown bark. The one criterion where it falls short is on flavor. It is not evident anywhere in the restaurant or on their website what type of wood they are using -- but we are assuming they are using wood smoke. They need to use more of it as this meat is clearly a step away from legendary.
|Pork -- and just LOOK at that brisket -- it is beautiful|
The ribs are St. Louis Cut -- our favorite cut of rib -- and they are of an appealing color that would seemingly betray copious and glorious smoke flavor. They don't fall off the rib -- which as we know is as it should be -- but rather pull away from the bone with minimal effort to leave a clean, dry bone. Wisely they are served, as are all the meats, dry with sauce at the table. Unfortunately, again, they need the sauce. It is another instance of a meat that has been expertly smoked in every way yet somehow come out of the smoker with almost no discernible smoke flavor.
The sausage is flavorful but not overly filled with extraneous materials (i.e. vegetation like jalapeno -- which meat purists agree has no place in meat) as is too often the case in Texas and Oklahoma barbecue joints. Not a lot of snap to it because the thinly cut pieces are more of the melt-in-your-mouth variety. The seasoning used in the sausage is at the fore because, again, the smoke is really nowhere to be found.
|Ribs and sausage|
Finally the pork. Smoked pork lovers around here are well aware that it is only recently that this meat has been embraced in Oklahoma, Texas and other points Southwest and we are very happy about this. But there's a bit of a learning curve with it and the brisket masters are getting there. We are willing to go easy in this category as they do. But the thing here is the pork is tender and it is moist and it looks great with plentiful attractive bark and beautiful shoulder muscle in there. It is in no way overcooked which is very common among the brisket-master. At Ray's they call it "chopped pork" and we reckon that's true -- but it is minimally chopped and we would guess that happens only after it's been pulled. We say this because it closely resembles common pulled pork, just not as long in the grain. The problem here, alas, here it comes again, it wants for smoke. Pull a piece of that beautiful bark and pop it in -- and nothing.
We haven't yet had the legs hollowed so weren't able to give a try to the turkey or chicken on this, our second visit to Ray's (first having come some six or seven months prior). Therefore we cannot comment on anything other than appearance in the pictures on urbanspoon.com -- and those pictures look beautiful.
|We'd lay money that they score very high on the health department ratings -- the place is clean|
We have established that the meat at Ray's is first-rate. In a world of over and under-cooked, mass-produced chain barbecue this stands out as a place where the meat matters and it is cooked "slow and low" just long enough. All it lacks is the smoke. We do subscribe to the barbecue philosophy that says it shouldn't need the sauce -- the sauce should complement the smoke. But what they hey?
Ray's has a pair of superb sauces on hand. A mild which is a typical style for the region but has some extra components working up front and in back. Very nice. Then there's the hot which is distinguished from the mild by the conspicuous presence of plenty of tasty black pepper. Don't fear the hot -- embrace it. This sauce is only a bit spicier than the mild and fine for those who may not a big fan of heat. There is a little bit of it working in the back but not much. Both sauces are so excellent that folks stopping here really should experience both. They are outstanding and when added to the meat, give it what it needs to make that dinner a magnificent experience.
By the way -- we hear from some of my local sources in Norman that Ray's serves an excellent burger and we hope to try it some day soon.
Although we've visited Ray's twice and found the smoke (or lack thereof) to be a problem on both visits we are hopeful this will change. The place is hands down and by far the most popular BBQ restaurant in Norman. They are true to their motto of "Ribs so tender you don't need teeth!" It is highly successful and those who love it really love it. It isn't going anywhere and we would love to walk through the door and sit down to a smoky feast. C'mon, Ray's -- whaddaya say? Pour on that smoke!!!