Tucked under the burgeoning pile of craft barbecue spots in Texas is a fair number of old-school barbecue joints that still do a bustling business in their own neighborhoods. Many of these establishments have been around for ages, and have a devout following that doesn’t rely on a shiny Instagram feed, but honest food at an honest price. Sure, they may not serve beef from the hottest boutique farm, but what they do offer is a reminder of how things used to be, served with two sides and an iced tea.
Big Ray’s BBQ in Allen is just this type of spot. In a recent post-story email discussion with our editor about Plano’s chain-based barbecue, Big Ray’s name came up as one of our editor’s favorites. Said editor originally hails from a far-off land (Illinois, he claims) where “beef with a blast of creosote” (his words) never was a thing, and he wouldn’t be particularly saddened if it never landed on his barbecue tray again.
In his defense, he's a legacy newsroom guy who derives most of his sustenance from a diet heavy on cigarettes and whatever’s been rolling under the heat lamp at 7-Eleven, so of course his barbecue opinions lie somewhere south of the mainstream. (Editor's note: I quit smoking last July, but yeah, pretty much.) But listening to hints from your boss is generally sage advice, so we trekked over to Big Ray’s to find out what we've been missing.
If you’re looking for a glitzy and polished barbecue experience, Big Ray’s is not your spot. Inside the painted brick facade, you won't find a restaurant attempting to pass off a layer of faux-rustic charm veneered over new construction. Nope, Big Ray’s is the real old-school deal, right down to the wood paneling and fluorescent lights hanging from the corrugated metal ceiling.
In fact, the only thing that feels modern and timely about Big Ray’s is their pandemic preparedness. Masks are required to dine in, and the staff was all sporting face coverings. Tables in the small dining room are appropriately spaced, and all food orders, dine-in or to-go status, are served with disposable utensils in plastic foam containers.
Much like the decor, the fare at Big Ray’s is delightfully vintage, recalling the time before pit masters joined the race for the wildest seasonings, the thickest bark on their brisket or unique sausage flavors. That’s not to say flavor is missing in action. The brisket we tried, trimmed lean, still had appreciable smokiness and was succulent to a fault. With no bark to use as a crutch, the brisket's juicy beef flavor stands on its own merits. Big Ray’s meaty pork spare ribs were also rock stars; perfectly cooked to tenderness that pulled cleanly off the bone, they were probably our favorite part of the meal.
Our dining partner ordered the pulled pork sandwich, which had a generous pile of shredded pork left to its own moist and smoky devices without the burden of sauce. Speaking of sauce, Big Ray’s offers two of their own sauces, regular and spicy. The sauces start with a slightly sweet and tangy tomato base, but the spicy version has a gentle heat that comes on nicely after a few seconds, and both paired well with any of the proteins we tried. The sides we ordered (slaw and green beans with the pulled pork, mac and cheese and potato salad with our two-meat) will have you wondering if your grandma shared her recipes.
Perhaps the best part about eating at Big Ray’s comes with the bill. Thankfully, not chasing the latest barbecue trends means you’re not paying trendy barbecue prices either. Our two-meat tray of brisket and ribs set us back just $13.99, and the pulled pork sandwich rang in at a modest $8.99, each of which came with two sides. It's a welcome change from paying $25 a pound for brisket at some places.
Big Ray’s isn’t trying to latch on to the latest craft barbecue trends, and that’s OK. Instead, they’re serving old-school barbecue before it got pricey and popular, the way they’ve always done it. It's a style that we're completely on board with, and hope they keep it up.
Big Ray's BBQ, 400 E. Main St., Allen, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
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