On the way out to deep East Texas last week for a story, I found myself suddenly starving and in unfamiliar territory: Lufkin.
Unwilling to sacrifice myself upon the fast-food altar when I know that there's great small-town food to be had out here, I turned to the modern-day Swiss army knife, my iPhone, for help. After Googling "best restaurant Lufkin" (why not?), it quickly turned up a short Texas Monthly review for a place called Ray's Drive-In.
"We stopped at this favorite East Texas burger place three times in two weeks," read the mini-review. "No matter how juicy and tasty the burgers are in our memory, amazingly, the reality always surpasses our expectations." It seemed like a no-brainer. My photographer and I pulled off the main highway, found Ray's and pulled up.
Walking inside the dingy drive-in, however, I began to get wary. A table of locals -- all clad in red T-shirts, for some reason -- glared at us, and the women behind the counter barely glanced our way, then set about quickly ignoring us as we waited at the cash register.
Ray's Drive-In was starting to look like a bad idea.
Finally, after five minutes of waiting, a pleasant young man came up to the counter.
"Do we, um, order here?" I asked.
"Sure! Actually," he said with a sheepish smile, "I don't know why they've been ignoring you." He gestured with his chin to the women in the back, who ignored him too. At least it wasn't just us.
Going by the review -- "Be sure to also get onion rings and an ice cream shake, made with your choice of Blue Bell." -- we put all our chips on the table and ordered two Ray's Specials, a boat of fries, another of onion rings, a vanilla shake and a chocolate malt.
While we waited, I took advantage of the old-fashioned jukebox that sat in a corner near the bathrooms, queuing up some Sam Cooke, Merle Haggard and Led Zeppelin. The music seemed to perk up the locals, who stopped glaring at us around the same time as their food arrived. And we'd tucked ourselves into a slightly greasy but cozy booth. Things were picking up.
And then the burgers arrived.
Strikingly rugged and craggy at the edges, two hand-formed patties sat under a thick mantle of peppered, sauteed onions and cheese so velvety it could have (but didn't) come from a pump. Bright, crispy lettuce and tomatoes battled against the soft heft of the meat, cheese and onions, but it was the oozy mess of the latter that eventually won out, soaking the buns as we ate. The eggy buns barely hung on until the end, existing as only the thinnest gauze between meat and fingers in those wonderful last bites.
"If this burger existed in Houston," I warned my photographer, "other burgers would tremble in its wake."
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He didn't disagree, although we both found the onion rings wan and wanting. Nevermind that, though, when my chocolate malt was thick with Blue Bell ice cream and the roasty, toasty flavor of malt underneath the sweetness.
Texas Monthly was right, though; if I'd had my way, we'd have stopped here again before heading back to Houston. Despite a rocky start -- or maybe because of it -- Ray's far surpassed my expectations.