Ray’s to the Third Marks Another Evolution
By Warren Rojas / Photography by Kate Bohler
Upsetting the status quo isn’t necessarily what Ray’s ringleader Michael Landrum aims to accomplish with the unveiling of each subsequent restaurant project. But he sure does seem to enjoy it when it happens.
“People have predefined notions of why they’re coming to a Ray’s restaurant, and it’s mostly for beef,” the renowned steak baron acknowledges. “At the new location, I’m hoping to get a fresh start.”
That “new location” is Ray’s the Third (Rt3), the next evolution eatery that marries many of the growing restaurant group’s greatest hits with previously unencountered proteins and sweets.
Landrum long ago learned to manage the overwhelming expectations that envelop the eccentric epicurean’s every professional move. But that doesn’t mean he likes it one bit.
“My restaurants don’t get to open and evolve naturally. They open with a tremendous amount of pressure and to enormous volume almost immediately,” the battle-scarred restaurateur suggests. He chastises the entire hospitality industry for adopting the Hollywood blockbuster mindset, intimating that everyone expects huge opening weekends and land-office business every day thereafter, whereas he prefers to emulate the deliberate fine-tuning and adaptability exhibited by stage performers.
Take Rt3’s fried chicken.
The rather juicy and delicious, Southern-fried bird was originally introduced at Ray’s the Classics. But Landrum decided to shake things up a bit, ultimately creating the companion “Hell chicken”—a marinated version inspired by Tennessee’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. And even that remains a work in progress. “We’ve actually been gradually increasing the heat level,” Landrum confesses.
Same goes for the so-called “gushers” (Juicy Lucys by any other name). “That’s sort of the inevitability of my sick mind and that over-the-top product,” he says of the cheese-filled constructs that literally spray molten dairy and beef jus on those who brazenly rush right into the unapologetically messy meal (Rt3 – 1; dress shirt – 0).
Gushers will, at least for the time being, remain confined to Rt3—primarily because none of its sibling establishments is properly equipped to turn them out. “You can’t do that style of all-American burger without a flat-top grill,” Landrum asserts. And don’t expect him to get all freaky-deeky with the fillings either. “I’m pretty comfortable with the range that we have there,” Landrum says of the roughly half-dozen stuffed burgers he’s already put into service. “No need to get all Kama Sutra on it.”
No argument here.
Each gusher summons twin, five-ounce patties seared (medium or well-done are your only viable options) on a sizzling flattop, and sandwiched around the gourmet cheese—think: sharp cheddar, zesty pepper Jack, breathtaking Danish blue or decadent, double-cream brie—of your choosing. Toppings hounds can marvel at the sky-high accoutrements (melted Swiss, crispy bacon and a fabulously runny sunny-side-up egg) stacked atop the terribly-sloppy-but-oh-so-worth-it breakfast burger.
Hell chicken proves quite heavenly, revealing a house-rubbed bird that’s fried but not battered, and escorted by quadruple-cheesed elbow macaroni and refreshing cole slaw. The featured bird is enrobed in cumin, paprika and other mystery spices, which are aptly complemented by the accompanying Hell sauce, a chutney-like construct forged from chipotle peppers, cayenne, onions and tomatoes.
The fisherman’s platter was—wait for it, wait for it—off the hook. The overly generous spread showcases cornmeal-crusted oysters (succulent and slightly briny), breaded shrimp (hot, crunchy and flush with tender meat) and thick, flaky catfish filets swimming in savory Creole sauce (bonus baby shrimp were, well, gravy).
Need something to temper all the spice the Rt3 kitchen is hurling at ya?
“Alkie” shakes to the rescue. Two film-inspired coolers include: the Kahlua-spiked Dude (Big Lebowski) and bacon-topped Shake & Bake (Talladega Nights). “I caught a late-night rerun of the Ricky Bobby story … and it just happened to coincide with when I was making the shake menu,” Landrum says of the reverse engineering that took place once Will Ferrell’s daffy race car driver’s mantra took possession of his brain.
During our visits, shakes were being drained in mere minutes and throughout the meal; fellow patrons were ordering one as an aperitif, one with dinner and another for dessert—and there’s no shortage of booze in each serving. The shake & bake featured vanilla ice cream infused with a long pour of Kentucky bourbon, sweetened by chocolate and caramel syrup, crowned with whipped cream and finished off with thinly sliced ribbons of crunchy, hickory-smoked bacon. It was clever, but perhaps a bit contrived. We much preferred the simple pleasure of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and freshly chopped strawberries.
Landrum shares that he was thrilled to learn that everything BUT aged beef was flying out the doors during their first few weeks in business. “I was giddy and gleeful with how many people were not getting steaks,” he recalls. Of course, as time passed, orders of steak frites continued creeping higher, higher and higher.
But why dwell on the past when there’s still so much to do, now and in the near future.
With his cheesesteak venture now in full swing, Landrum suggests that two other languishing projects, his wine bar (Ray’s the Glass) and bakery/coffeehouse (Ryse) concepts, could materialize in realtively short order. “They’ve both evolved into things that should be coming out fairly soon,” the always-enigmatic entrepreneur hints to us recently.
A standalone seafood operation, however, may be totally sunk. Both the timing (he pointed to that fact that chain sub shops are now doing lobster rolls as evidence that entire trend has jumped the shark) and eye-opening research into the sordid world of sustainable seafood seem to have convinced Landrum to finally cut bait on that dream.
“It’s just not something I’m comfortable with,” he suggests, deriding the “very artificial, delusional sustainability” of a lobster harvest predicated on the overfishing of cod (the shellfish’s natural predator).
Ray’s to the Third
1650 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-974-7171
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).