Lonnie Ray’s is a lot like Sutton’s in Columbia, just with an all-white clientele in place of the all-black crowd. A sociology grad student could delve into the deeper meaning of this, examining contemporary race relations through the prism of two fabulous bbq joints. But I am not that person. I’m just here for the ‘cue.
Inside Lonnie Ray’s, chrome-sided tables and blue chairs look freshly plucked from a 50s diner. Old photos on the wall tell a history of Harrisburg (pop. 184). And, just like at Sutton’s, a tv in the corner carries Paul Pepper’s creepy, geriatric show. Every adult in the place had an “I voted” sticker on their chest and the crowd is (elitist alert) surprisingly cosmopolitan; one brave guy is in shirt and tie and there’s only one trucker hat is in sight. A man in the kitchen seems to know everyone in the place and yells goodbyes to departing customers.
I sat down and ordered the combo plate, which comes with ribs, pulled pork and brisket as well as three sides (coleslaw, “charro’s” and green beans in my case…no tamales today). All are excellent, with the brisket being my personal favorite. After eating, the owner tells me his Texas-style rub pleased a Lone Star native just last week. I believe it. It’s a perfect balance of fat and dry with a good bark and remarkable smoke ring. Maybe the best brisket I’ve ever had. Flavorful rib meat falls off the bones and the pulled pork is tender and lightly smoky. It’s all fantastic. Charro’s – Lonnie Ray’s spicy side of beans – is fiery hot and great. Coleslaw and green beans are fine. Their signature sauce is served on the side and is different than any other I’ve had. It’s thick and rich and has something in it I couldn’t quite place. I guessed chocolate and the server laughed and shook his head. They aren’t talking.
The owner, Mike, is talking, however. A natural salesman with a buzz cut and a thick build (really, would you trust the barbeque of a skinny guy?), Mike tells me after I eat (and in less than three minutes):
- He buys his meats at Sam’s
- Gas prices are a pain
- They sponsor a car show across the street every third Saturday from 11-3
- By-the-pound prices for take-out meat (with tax)
- They’ve been open a little over five years
- He’s going to have a booth at the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ festival (but isn’t competing)
- He burned a lot of brisket before finally “getting it right”
- They cater
- There’s a $30 delivery charge for catering (see “gas prices,” “pain”)
- He hates it when he goes through all the work of making tamales and then no one orders them
- He keeps a list of customer phone numbers on hand and calls them when he has tamales (scribbling my number on an order pad)
It was a dizzying, exhilarating conversation and the food – half of which now sits in the fridge – was outstanding. He is a passionate bbq-warrior and must be made to stay in business. On the whole, I rate Lonnie Ray’s just ahead of Sutton’s, primarily on speed and the (slightly) superior meats. Charro’s don’t hurt either. If they had collards/turnip greens in Harrisburg I’d really be in trouble.
So get thee to Harrisburg soon. Just don’t try it on Sunday or Monday.
Lonnie Ray’s Cafe
81 E. Sexton Street
Harrisburg, MO 65256