Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday. 12 noon to 8 p.m., Sunday.
Price Range: Cheap. It would be hard to spend more than $3 or $3.50 for a full dinner.
Atmosphere: Simple, clean, pleasant.
Special Facilities: Highchairs and boosters. Plenty of parking in a well-lit parking lot in rear.
Credit Cards: None.
Ray's Ranch House is an original. It's tiny, simple and fun. If you are near Hyattsville, don't miss it. The place is proof that a single, creative individual can still compete in a business increasingly dominated by the big boys, those multi-million dollar national corporations franchising plastic food and fake decor.
You know there's something special about Ray's when you enter. In the big picture windows to each side are amusing scenes of the old West, composed of life-sized dummies made up to look like cowboys. In one, a man is straggling toward a mirage in the desert sand, surrounded by tall cacti; in the other, two cowpokes are guzzling beer in a funny old-style saloon, complete with artifacts of the olden days.
These humorous scenes weren't stamped out of a factory contracted to create identical scenarios to appear in a thousand franchise across the country. A local lady designed and made them.
The food follows suit. Ray makes it all himself, every day. And it is very good.
Don't bother to read the menu, which doesn't include the prices. Everything you need to know is posted on the wall behind the counter where Ray cooks. You'll see a hodge-podge of hand-made signs listing variations on Ray's basic fare: beef and pork barbecue, Texas red-hot chili and a couple of blue-plate specials.
You'll see the beef and pork loins Ray roasts as needed every few days or so to mince or slice into his tasty barbecue sauce. We found the sliced meat to be better. If you order the platter ($1.95 for pork; $2 for beef), you get a bun filled with sliced meat slathered with spicy sauce, accompanied by fabulous baked beans made by Ray (they're sweet and sour, with chunks of peppers and onions) and Ray's own cole slaw (not sweet, but thick and tangy, made with real mayonnaise and perked up with vinegar).
Add an order of corn on the cob (55 cents) and you've got a great meal.
You might want the barbecue chicken instead. Ray will take out half a broiler and cook it over his electric grill, basting with hot sauce as he goes along. This takes time, maybe 20 minutes or more, just as it would at home. It's worth it for a meaty, freshly grilled chicken on a platter with Ray's beans and slaw. And it's only $2.65.
While you're waiting, split an order or red hot chili ($1.25). If you are used to the mild seasonings of franchise food, your ears might burn a little. It's hot.
Which explains why Ray does such a good business in buttermilk: 35 cents a cup."Soothes our customers when they go for the chili," Ray said.
Other specialities of the house: brahma bulls, honchos, mavericks, bronco busters. Each is a variation on Ray's basic sandwich, the ranchburger, made from lean chuck, bought and ground by Ray, then turned into a large burger, garnished with cheese, sauce and other condiments. The ranchburger must be good. In the four years Ray's place has been open, 48,500 ranchburgers have been sold, according to the sign out front that is an amusing take-off on McDonald's hamburger count.
The basic blue-plate special is served on Saturday and Sunday: An 8-ounce T-bone steak with beans and salad for $4.95. It comes with what Ray calls "Texas toast," a thick sliced buttery bread made special for Ray by a local bakery.
Dessert is a single dish: a tiny tasty cup of apple crisp that Ray makes. Cost: 49 cents.
Ray's is an informal restaurant. You won't get waited on. You go up to the counter and give your order and go back and get it when you hear it called or think it's ready. And you eat from paper plates. But Ray has standards: "No shirts, no shoes, no service" says a sign.
Ray keeps his place very neat and clean, considering the quantity of carryout and sit down business he does. We enjoyed his collection of western movie posters, some of then downright collector's items now. There's Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon in "The Cowboy and the Lady," Gene Autry in "The Range Fighter," and a few Ken Maynards too.
Where's Ray from? Vermont, of course. "Used to be a typewriter salesman in Rockville, but chucked it all to set up this place.
"Always did like to cook."