When you walk into Bay-Ray's Bistro in River Oaks, get ready to meet the family.
Cousin Sherri says "hey" at the door. Sister Brandi gets you that first glass of sweet tea. And mother Doris will make it impossible to resist the last slice of buttermilk pie. All the while, head chef and co-owner Jennica Schmitt-Siyas will be hard at work in the intimate kitchen, whipping up her satisfying, made-from-scratch Tex-Americana comfort food.
Bay-Ray's interior is homey, too. It used to be a Dairy Queen, and you can tell that from the quirky shape that accommodates a mere 20 seats -- all patio-style tables and chairs purchased at Home Depot. The eclectic decor includes snazzy table runners, a single candle on every table, an alligator sculpture hugging one wall, and signs proclaiming "Good food served here" and "La toilette."
On a windowsill, there is an "Our House" list and it includes: "We do hugs, we are family."
Schmitt-Siyas was born in nearby Lake Worth Village, and her local restaurant résumé is distinguished by six years at Uncle Julio's, her work as a caterer, and three years at the Fort Worth Northern Italian jewel, Nonna Tata. Yet, the majority of the dishes Schmitt-Siyas serves up at Bay-Ray's have almost no roots in her previous local kitchen ports of call.
Consider the menu's most exotic item: Moroccan sweet tea ($3.95). Schmitt-Siyas, who recently married a Moroccan and has visited the North African country four times, combines the Baroud tea with fresh mint leaves in a classic Moroccan silver tea pot, serving it in equally traditional Moroccan etched glasses.
Between sips of the tea, be sure to order two of Bay-Ray's constantly revolving soups du jour ($3.50 for a cup): The tomato basil is a riot of chunky tomato, basil flecks, garlic, cayenne and smoked hot paprika, and is topped with Parmesan shavings. The potato soup, meanwhile, is a rustic blend of red and yellow potatoes, onion, and plenty of parsley, all floating in a soup that, through its use of evaporated milk, tip-toes beautifully between a chowder and a broth.
Think Bay-Ray's will flame out with a New York classic, the Reuben sandwich ($8.95)? Think again. The ultra-thin slices of turkey pastrami (corned beef is also available) are stacked with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, slathered with both Creole mustard and sweet Thousand Island dressing, and served on perfectly toasted marble rye bread. The result is the best Reuben I've ever tasted in the Metroplex.
One of the restaurant's most rib-sticking offerings is crawfish casserole ($13.95). It has just the right mac-and-cheese texture, owing to the wonderfully random layering of egg noodles with pink morsels of crawfish, peeking out from under a roof of crushed Ritz crackers, Parmesan cheese and, of course, a healthy amount of butter. It's a great gooey amalgam that will ward off even the nastiest winter wind.
Equally fortifying is a pyramid-shaped Frito pie, ($6.95) whose chili does a star turn thanks to its medley of poblano, Anaheim, jalapeño and bell peppers, along with generous chunks of Black Angus beef and mild Italian sausage, marinated in Shiner Bock and a dry-rub of garlic, smoked paprika, coriander and cumin. All of these taste fireworks easily offset the slightly soggy Frito chips.
Not quite as successful, despite its grandmother's-recipe origins, is the chicken and dumplings ($10.95). Though the dumplings are gnocchi-light, this dish is caught in the no-man's land between soup and stew, leaving the shredded chicken a tad underseasoned.
Make sure to leave room for the homemade desserts, including a velvet-rich buttermilk pie ($2.95) that uses tangy buttermilk to balance its sugary, vanilla-infused interior. And let your sweet tooth fully indulge in the pineapple upside-down cake, ($3.95) with its heavy almond flavoring and its roof of brown-sugar-glazed pineapple, and that old 20th-century throwback: a maraschino cherry.
It's the perfect conclusion to a dining experience that nourishes you equally with simple, enjoyable food and family hospitality.