After years of research and months of preparation, restaurateur Robert St. John opened El Rayo in 2021.
There’s something comforting and familiar about Tex-Mex food. It’s delicious, and for the most part, reliable. But there is a difference between steam trays filled with refried beans and rice and the food that is dished up at El Rayo.
When Hattiesburg restauranteur Robert St. John decided to open a Tex-Mex restaurant, he took his family on an extended road trip where they ate at restaurants across the American Southwest.
“Robert did his research,” says RiAnn Taylor, director of marketing for the New South Restaurant Group. “He traveled to several Southwestern states and not only ate in as many Tex-Mex restaurants as he could, but he also spent time talking with the owners, kitchen manager and cooks. He took note of the equipment they used and all the little details that make good Tex-Mex food, well, good.”
When Robert was ready to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Hattiesburg, he knew he needed a good location.
“Robert was looking for a stand-alone building he could buy to have on hand for when he was ready to do the restaurant,” says Taylor.
When he decided to close the Purple Parrot, his first restaurant, that opened a space next to his Crescent City Grill that was ideal for St. John’s newest venture: El Rayo. After years of research and months of preparation, El Rayo opened on January 11, 2021.
“The response has been great,” says Taylor. “Folks have been rallying and supporting us because we are a local business. We’ve even had people driving in from other parts of the state because they’ve heard about El Rayo.”
Any Robert St. John restaurant is going to provide a total dining experience, and El Rayo does not disappoint. It’s a fiesta from the time you step in the door. Colored lights crisscross the ceiling, and a large mural by local artist Anthony Saxton graces an entire wall.
“That’s the Mex part of the décor,” laughs Taylor. Because the restaurant is in the South, there is also a nod to country music.
“Tammy Wynette graces the ladies’ room door, and George Jones is on the men’s room door,” says Taylor. “The ladies’ room has life-sized Elvis wallpaper!”
The menu is a carefully curated blend of Mexican and Texan foods with a good dose of Southern cooking in the mix. It is easy to find the expected dishes: classic fajitas, enchiladas and tacos. But the dishes are prepared in an unexpected way. There are Mexican tacos including carnitas with grilled pineapple and roasted poblano crema, and tacos served with either crispy fried fish or grilled Gulf fish. Texas tacos include the standard chicken or beef. Queso is served, but guests at El Rayo can choose from five styles, each with different add-ins such as chorizo, pork, chicken or steak. The menu states that queso can be served in one of 2,163 combinations.
There is a variety of Rancho Skillets, filled with all manner of delicious ingredients, and enchilada plates that include the Truck Stop with red chili gravy, Baja shrimp with roasted red pepper butter and a crawfish enchilada.
Taylor says she loves the skirt steak and orders it every time she eats at El Rayo. The restaurant uses 30-day aged Angus outside skirt steak and puts it in a meat tumbler that was ordered specially for the restaurant.
“The marinade is added to the tumbler with the meat and then it spins, which makes the marinade soak into the meat,” Taylor explains. “It just makes the meat super flavorful and tender.”
The Gringo Fries are a popular menu item, smothered in tomatillo salsa, jalapeno ranch dip, picadillo, jalapeno, sour cream, pickled onion and Pico de Gallo. And if you really want to get adventurous, try the #10 can nachos. The serving is a big presentation in which the server brings out a large can, opened on one end. The can is inverted onto a plate, then the server dramatically lifts the can, which allows the nachos and all the delicious toppings to tumble down onto the plate.
No Tex-Mex restaurant is complete without margaritas, and much thought and creativity has gone into the development of El Rayo’s offerings. There are twelve unique margaritas on the menus. In addition to the classic Mexican margarita, El Rayo serves a Texas margarita with grilled blood orange and jalapeno, and pineapple cilantro and strawberry basil margaritas, all hand-crafted with fresh ingredients. In addition to margaritas, El Rayo serves up such classics as palomas, sangria and pina coladas. The wine list includes bottles from California, Portugal, Spain and Argentina. An extensive beer list features many Mexican-brewed beers.
The patio area is lush with beautiful plants. Situated next to the restaurant in what used to be part of the parking lot, the patio features an Airstream camper that is used for a kitchen for the outdoor areas.
The restaurant is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, with a weekend brunch.