As a lifelong fan of Tex-Mex food, Hattiesburg restaurateur and author Robert St. John has long wanted to bring that concept to the Hub City and has been working on that endeavor for about three years now.
So after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and St. John was forced to close his Purple Parrot Café, the opportunity opened for him to develop El Rayo Tex Mex, which will be located in in the former Purple Parrot and Branch spaces. In addition to the indoor space, El Rayo – which is expected to open in mid-November – also will offer a 3,500-square-foot outdoor area for dining.
“We had been looking at property around town, several different spots,” said St. John, who also owns Ed’s Burger Joint, Crescent City Grill, The Midtowner and Tabella. “We’d kind of zeroed in on a couple of places, and we were working on those when the pandemic hit.
“So that got me to thinking now that Purple Parrot and Branch are closed, and I already own the building, it makes more sense to do something here. We’re taking all the asphalt down and bringing in three 30-foot live oaks, so we’re going to have a lot of vegetation. We’re doing an outside bar with an elevated area, so there’s some really cool stuff going on out there.”
El Rayo’s appetizer menu will be heavy on quesos and nachos, along with tableside guacamole. The restaurant will specialize in fajitas, enchiladas and margaritas.
“A lot of times you go to a Mexican restaurant, and if you get fajitas, it comes out like twisted and overdone stew meat,” St. John said. “We’re using inside skirt steak, which is the real deal – that’s what you use, really, for steak fajitas.
“It’s real steak, it’s marinated, and we use a vacuum tumbler that kind of helps the marinating process and drives the marinade into the muscle of the protein, whether it’s chicken or beef. We have four chefs working on this thing, and they’re (Culinary Institute of America) grads and Johnson & Wale grads, and then me. So it’s kind of like Tex-Mex greatest hits, but it’s authentic Tex-Mex, which once you get the real stuff, it makes a difference.”
St. John and his staff have been recipe testing for the past two months to get the menu finalized for customers, a process St. John said he has been extremely pleased with.
“It’s been maybe the most fun I’ve recipe testing, whether it’s for a book or another restaurant,” he said. “During that process, I always kind of go out and do (research and development), and I’ve been doing a bunch for two years … in Dallas and Houston, and all out west and back into Texas.
“The good thing about it is, the longer we’ve been doing our recipe testing, we’re going to places that we’ve been going to for a year or two, and it’s like, ‘man, I think we’re better.’ So it makes you feel good, and I think we’re hitting on all cylinders now.”
El Rayo means “lightning” in Spanish. While St. John said he probably had a harder time coming up with that name than any other of his previous restaurants, but it fits the concept perfectly.
“Usually, the name comes pretty quickly, but this one, I didn’t have a name,” he said. “In March or April, when I decided to really go ahead and do it in the Parrot and Branch location, I really started working hard on it through this pandemic stuff.
“I tossed a bunch of names around and nothing was hitting, and then I finally came up on that, and it was just an instant thing. It’s short and sweet and gets to the point. Lightning will make an appearance or two in the interior in certain different ways.”
St. John said the feedback he has received on the restaurant has been a little overwhelming, in a good way.
“I didn’t put a lot of thought into a social media post maybe about six months ago, and it just blew up like nothing we’ve ever done before,” he said. “I think that’s a good sign that the market is looking forward to something like this.
“It’s nothing that’s been here before, so we’re glad to be a part of that.”