A couple three years ago, one of my dealers was telling me about a Kansas City area drive in that he has gone to since he was a little boy. "Johnny Ray's still has the best burgers in Kansas City," he told me with a certain conviction in his voice. "I get a hankering for a Johnny Ray's burger and I have to drive over to Lee's Summit every once in a while to satisfy my jones." On a trip to Kansas City and after seeing one of my dealers in the Lee's Summit area, I stopped in for an early lunch at Johnny Ray's.
Johnny Ray's has a link to Winstead's burger places, the local favorite burger chain in the Kansas City area. (Click here to see Road Tips' entry on Winstead's.) The first Winstead's opened on the Country Club Plaza in 1940 with a young Bill Winstead on the grill and his new wife Marietta serving the burgers that Bill cooked. In 1951, the Winstead family opened a second Winstead's in Lee's Summit with Bill and Marietta running that place.
Bill and Marietta went on to open two more Winstead's around the Kansas City area before they retired to the Ozarks in the 1960's. In 1956, they opened a new location in Raytown, not far from Lee's Summit and they decided to sell the Lee's Summit location. Johnny and Martha Ray took over ownership of the restaurant 60 years ago and the Ray family continues to run the place today. Johnny Ray passed away a number of years ago, but Martha still owns the business and makes it in from time to time to check on things. Her son Bob Ray runs the day-to-day operations of Johnny Ray's with Bob's son Sterling helping out in the summertime when he's home from college.
Johnny Ray's is located along a frontage road that runs parallel to U.S. Highway 50 in Lee's Summit. (see map) It was just after 11 a.m. when I pulled into the parking lot and went inside. It looks like not much has changed with the place that was first built in the early 50's with a tight U-shaped counter with a well worn top and a handful of booths along the walls. The kitchen was visible through the serving window behind the counter.
The menu for Johnny Ray's was on a 60's-style Coca-Cola wall board where the letters and numbers are interchangeable. In addition to their burgers, Johnny Ray's also featured a pork tenderloin sandwich, a chicken sandwich, a fried fish sandwich and an Italian steak sandwich. Sides were your typical Midwestern deep-fried foods - fries, tater tots, mozzarella cheese sticks, chicken strips and mushrooms. They also have cheddar cheese balls, onion rings and curly fries that they call "Suzy Q's".
I took a seat at the counter and ordered up a burger. Actually, they are called steak burgers at Johnny Ray's as they grind their own sirloin beef on a daily basis, just has they have since they bought the property from Winstead's in 1956. I ordered a double steak burger as I figured the patties weren't very thick as they were listed on the menu as 1/4 pound patties.
And it turned out that I was right. The beef patties were thin having been smashed on a flat-grill and squashed out to have the burger cook in it's own juices. The burger patties were crispy on the edges - I'm still not certain I like flat-grilled burgers like that - and it was piled high with chopped lettuce, onion slices, a tomato slice and dill pickles. I had them put some American cheese on the burger, as well. The bun was your basic burger bun and was slightly toasted.
The taste was, well, interesting. The charred outer shell of the misshapen burger patty gave it sort of a crunchy and burned taste and it seemed to be overcooked. The bun held together very well with all that was on the burger and while I'll have to say the burger was interesting, I just didn't know if I liked it all that much.
The steak burger at Johnny Ray's I deemed as being just all right. While I can see where generations of people on the southeast side of Kansas City can have a hankering for flat-grilled charred outer shell of the burger patty, I thought it was a tad overcooked with a pronounced crunchiness to the outside of the patties. Now, don't get me wrong - I thought the burger was good - but I think it is an acquired taste for those who didn't grow up with Johnny Ray's. But for those who have an life-long affinity for the little 50's-style burger joint that has been around for over 60 years, Johnny Ray's is the best burger in the world.