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No Place for Ketchup

In Monroe–West Monroe, a rising tide lifts all gravy boats

No Place for Ketchup

Photo by Chris Jay

Gravy on offer at the Magic Grill on 18th Street in Monroe.

Over the course of the past half-century, residents of Monroe–West Monroe have come to expect that roast beef po’ boys, French fries, and hamburgers served in many local restaurants will be accompanied by white Styrofoam cups filled with piping hot brown gravy. Ask three locals what to do with that cup of gravy and you’re likely to receive three entirely different responses. Dunking, spooning, and pouring each have their proponents.

“I’ve seen people do all of the above,” said Greg McGee, owner of Ray’s PeGe in Monroe. “I prefer to dunk my sandwich and dip my fries. This is no place for ketchup.”

“People from out of town get confused by what to do with the gravy, for sure,” said Sydney Jacobs, a server at the Sterlington Road location of Magic Grill. “I like to say ‘just put it on top, trust me.’”

The tradition began at Ray’s PeGe in the early 1970s and has been a specialty of the Magic Grill franchise since 2009. Today, there are four Magic Grill locations offering roast beef po’ boys, hamburgers, and fries—all served with a cup of gravy. The original Ray’s PeGe still draws a crowd of dedicated regulars for po’ boys, open-faced burgers, and homemade ice cream. Cups of gravy can also be found alongside sandwiches at other restaurants around Monroe–West Monroe, including burgers with Guinness gravy at Enoch’s Irish Pub and Café and open-faced burgers with gravy at Sweet T’s Southern Cooking.

“People from out of town get confused by what to do with the gravy, for sure.”

Ray Pierce, a Kentwood native who’d previously operated restaurants in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and Ruston, opened Ray’s Grill at 3608 DeSiard Street in 1960. In the summer of 1969, Pierce moved his successful restaurant two-and-a-half miles down DeSiard Street to an address occupied by Pe Ge Ice Cream Parlor (“P” and “G” were the surname initials of Pe Ge’s owners). The restaurant at 8209 DeSiard Street was renamed Ray’s PeGe.

Two suggestions made early on by members of Pierce’s staff reshaped the future of Ray’s PeGe. Pierce told DeltaStyle magazine in 2004 that an early employee named Grace Wunsch suggested that he serve po’ boys. Another employee, Annie Mae Gardner, taught Pierce to make gravy for the roast beef po’ boys. The rich, black-pepper-laced gravy was such a hit with customers that they began to request it with their hamburgers and fries.

Sign at the Magic Grill. Photo by Chris Jay.

“I first tasted the gravy as a teenager,” said Michael Rodriguez, owner of the Magic Grill franchise and a previous employee of Ray’s PeGe. “It really is all about the gravy. There’s a certain way you’ve got to make it.” Rodriguez, fifty-five, has known Pierce since Rodriguez went to work as a “cricket and shiner boy” at Sterlington Quick Stop in 1978. Pierce’s family owned the convenience store and, recognizing talent and drive in Rodriguez, Pierce put him to work at Ray’s PeGe at age fifteen. Rodriguez’s first job at Ray’s PeGe was ensuring that each customer received hot French fries. “I did that for a while, and when he needed someone in the kitchen, he showed me how to cook the beef and how to make the gravy,” Rodriguez said. “I learned everything from the ground up.”

Pierce retired from the restaurant industry in January of 2005. In an interview commemorating his retirement, he told the Monroe News-Star that Ray’s PeGe sold approximately 2,500 roast beef po’ boys per week. Pierce sold the restaurant to an eighteen-year employee, Kevin Taylor, who operated it for ten years before selling it to the current owners, Greg and Kristie McGee, in December of 2015.

Rodriguez left Ray’s PeGe to open his first restaurant under the name Magic Grill at 4331 Sterlington Road in October 2009. Pierce owned a restaurant called Magic Grill prior to opening Ray’s Grill, and Rodriguez marketed his business as being inspired by Pierce. An advertisement for the restaurant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony stated that Magic Grill would be “committed to doing things Ray’s way.”

To understand Rodriguez’s devotion to Pierce, it helps to know that Pierce assisted Rodriguez in securing the bank loan needed to open his first restaurant. “I went to the bank to get some money, and they wouldn’t loan me any, even though I had good credit,” Rodriguez said. “Long story short, Mr. Pierce took me back to the bank. He said: ‘Give this boy his money.’” Rodriguez was so committed to the success of Magic Grill that he lived for three years in a used FEMA trailer parked next to the restaurant’s first location.

Pierce, now in his eighties, frequently visits the restaurants that carry on his legacy. Those restaurants appear to regard one another as rivals, which is a shame. Just as southwestern Louisiana has its Cajun Boudin Trail, a little teamwork could easily yield a gravy trail through northeastern Louisiana, guiding intrepid eaters to some of the greatest gravies they’ll ever dunk a smoking-hot fry in.

Chris Jay is a native of Sarepta, Louisiana, who has spent the last twenty-some-odd years living in and writing about his adopted hometown of Shreveport. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Louisiana folklife and southern studies at Northwestern State University. He self-publishes Stuffed & Busted, a reader-funded newsletter and website documenting the food and drink traditions of North Louisiana, and produces the podcasts All Y’all and Once Upon a Time in Shreveport.