"If Franklin Barbecue uses this high-quality meat, why can't I serve that exact same stuff here in the 'hood?"
Rene "Ray" Ramirez cracks the biggest smile as he tells me this—in Spanish—because he has worked extremely hard for the last four years to perfect his Texas-style smoked brisket, and he knows how good it is compared to that of his idols. He is gently cradling it his hands: a 20-pound chunk that has been smoked for 16 hours with fresh-cut logs of dense, heavy oak purveyed by a deal made with his home gardener.
It is a prime Angus cut that he proudly sources from Creekstone Farms and it is the specialty of his tiny restaurant in the middle of Huntington Park, Ray's BBQ. He lightly applies pressure to the hulking pile of blackened meat just a little bit so we all see the translucent juices that run down the grain of the pink flesh. He cuts me off a piece of the fatty side and the bite disintegrates in my mouth. The fatty bark's flavour lingers for minutes on end.
There is a Texas-shaped clock on the wall, Texas flags dotted all over the place, and the words "TEXAS" in all-caps outside of the strip mall where the restaurant is located. Nonetheless, we are around 1,400 miles away from Texas in the most industrial district in all of Los Angeles, otherwise known for being the historic home to some of the most brutal riots in the city. Besides Ramirez's utter obsession with replicating serious Texas-style barbecue, he has no connection with the Lone Star State whatsoever.
Ramirez's mother was born in Jutiapa Cabañas, El Salvador. He was born in Santa Ana, California, and he was raised in both El Salvador and East LA. "While everybody was fleeing El Salvador, my mom moved me back there so I got a sense of my identity," Ramirez says like it's no big deal. He sits down with me to enjoy some beef ribs he has smoked and explains his rather sudden onset of barbecue passion, ignited after he got a taste of real smoked meat after a work trip to Missouri. After that meat nirvana-filled trip, he was laid off from his job at AT&T, which proved to be a blessing in disguise as he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to Texas-style smoked meat after that.
"I'm going to be honest with you: Five years ago, I did not know anything about cooking barbecue at all. I'm Hispanic—what do I know about barbecue beyond carne asada grilled in a cheapy grill?" Thus, he took it up himself to drive to Texas three times in just one year to learn how to do it. Yes, he waited to eat at Franklin every single time. "I was on a mission," he says. "The first time was to taste. The second time was to learn, and the third time was to compare." Like East LA BBQ Co. just a few miles away, he started selling smoked meat out of his backyard. Until he went full brick-and-mortar two years ago.
His DIY barbecue crash course route included Southside Market, Pecan Lodge, and of course, Franklin Barbecue in Austin, among other greats. The latter explains the huge photo of him with Aaron Franklin in the middle of the restaurant. He turned to guerrilla tactics to get the secrets from all of those places, too, by asking the Spanish-speaking staff of the restaurants for tips and pointers, and not being afraid to go dumpster diving in hopes of finding any kind of clues. Upon his return to LA, he adopted a very literal trial-by-fire model to learn barbecue. He doesn't claim to be any sort of expert and is the first to admit that his recipe is still evolving with every brisket that he pulls out of the smokers in his small kitchen. "Trust me, I've burned many briskets. But without those valuable experiences, how are you ever going to learn?
Ultimately, he discovered that a lot of those trade secrets just had to do with simply buying higher-quality beef. The brisket he purchases costs about three times as much as generic brisket. However, then came the next big challenge of transplanting a Texas-style barbecue shop to Huntington Park: How do you get a predominantly Latino community that is used to buying $1 tacos to spend $20 a pound for brisket in a hole in the wall by the train tracks?
This is a challenge that many budding chefs and new restauranteurs face when opening a new restaurant in a risky part of town. Still, Ramirez remained adamant about not cutting corners on the quality of his beef and took a risk. "There is no going back after trying the good stuff. It is like crack," he says. He slowly began to win over locals by giving generous free samples of his barbecue to the skeptics.
He also came up with Latino-friendly ways of introducing his high-quality beef philosophy, like a gargantuan mac and cheese brisket burrito, or even brisket placed on top of nachos. At first, it may be easy to dismiss the last two menu items as stunt food, but in just the couple of hours that I was there, he sold half a dozen of the burritos—one to a regular who comes in at least three days a week for the huge flour tortilla-wrapped beast of meal, and another to someone who drove 17 miles through peak LA rush hour traffic just to snag one to go before Ray's closed.
Ramirez jokes that he would love to live in Texas one day, due to the strong sense of belonging he feels whenever he is there, but that his wife would probably divorce him if he ever did move. "At the end of the day," he says, "I just really want to save you all a trip and get the real experience here."