Sebastian Ramirez says his father, Rene “Ray” Ramirez, always said he expressed his feelings in his kitchen.
“He always said to me, ‘In the food, you could taste how I felt that day, how I felt the day before,'” Sebastian said, remembering one of the earliest modern adopters of Los Angeles of Texas-style wood-smoked meats, and the founder of the family restaurant Huntington Park.
“He expressed his emotions in there, and that’s where he got to when he went through it; he, no matter how bad it was or what he thought, would come here to put the meat in, come and take it out, and make sure everyone came to try a piece of his food.
The elder Ramirez died on February 7; Sebastian said his father committed suicide after a years-long battle with depression. Ray’s Texas BBQ is his father’s legacy. In his honor, the family continues to run the restaurant, he said, and they “put 100% of their hearts into it.”
Before opening the brick-and-mortar business in a strip mall at 6038 Santa Fe Ave., where brisket fanatics and regulars sought Central Texas-style barbecue, Ramirez drew fans to a residential street from Southeast Los Angeles when he was hosting a weekend pop-up in his mother’s backyard.
Inspired by the wood-fired cooking method, a technique prevalent in El Salvador, where he spent years of his youth, the self-taught cook bought a ceramic kamado grill and began experimenting with smoked pulled pork. At first, he gave away his sandwiches for free to test the waters.
With encouragement, he started selling them in his mother’s garden, advertising his new barbecue on Facebook message boards. The former car salesman and manager of a cell phone store took up the study of smoked meat and extended to ribs, and bought several Traeger pellet smokers, sometimes lining them up in the backyard seven or eight in a row.
After visits from city inspectors and the county health department, he had to shut down the pop-up operation and he decided to open his first and only brick-and-mortar restaurant, launch in august 2014. It served up the staples of its pop-ups and an array of ubiquitous barbecue sides, and some inspired by Salvadoran recipes.
It also turned out to be a life-school experience for Sebastian: After Ramirez’s eldest child received poor grades and multiple suspensions from high school, and showed little direction in life, Ramirez told his son he should start working with him.
Over time, Sebastian, who is now 23, has become his father’s second in command. “He told me the very day he died that I was his right arm,” he said. He now runs the restaurant, which reopened two days after Ramirez’s death.
The father and son would go on a cross-country trip to try the whole pork barbecue at Rodney Scott’s barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, and the brisket at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Ray’s recipes, inspired by these experiences, will live on at the restaurant.
“The last few days have been tough,” Sebastian said. “I had the choice to mourn after that and not to open the restaurant, but my mother and my brother [and I] decided no matter what, we were doing what my father loved the most, and that’s where we feel closest to him: being here.
“Just the smell, as soon as I walk through the door I feel like everything is fine and he’s there.”
Long before senior Ramirez discovered his love of barbecue, he lived what Sebastian calls “a divided life.”
Born in Los Angeles to a mother who still works long hours cleaning houses in some of LA’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Ray was raised partly by his mother and partly by his maternal grandparents in El Salvador, sometimes for years at a time. the back and forth of his own childhood inspired him to provide a stable and nurturing environment for his children at home and in restaurants years later.
After graduating from high school in Los Angeles, he continued to visit El Salvador, and eventually a friend introduced him to his future wife, Anabell. It was love at first sight.
There was no texting, no social media. Separated by nearly 3,000 miles, they were talking on the phone. He would visit for two or three months, then return to the United States to work, eventually returning on occasion by surprise. “He would call my mom and say, ‘Hey, I’m just outside around the corner,'” Sebastian said.
Sébastien was born in El Salvador. When he was 2 years old, a traumatic home robbery shook the young family. Ramirez, who had been living paycheck to paycheck one way or another almost immediately, found the money to send them both to Los Angeles. The united family grew with the birth of Raul, 19, and Isabela, 7.
Ramirez is survived by his children, his wife and his mother Elsa Gonzalez.
Sebastian now keeps the same schedule as his father: working until early afternoon, then returning to the restaurant to put the brisket in the smokers, which cook slowly and slowly overnight.
Around 5 a.m., he leaves the house with his mother, just as the sun has just risen. While Anabell prepares side dishes – like her Salvadoran rice strewn with brisket – and prepares the space for the day, Sebastian removes the meat from the smokers and puts in more. Once the doors open, he takes orders and converses with regulars and new customers, trying to emulate the friendship his father showed him so warmly. It is, he says, a life skill he will never forget.
Raul, who has recently been working full-time in the family business, wipes tables, greets and checks on customers, just as their father did too.
“My brother is my right hand man now,” Sebastian said. “In the same way my dad said I was like his right hand, my brother is my new right hand – and the same advice, tips and insights my dad would give me, I give him. It makes me proud and I know this is just the start of a new beginning.
Los Angeles Times