Rene “Ray” Ramirez, an LA Texas barbecue champion, has died at the age of 47

Sebastian Ramirez says his father, Rene “Ray” Ramirez, always said he expressed his feelings in his kitchen.

“He used to tell me, ‘In the food you could taste how I felt that day, how I felt the day before,'” said Sebastian, recalling one of the earliest modern adopters of wood-smoked meat in the Texas Style of the founders of the family’s Huntington Park restaurant.

“He expressed his feelings in it, and that’s where he got going through that; No matter how bad it was or what he thought, he would come here to put the meat in, come to take it out, and make sure everyone came and tasted a piece of his food.”

The senior Ramirez died on February 7; Sebastian said his father died by 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 our hearts into this.”

Before Ramirez opened the brick-and-mortar store at a mall at 6038 Santa Fe Ave. opened where brisket fanatics and regulars sought out the Central Texas-style barbecue, Ramirez drew lines of fans along a residential street in southeast LA when he hosted a weekend pop-up in his mom’s backyard.

Inspired by the method of cooking with wood, a technique common 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. First he gave away his sandwiches for free to test the waters.

Encouraged, he began selling them in his mother’s garden and promoted his new BBQ pop-up on Facebook message boards. The former car salesman and cell phone store manager plunged into the study of smoked meats and expanded it to include ribs, buying several Traeger pellet smokers and sometimes setting them up seven or eight in a row in the backyard.

After visits from city inspectors and the county health department, he was forced to shut down pop-up operations and decided to open his first and only brick-and-mortar restaurant. Introduced in August 2014. It served the staples from its pop-ups and a range of side dishes that are ubiquitous at the BBQ, and some inspired by Salvadorian recipes.

It was also a school experience for Sebastian: after Ramirez’s eldest child had bad grades and multiple suspensions from high school and showed little direction in life, Ramirez told his son that he needed to start working with him.

Over time, Sebastian, now 23, became his father’s deputy. “The same day he died, he told me I was his right hand man,” he said. He now runs the restaurant, which reopened two days after Ramirez’s death.

The father and son took road trips across the country to sample whole hog barbecues from Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, SC and brisket from Austin’s Franklin Barbecue. Ray’s recipes, inspired by these experiences, will live on in the restaurant.

Raul, Sebastian, Anabell and Ray Ramirez, fully masked, pose for a portrait at Ray's Texas BBQ on July 21, 2020.

Raul, Sebastian, Anabell and Ray Ramirez pose for a portrait at their family’s Ray’s Texas BBQ on July 21, 2020.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“The last few days have been tough,” said Sebastian. “I had the choice to mourn afterwards and not to open the restaurant, but my mother and my brother [and I] decided that no matter what, we did what my dad loved most, and that’s where we feel closest to him: being in here.

“Just the smell as soon as I walk in the door makes me feel like everything is fine and he’s here.”

Long before the senior Ramirez discovered his love for the BBQ, he was living what Sebastian calls “a split life.”

Born in Los Angeles to a mother who still works long hours cleaning houses in some of LA’s most affluent neighborhoods, Ray was raised partly by his mother and partly by his maternal grandparents in El Salvador, sometimes for years at a time. Years later, the ups and downs of his own childhood inspired him to provide a stable and nurturing environment for his children at home and in the restaurant.

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. Almost 3,000 miles apart, they spoke on the phone. He would visit her for two or three months and then return to the States to work, finally flying back occasionally as a surprise. “He called my mom and said, ‘Hey, I’ll be right out on the corner,'” Sebastian said.

Sebastian 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, somehow, almost immediately, found the money to fly them both to Los Angeles. The close-knit family grew with the birth of Raul, 19, and Isabela, 7.

Ramirez is survived by his children, wife and mother Elsa Gonzalez.

A portrait of Raul, Anabell and Sebastian Ramirez standing outside the family's restaurant in Huntington Park.

The family’s patriarch, Rene “Ray” Ramirez, died on February 7; Despite this immediate loss, the family reopened the restaurant two days later and continued it as his legacy. The eldest son, Sebastian Ramirez, 23, right, is now following in his father’s footsteps. His mother, Anabell Ramirez, 49, center, and his 19-year-old brother, Raul Ramirez, help him run the restaurant on a daily basis.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Sebastian now sticks to the same schedule as his father once did: working until early afternoon, then back to the restaurant to put the brisket in the smokers for an overnight slow and slow cook.

At around 5 a.m. he leaves the house with his mother, as the sun is just beginning to rise. While Anabell prepares side dishes – like her Salvadoran brisket rice – and prepares the place for the day, Sebastian takes meat off the smokers and puts in more. Once the doors are open, he takes orders and converses with regulars and new customers alike, trying to emulate the kindness his father exuded so warmly. It’s, he says, a life skill he’ll never forget.

Raul, who has recently joined the family business full-time, wipes down tables and greets and checks on customers just like his father did.

“My brother is my right hand now,” said Sebastian. “Just as my father said I was like his right hand man, my brother is my new right hand man – and the same tips, tricks and ideas that my father would give me, I give him. That makes me proud and I know that this is just the beginning of a new beginning.” Rene “Ray” Ramirez, an LA Texas barbecue champion, has died at the age of 47

Caroline Bleakley

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