There’s something very interesting going down in Huntington Park, the small municipality a few miles southeast of Downtown mostly known to outsiders for its semi-industrial stretches. While the population hovers around 60,000, the number of barbecue restaurants rests at exactly one: Ray’s BBQ, a strip mall establishment just off Santa Fe Avenue that’s about to turn two years old this summer. You’ll find all the classic options on the menu board inside, from ribs to brisket, but owner Ray Ramirez is cooking up really inventive stuff every day.
Almost two years in, he’s beginning to hit his stride
A longtime Huntington Park resident, Ramirez is somewhat known in the community thanks to years spent in his backyard smoking meats. The self-taught pitmaster heard from friends and family for years that he should expand his private repertoire and open a real place of his own, which culminated in a small Kickstarter campaign and a late summer 2014 opening at the restaurant’s current location.
The first year offered a steep learning curve for Ramirez as he navigated not only city and state regulations but the prospects of truly scaling up his recipes to serve customers all day long. Now, almost two years in, he’s beginning to hit his stride.
The focus at Ray’s BBQ has always been on Texas-style dry rub smoked meats, with brisket as the centerpiece. Spare ribs were an early option that have since been swapped out for meatier baby backs, and the restaurant’s reliance on more comfortable fare like hamburgers has disappeared completely.
Instead, Ramirez has spent his time dialing in the things he knows already work, contracting with the same purveyors over time to get preferred cuts of meat and then pushing the envelope on what’s possible with the results. He’s also built a vocal fanbase of Yelpers, Facebook friends, and Instagram followers eager to try his beef rib specials and Texas-imported hot links — though it’s what’s just beyond the usual barbecue fare that’s drawing the most eyeballs at the moment.
First up, the brisket nachos. It’s an unholy combination just about anywhere in the Lone Star state, but at Ray’s they’ve become fan favorites. Meant for sharing, each massive tub of tortilla chips comes slathered with melty nacho cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo. Mixed in are thick chunks of delicate Creekstone Farms Angus brisket, cubed for ease of eating but otherwise left unadulterated from the blackened, bark-laden whole briskets he slices off and serves to customers daily. It’s a union out of place within much of the traditional barbecue world, but one that fits perfectly in Huntington Park.
A little stunt-y and very unwieldy...it's pretty damn tasty
And then there are the burritos, massive wrappings stuffed with actual mac & cheese. There’s a brisket, macaroni, and barbecue beans option that ranks among the most popular combinations, while the fully loaded version includes snips of hot link and weighs in at about two pounds. It’s a little stunt-y and very unwieldy as a pure calorie device, but the thing photographs well and has become something of a challenge item for those dining in. It’s certainly one way to create buzz for the restaurant too, and it doesn’t hurt that, when slathered with a bit of mild barbecue sauce, it’s pretty damn tasty.
It’s in those burritos, or the new off-menu brisket tacos with guacamole, that Ray’s BBQ — and Ray Ramirez in particular — has come to find a sense of belonging. In a city like Los Angeles, where world-class barbecue can be hard to come by but strip mall restaurants are a dime a dozen, it can be difficult to stand out
And so, using the tools around him, whether it be years of taking trips and reading barbecue forums online, Ray’s has become a stomping ground for Huntington Park denizens to be proud of. While Ramirez continues to search, like many pitmasters before him, for that perfectly smoked Texas-style brisket, the folks lining up in increasing numbers at the front counter are already happy with what he’s serving. Even if, on occasion, the barbecue doesn’t conform to what all those bloggers think.
Ray's BBQ is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 6038 Santa Fe Ave., Huntington Park, CA.