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Master in the Kitchen: Maria Ramos of Gish Bac

One of LA’s most celebrated Oaxacan restaurants has a standout chef at the helm

Maria and David Ramos of Gish Bac
Maria and David Ramos of Gish Bac
Matthew Kang

Oaxacalifornia fosters a deep connection to the district of Tlacolula de Matamoros, the Central Valley, and Oaxaca’s Zapotec community. The city of Tlacolula is famed throughout the food world for its Sunday market, which is one of the oldest running markets in Mezoamerica, where you’ll find Zapotec women stirring tejate with colorful gourds, a smoky hall of grilled Oaxacan meats, large baskets brimming with cooked crickets, empanadas full of yellow mole, and goat barbacoa, the most celebrated tradition in the bazaar.

For two generations, Maria Ramos’s family butchered goats and made goat barbacoa — they also shared their knowledge with many of the stands operating today in the market. But Maria didn’t come to America to cook goat; she came here with her husband, David, to pursue other dreams.

When they arrived in 1992, finding work in Los Angeles wasn’t as easy as they imagined, so Maria and David began making goat barbacoa, mole negro, and other Oaxacan dishes for Oaxacan and Central American weddings and parties. In the following years, people were begging Maria to open a restaurant, so the Tlacolulan community would have a place to enjoy goat barbacoa on the weekends — in 2010, Maria and David opened an Arlington Heights spot called Gish Bac, which means “Tlacolula” in Zapotec.

Gish Bac is the most respected Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles among Oaxacans, primarily for its leadership in putting on events like the Feria de Tejate (Tejate Festival) and for Maria’s barbacoa enchilada (goat barbacoa). On the weekends, Maria, a third-generation barbacoa master, prepares an aromatic paste of chiles, herbs, spices and other ingredients on fresh goat, then roasts it in a pot. The drippings and paste are used to make a rich, perfumed stock that’s served with the goat.

Traditional cooks like Maria hold a special place in the Mexican kitchen, and the pre-Hispanic techniques of barbacoa, or barbecue, are essentials in a cuisine whose primary flavor is smoke. From the Tlacolula Market to Arlington Heights, Maria Ramos has attained a level of craft that makes Oaxacalifornia a destination for Oaxacan cuisine.

Gish Bac dish
Barbacoa enchilada at Gish Bac
Matthew Kang
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