It’s hard for Eduardo and Hugo Bolaños to go more than a sentence or two without making each other laugh. Their lightheartedness and joy is evident as they work together in a new Basque-inspired grilled meats pop-up called Búho Rouge, which they opened in early September. Picking up an order outside a condo in east Pasadena, Hugo is manning the grill, which, he explains with a chuckle, was a gift from chef Francis Mallmann, whom he met in Uruguay. Bolaños had invited Mallmann to inaugurate the Summer Barbecue series at the Hotel Bel Air, where Hugo was the executive chef at the time. Eduardo jumps in to add, “Mallmann gave the Patagonian grill to Hugo as a gift for putting the event together.” It’s a token that hints at the brothers’ deep culinary pedigree.
Hugo and Eduardo Bolaños were born in Guatemala. Their father and grandfather ran a butcher shop in Guatemala City’s central market for some 60 years. “We’re very familiar with that no-refrigeration, dried blood smell,” Hugo jokes. The family moved to Pasadena, where a relative was already living, when Hugo was 6 and Eduardo was 2. Settling into their new home, their father found work in the restaurant industry, eventually starting his own catering operation. Hugo jumped into the business wholeheartedly. “I love the setup and breakdown aspect,” he says. “But it was always the camaraderie experience that was amazing.”
From his father’s catering company, Hugo made his way into the kitchen at Spago, where he found a job for Eduardo too. Eduardo quickly fell in love with wine, and approached Spago wine director Chris Miller about his interest. A deal was struck: If Eduardo helped out in the wine cellar, he could take a bottle home every night to study. “Miller would be like, ‘Okay, drink this tonight, and tomorrow tell me about the producer, the region, and the grape,’” Eduardo says.
The experience at Spago opened doors for both of the brothers. Hugo would continue on to Michelin-rated restaurants in Paris and New York, including Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, Babbo, and Le Bernardin. He eventually returned to Southern California to work with Wolfgang Puck at Cut, and became the executive chef at the Hotel Bel Air. Eduardo, meanwhile, sold everything and traveled to Spain to work the wine harvest, then staged at celebrated Basque restaurants Arzak and Akelarre until his money ran out. When he returned to LA, he worked as a sommelier at Chi Spacca and Terroni.
But even back in LA, Hugo’s and Eduardo’s hearts remained in the Basque country. “One of the highlights of my culinary life was celebrating Alain Ducasse’s 60th birthday,” Hugo says of a 2018 experience in San Sebastian, Spain, that included bar-hopping across the city’s legendary pintxo bars and a private tasting menu for the party guests (including Wolfgang Puck) at Restaurante Martín Berasategui. “It was an amazing experience that helped hone in on what we imagined of our restaurant.”
If the brothers had dreamed of their own restaurant for years, their experiences in the Basque country solidified what Búho Rouge would be. “We’d both fallen in love with that area,” Eduardo says. “And we’ve been around long enough to say, Okay, this could be something unique that we’re both passionate about that is different. It’s something LA doesn’t have.” For Hugo, Basque grilling became a passion. The tradition may not be as widely known in America as Southern barbecue or even Brazilian churrasco, Bolaños says, but “it’s about controlling your fire and charcoal to a place that draws out the fat and flavor just right for your final product.”
By the end of 2019, Hugo and Eduardo had found investors and an old house on La Cienega they were set to take over as their restaurant space. “We liked the idea of a local grill that wasn’t overpriced, just homey,” Hugo says. They would offer a few salads, some sides, and American cuts of beef, but would highlight what Hugo refers to as vintage, Galician-style meats, “which is something they do in the Basque country, and in particular with a cut called txuleton.” Txuleton is similar to a bone-in, rib-eye steak, but aged to five years and cooked over oakwood.
In addition to txuleton, Hugo plans to serve other off-cuts, like Butler’s steak (a flat-iron shoulder cut), and an antiquated cut called butcher’s butter. “I found the name in an old English textbook,” Hugo says. The cut is a six- to eight-ounce rib-eye cap that butchers in England used to pilfer for themselves as a prized delicacy. At Búho Rouge, Hugo also plans to grill seafood in the Basque style, like whole turbot and monkfish, on a besuguera he managed to sneak back into the U.S. in his luggage.
The wine list at Búho Rouge was set to feature wines from northern Spain and southern France (also Basque country), “but we’re in California,” Eduardo says. “So we’d have the great wines from out here, too.”
Things were coming together quickly for the brothers. By early March, Hugo was designing a custom grill with J&R Manufacturing in Texas, and the brothers were finalizing the terms of their lease. Then, the pandemic hit.
“I was in Florida and I got a phone call,” Hugo says. “I think the NBA shut down that same weekend, and that was it.” The brothers pulled the plug on their La Cienega plans — a heartbreaking, if forced, hand to play. As Eduardo recalls, “it was something we both have worked on for years, and to have it be ripped away along with our full-time jobs was devastating.”
Like most of the world, the two retreated for several months, only to re-emerge in late summer with their grilled meat pop-up in Pasadena.
According to Eduardo, the pop-up became “a solid thought in August when we realized the pandemic will continue, and we believed in the work we are doing and the food we want to present.” The menu is limited, but includes a skirt steak sandwich on a telera roll and a vegan option, which stands out as a unique offering for a grilled meats menu. The Vale sandwich, as they call it, is an eggplant milanese on a bright red homemade beet telera. “I started playing around with different breads and told myself, what if instead of water I use straight beet juice?” Hugo says. The result is an added layer of heartiness that beefs up (pun very much intended) the eggplant and makes the Vale as filling and delicious as the steak option.
Beyond the two sandwiches, Búho Rouge serves tortilla española (which can also be made vegan), a quinoa salad, and an expertly executed canele with cardamom (a predominant Guatemalan spice) for those with a sweet tooth.
While the pop-up has grown in popularity, and a recent stint at Wexler’s Deli in Grand Central Market has them considering new collaborations, the brothers are back on the hunt for a permanent location. As an oak-burning grill requires a special permit from the city of LA, the brothers note they have been eyeing the former Lucques space for its fireplace, among other locations around town. “We’re not rushing,” Eduardo says, since lease rates are falling and in-room dining isn’t set to reopen anytime soon. “We’re keeping our options open.”