In Simi Valley, the suburban city tucked into the southeast corner of Ventura County, there is a garage. It’s on a cul-de-sac, wrapped in stucco, with a small clutter of items littering the double-wide driveway in front. You know the garage — every suburban community in Southern California has them. But inside this garage is a small brigade of cooks and runners, turning out what is almost certainly the best food for many miles. Tables lifted by paint cans do triple duty as prep and cook areas, packing lines, and a more traditional kitchen expo station. A singular voice calls out each dish; “heard,” the group replies in unison, checking off a list taped to the fridge. They eyeball remaining stock levels of brisket, pit-smoked char siu ribs, Portuguese sweet breads, or homemade kimchi.
This is Zef BBQ, a do-what-we-want underground family restaurant serving some of the most interesting, and delicious, food in Southern California right now.
That voice, the one giving the marching orders, belongs to Anna Lindsey, one half of the Zef BBQ ownership team. Her chef partner and husband Logan Sandoval is a wrap of tattoos, muscles, and hair, a former mixed martial arts fighter and lifelong corporate cook for the Hyatt hotel chain who now spends his time executing the wildest menus he thinks his neighbors will buy — most of it cooked on open flame or at low heat from a black offset Texas-style smoker in the driveway. Lindsey, Sandoval, and their group of friends and helpers would make a formidable culinary team anywhere. They just happen to be cooking in a garage.
Ten months ago, Zef BBQ didn’t exist. Lindsey and Sandoval were living the itinerant hotel employee life in Monterey, California, her working and raising their young daughter Nalani, and he an executive sous chef overseeing kitchens and staff. By late March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic had torn their routine apart. “I didn’t have any income, Logan was furloughed,” says Lindsey, reflecting on the first wave of the pandemic in California. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The duo had bounced across the country, marking stops in Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and San Diego, among others. He had moved from culinary school and stages at Melisse to picking up sushi tricks at the now-shuttered Japengo in San Diego and winning a food competition show on national television. She had honed a lifetime of hospitality and operations work, learning from her Midwestern chef father while tending bar, then managing fine dining restaurants. Like with so many families across the country, their story was wiped out almost overnight as rolling lockdowns, public health scares, and the decimation of America’s restaurant industry took hold.
Fear and a lack of money can be great motivators. One way or another, it all led to the garage and Zef BBQ.
Without options, the two decided to return to Simi Valley, Sandoval’s hometown, and hunker down with family. Except Sandoval can’t sit still. “He’s the hardest working person in any room,” says Lindsey, laughing. “We took the train home from Monterey on a Saturday night. We talked about it on Sunday, that Wednesday we released our first menu, and cooked that weekend. We set it to 35 orders and sold out in 23 minutes, and we thought ‘Holy shit, maybe this is something we can do.’”
Like many underground upstarts in greater Los Angeles these days, Zef has been honed through social media. Friends, family members, neighbors, and newcomers wait for Wednesday menu drops before deciding what to order for the week. Enrique Duran, who runs food during service, creates the colorful and ever-changing menu layouts. He also works a full-time job.
So far, Sandoval’s menus have moved from Hawaiian staples like homemade Spam musubi smoked in the driveway to Christmas celebrations with Peking duck. He makes the breads and the smoked wings one week, the chicken mole and galbi another.
“There are certain things that are going sell here,” says Sandoval. “Things that we can make better, but with a common name.” Rice bowls, but with sliced beef ribs, or ramen with glazed pork belly char siu. “I even took a page out of Ivan Orkin’s ramen book and made it with a roasted tomato, and sourced local eggs.”
Smoked meats are the weekly centerpiece, but how they’re used in any given menu is up to the team and to the economics of their community. After all, having the best food in Simi Valley (or Southern California) doesn’t matter if nobody is buying it, so they work together to find a balanced approach. “It’s not just Logan’s baby,” says Lindsey, “it’s our only source of income. Having the help of our friends and family has made this so much easier. These people have the same aspirations for us as we do.”
So far, every week, Simi Valley has shown up for them. Jeeps and trucks line the street for pick-up, masks required. There’s talk of a brewery pop-up, once safe to do so, or a fine dining night out under the stars, complete with tweezer food (another speciality in Sandoval’s broad arsenal) and bottles of wine. It somehow all feels possible in the garage, flanked by friends, calling orders for a community that’s eager to eat.
“If we tried to start this in Monterey or Chicago or anywhere else, we don’t think this would have worked,” says Lindsey. “The type of city that Simi Valley is, everybody knows everybody. This community has been really great for our business. Everything has just fallen into place.”
Zef BBQ is a weekly pop-up in Simi Valley, CA. New menus drop Wednesdays on Instagram, followed by preorders and weekend pick-ups.