On a sunny Saturday in Historic Filipinotown, along tree-lined Bonnie Brae Street, Johneric Concordia paces around the front yard of a gated apartment complex strewn with weathered boxing equipment. Then Concordia, a muscular, stout pugilist with a shaved head, goes back to bobbing his head and swirling his arms, warming up to throw a few punches in the air. Sweat drips from his brow, giving way to a face that alternates between intensity and an easy grin. He still lives in the apartment his parents raised him in; the complex is a daily confirmation of his roots in Historic Filipinotown, and he refuses to leave it. Despite the warmup, there’s no fight to pick here. Instead, it’s just Concordia gearing up to recount the story of how one of LA’s most famous Filipino restaurants came out of the difficult circumstances of growing up in this neighborhood, and how he raised a community of barbecue fans from years of cookouts for friends and family.
When I ask Concordia to take me to the beginning, to talk about how the Park’s Finest barbecue restaurant came to be, he instead walks over to a dusty Weber kettle grill just to the side of the building. He stokes charcoal briquettes, the gray-coated embers sending off wisps of smoke into the densely populated block. He goes back to the boxing area, letting the coals settle into a waning glow. He paces again, swinging his arms, getting ready to jab a heavy punching bag. The workouts are a daily stress reliever and source of mental grounding for the restaurateur, who picked up the hobby as a means of prioritizing his health. The smoke from the grill surrounds the concrete around him, like an aura of strength.
The smell, the ethereal aroma of charcoal, is familiar to anyone who has walked the culturally rich, diverse neighborhoods shooting off from Downtown — places like Boyle Heights, East LA, Rampart, and Westlake. Here, backyard barbecues rule the weekend. Concordia doesn’t answer my question about how his barbecue operation launched back in 2009, or how he operated LA’s top-rated restaurant on Yelp for more than a decade. Instead, he goes back to talking about the neighborhood.
Speaking of his family and friends who grew up in Historic Filipinotown and the adjacent Rampart neighborhood, Concordia says “we didn’t bang and we didn’t tag, but we did throw dope parties.” The neighborhood suffered through years of gang violence when he was growing up here in the 1990s, he says. “Everybody has a crew. We were the barbecue crew.” Back then, Concordia and his friends would walk two miles over to Glendale Boulevard to a comic book shop called World’s Finest (where Hard Times Pizza is now). He recalls passing through upwards of 10 gang territories along the way. Concordia says he even witnessed a drive-by shooting as his father was dropping him off at school. But when he was about 12, a youth organizer named Lalee Vicedo got Concordia and his friends involved in a community program. Concordia believes Vicedo and her outreach are why he and his friends stayed away from gangs and found another way to engage with the neighborhood.
In the ’90s, Los Angeles was trying to reshape its image after the 1992 uprising, an event that laid bare the city’s racial and socioeconomic disparities. The decades that followed saw booming real estate development and economic growth from the tech and film industries, and beginning in the mid-2000s, Downtown LA began to be revitalized as a bona fide neighborhood and nightlife district, leading to a narrative of urban renewal and adaptive reuse of the central business district. But it was clear that prosperity had not trickled down to lesser-known neighborhoods to the west of Downtown, areas like Rampart, Historic Filipinotown, Echo Park (before it gentrified), and Westlake. Despite gang violence in the 1990s and turbulent economic conditions in the 2000s, Concordia found himself more deeply enmeshed with local community groups to help galvanize residents and retain the character of Historic Filipinotown. “We joined all the activist rallies, World War II veterans’ rights rallies. We were part of the Koreatown Youth Community Center, the Chinatown Service Center. All these nonprofits that were involved in the Asian American movement. And afterward, we never went home hungry because my mom cooked for us. I learned to cook from our family parties,” says Concordia.
It was through these meals, these ragtag feasts using whatever ingredients he could find, that Concordia learned the power of feeding people, and the community that effort can build. “Food is a vehicle to feed the spirit,” he says. He was always ready to call up friends and family to come over for an impromptu cookout. “We’d see 26-cent-per-pound chicken thighs at Seafood City and pick up 40 pounds. Then we would season the thighs with whatever was in the pantry: salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion dry rub. You take coals and get the Weber grill hot. You get 40 pounds of chicken and you’re suffocating it with the heat. Burn it hot, and don’t touch it. After an hour, you gotta move fast and then rotate the browned chicken so it can render for another 30 minutes.” Concordia’s technique and mastery of a kettle grill might surpass anyone else’s in LA.
The foundation of Concordia’s barbecue comes from the sauce his father designed during his time in the Navy. “Tomato, brown sugar, pineapple, garlic, onion, and 7 Up. You just slop that on the chicken, giving it a candy-coated garlic sugary sauce that you could smell. For $10, you could throw a party right there.” Flavors and sauces weren’t so much exact recipes as impromptu assemblages of pantry ingredients. One trademark, a peculiarity Concordia insists is patently Filipino, is making sure the dry rub and sauce have a bit of texture, like the flakes of dried onion or garlic.
Concordia, who sometimes jumps around trying to explain his cooking techniques, can’t help but reminisce about why he loves doing barbecue in the first place. To him, a great neighborhood party has the same emotional imprint as a vintage wine. “Those memories last in your head for a lifetime. The food isn’t always the centerpiece of those parties, but they [people in the neighborhood] come because they know there’s food there.” Our first conversation ends after 90 minutes, but not before Concordia brings out a Tupperware that’s half full of congealed coconut beef he’d made the day prior. I take it home, scrape out a large spoonful, and warm it over a skillet. The fat dissipates into a glistening sauce, and the smoky, chopped beef melts in my mouth like a piece of warm coconut-covered chocolate.
It was through years of cooking like this — feeding weary Angelenos who were living in ungentrified, under-resourced neighborhoods and scraping by on tight budgets despite a rapidly growing LA economy, that Concordia found his calling. While working at Long Beach Airport, he was asked to cook for 300 people at a fundraiser, which required him to set up backyard grills and flip chickens at a volume he wasn’t prepared for. “I was running five grills and sweating my ass off, hosting the party but also flipping chickens,” says Concordia. The gig taught him a tough lesson: That cooking for a few dozen or maybe even 50 people in the neighborhood next to his apartment was one thing, but throwing a corporate event for hundreds was another ball game altogether. The cookout showed him that maybe he could make a living out of barbecuing. But he needed more training. He went to his community groups for resources, eventually connecting with Michael Lao, the department chair of hospitality and tourism at Glendale Community College.
Lao was a Chinese-Filipino businessman who’d operated two Jack in the Box franchises and helped open 52 Tony Roma’s locations in the U.S. and throughout Asia before retiring to teach LA locals how to open restaurants. He famously guided the Zankou family’s expansion of their restaurant Zankou Chicken, and mentored Betty Porto of the popular Porto’s Bakery. Lao looked at the business plan Concordia had devised with his girlfriend (now wife), Christine Araquel, and basically told them it had little chance of success. But then he tried the ribs. “You guys got legs,” Lao said, knowing they could bank on selling to community groups, nonprofits, and the friends they’d made over the years. They named their operation the Park’s Finest, an homage to the comic book store of Concordia’s youth and the neighborhood of Echo Park, along with the other parks in the area where they grilled meat and hosted parties. And the menu was simple: Just sell what they were already cooking.
Prior to opening in 2009, Concordia’s only restaurant work was as a host at Denny’s for a few months. His cooking background, though extensive, was informal. The prospect of developing a menu and starting a business was beyond daunting, especially for someone without vast financial resources or significant experience in the industry. But he knew he didn’t have to do it alone. Christine Concordia-Araquel (who married Concordia a year after opening) was the closest thing to an operations director for the restaurant; she provided valuable assistance with menu development, inventory, billing, marketing, and customer service. Two other neighborhood friends, Mike and Ann Pajimula, worked regularly as partners for the restaurant. Mike tackled repairs and maintenance while Ann helped with the sheer amount of cooking and baking necessary to meet what they hoped would be mounting demand. With their motley team in place, they launched their small catering company.
After three years, the team had developed a set of backyard-barbecue-inspired dishes, like smoked top round coconut beef, smoked pork ribs, rib tips, crispy smoke-roasted chicken, sliced spicy sausages, and sweet longanisa. Concordia strung together a few lucky breaks, including taking a $700 tax refund to invest in the Vegas-based Sands Corporation, whose stock hit a low of $1.25 during the recession. He sold the shares for a tidy profit a while later and bought a $10,000 commercial Traeger smoker to use for the catering business. They saved up and waited for the right location, settling on a ground floor space of an hourly hotel that used to be protected by local yakuza. The four partners scraped together $25,000 from friends and family, taking a few weeks to fix up the kitchen and piece together a spartan dining room.
After opening, word of mouth spread not only through community organizations but also on Yelp, which consistently honored the Park’s Finest as the highest-rated restaurant in Los Angeles from 2012 to well into the decade. Anyone consulting Yelp during those days would see the Park’s Finest listed on the homepage as LA’s top restaurant. Early on, Concordia was still cooking what he knew from those backyard barbecues of his youth, but as he became entrenched in LA’s culinary community, he started to put more emphasis on the menu’s Filipino influences and roots. He and the team refined recipes and crafted a cohesive menu of American barbecue items. The meats are named after specific regions in the Philippines, like Mt. Malindang pork ribs or the San Pablo pulled pork, while other dishes like Ann’s cornbread bibingka or Noel’s smoked gouda mac pay homage to their creators.
“Our method was always trial and error at those parties,” he says. “Our cooking style was based on necessity. I’ve never done competitions or battles. I never think, ‘I’m going to crush them.’ The Park’s Finest is more of a feeling, an attitude to enjoy this food together, which is a very Filipino spirit.” Instead of typical Texas sausage, the Park’s Finest smokes up Martin Purefoods longanisa, a slightly sweet link immediately recognizable to many Filipino Americans. The signature coconut beef gains 16 hours of heady smoke flavor before getting cubed and stewed in coconut cream, vinegar, chile, and fish sauce. The hearty dish, thick with the pale greasy sauce holding together the tender meat and tickled with a vinegary tang, is perfect when spooned over a bed of steamed rice. The cornbread bibingka is a modern LA icon that uses rice flour and cornmeal to merge the familiar Filipino dessert with an underappreciated barbecue side.
The early days were still a struggle despite the good buzz and community support. The restaurant wasn’t turning a profit, and a lot of meat would go to waste when customers didn’t show up on a regular basis. But even more than the sporadically uneven revenue, what bothered Concordia was the constant criticism that his food wasn’t Filipino enough. The issue was that he was using Filipino ingredients and flavors but presenting them as American-style barbecue. Traditional Filipino barbecue is skewered meats slathered with sweet sauce and grilled over direct heat; the Park’s Finest uses low-and-slow heat, with Filipino seasonings.
Concordia says he was ready to close in 2013 until he got a call from a producer to shoot a segment on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. That helped catapult the restaurant to new recognition, and since then it has turned a profit. A sign hanging inside the restaurant reminds the staff of Fieri’s impact.
A few weeks after our interview on that sunny Saturday on Bonnie Brae Street, Concordia and I were sitting on the terrace of Thunderbolt, the cocktail bar he and Araquel-Concordia opened with Michael Capoferri, and Rahul Marwah (of the Denco Family of restaurants and hotels) adjacent to the Park’s Finest. We were talking about the sting of criticism, and perhaps envy, from a small but vocal minority who find every opportunity to diminish the restaurant’s accomplishments. “How has this food [Filipino cuisine] traversed the world and ended up on this block of Temple Street?” he asks. One of the ongoing laments of the Filipino community in America is always that certain dishes can’t match the goodness of what their mom makes at home. “A lot of these motherfuckers [the critics] are keyboard warriors. [They need to] study this shit. Those that want to nitpick, let’s sit down and figure it out,” he says.
Concordia knows the fight will come back once the Park’s Finest reopens to the public. But for the past 16 months, the barbecue joint has been closed, operating only as what might be the city’s most dedicated effort to feed essential health care workers. Dubbed Feed the Frontliners, the restaurant took in tens of thousands of dollars in donations to prepare more than 90,000 meals for first responders, nurses, doctors, and health care workers. Araquel-Concordia was the primary delivery person, while the remaining hired staff stayed to cook for the frontliners. The Park’s Finest still doesn’t have a reopening date, though Thunderbolt, which originally opened in the space next door in late 2019, is back to shaking some of the best cocktails in town.
On July 18, the Park’s Finest was inching back to service form, the dining room cleared and the kitchen buzzing again with cooks slicing meat and inspecting trays of tri-tip in the smokers. The team has gathered for a one-day friends and family preview of the reopening, coupled with dragon dancing and over 600 firecrackers set to go off on the sidewalk. While a major plumbing job linking the building to the main line still needs final approval from the city before the restaurant can fully reopen, Concordia thinks the Park’s Finest will be back in business in late August. This invite-only test run is an event for the restaurant’s longtime supporters. With more than 16 months since the staff last served a paying customer, it’ll take time for everyone to get back to speed. But when they do, people will once again taste the sweet and sour, the smoky and textured barbecue of Historic Filipinotown, and see what a lifetime of community service will do to help write the Park’s Finest’s next chapter.
The Park’s Finest Barbecue has been closed since March 2020, but plans to reopen in August 2021.