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The last time I talked to Rene “Ray” Ramirez was inside his restaurant, Ray’s Texas BBQ in Huntington Park, California in 2018. He was a year removed from a visit by a Los Angeles Times food critic, the late Jonathan Gold, and was still giddy over the legendary tastemaker praising his brisket. Ramirez also shared his excitement about a barbecue research trip he had planned with his son Sebastian to North Carolina after many previous visits to Texas. This past week, I visited the restaurant again, and talked with Sebastian and his younger brother Raul, who are still grieving the loss of their father ten months ago. Sebastian said I saw Ray at a high point in his career in 2018, but his depression was ever present. “The last two years, I saw my dad falling apart,” he said. Ray took his own life on February 7 at the age of 47, leaving behind his two sons, a young daughter, and his wife, Anabell. 

That terrible day was a Monday, and the following day, Anabell huddled with Sebastian, Raul, and their longtime employee and family friend Laura Sandoval to carve a path forward. “She is the one who told us we were going to open up Wednesday because that was going to be our therapy,” Sebastian recalled about his mother’s message. The restaurant closed for only a day. “My dad left a legacy that my mother, brother, and I will carry on for generations to come,” Sebastian wrote in a Ray’s Texas BBQ Instagram post welcoming customers back. The emotional strife was hard enough to overcome, but there was another hurdle the family was just coming to grips with: None of them had really cooked the barbecue before. “My first experience with real barbecue was after my dad passed away,” Sebastian admitted.

“He was a little impatient when it came to teaching, and always wanted to keep the standard high,” Raul said. (Here’s a full interview with Ray in 2017 by Kevin’s BBQ Joints.) Ray was hands on; he was a perfectionist. Sebastian remembers only once when his dad let him trim brisket. Ray encouraged them to watch, but rarely let them actually work with the meat. “He never let me get my hands dirty,” Sebastian said, which made him consider looking for a job other than running the register at the family’s restaurant. Today, he’s glad he stuck around, saying “[barbecue] was a passion we always had, and we are finally able to show it.”

“The first two months were a rough two months,” Raul said about reopening after his dad’s passing. Customers came out to support the restaurant after the tragedy, and the family wanted to give their best effort. “We didn’t want people to know we didn’t know what we were doing,” Sebastian said. Twenty-year-old Raul put college on hold to share pitmaster duties with Sebastian, 24. Anabell continued preparing the sides, and Sandoval still slices all the meat to order. The brothers were quick learners, identifying the hot spots within the pit room’s two J&R Smoke-Master smokers, but not before screwing up several briskets. Getting the fires to burn clean was also a challenge at first. “Thankfully, we’re at a better place now,” Sebastian said. 

The Ramirez family photographed in 2018.
Rene “Ray” Ramirez, left, with Anabell and Sebastian, photographed in 2018. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
A spread from Ray's Texas BBQ.
A spread from Ray’s Texas BBQ. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Whenever they were stuck, they consulted with their late father through the video instructions he had filmed for them. “The first few times I had to grab [my dad’s] phone to see the photos and the videos he had made,” Sebastian said. “It was like reopening the wound, but also he was putting me and my brother on track.” In one of those videos on brisket trimming, Sebastian had captured the first time Ray broke down and shared the story of the childhood abuse he suffered. In tears, Sebastian told me the trauma lingered in Ray’s nightmares that haunted him until the end. His father’s death was devastating, but with that understanding, Sebastian focused on forgiveness.

The family persevered and are serving barbecue that would make Ray proud. The brisket had that smoke ring Ray always strived for, and the smokiness and tenderness were just right. They hadn’t started making their own sausage the last time I visited, so the house-made jalapeño and cheese links were a pleasant surprise on this recent stop. Raul riffed with some seasonings and sauce to give the pork ribs a unique vinegary tang to balance the sweetness. Ray told me back in 2018, about his barbecue, “the reason I’m so proud of it is because nobody taught me how to do it.” That might explain why he couldn’t relinquish those responsibilities when he was running the restaurant, but his sons have found him to be an invaluable teacher after his passing. 

Raul and Sebastian want to deepen their knowledge with a barbecue trip of their own. They’re planning a tour of Texas next year to explore the newly famous joints that are open to teaching them about Texas barbecue. “We gotta try Goldee’s,” Sebastian said excitedly.

“Barbecue is a very macho thing to do,” Sebastian observed, so he feels it important to share the truth of his family’s tragedy after seeing his dad try to hide his own stress and anxiety for years. “My therapy is smoking [meat] and telling everyone we know our story,” he said. He also shared a conversation he had with Ray at the beginning of this year. “I told my dad that it was going to be the worst year, but also the best year,” Sebastian said, and Ray had agreed. They were hopeful about the business’s growth after the COVID shutdowns, but knew they would face inflation and a challenging economy.

The Ramirez family continues to grieve the loss that rendered Sebastian’s words sadly prophetic, but they’re also trying to focus on their new gifts. They’ve reconnected with many customers they hadn’t seen in years, and just two months ago, Sebastian and his girlfriend Evelyn had a baby boy. They were waiting to share the news with their parents until the pregnancy was further along. Ray died not knowing he was going to be a grandfather. “I wanted the little baby to lift him up,” Sebastian told me in tears. But he knows Ray is watching over them all. In the early morning when he arrives to tend the pits, Sebastian said, “I walk in here and feel like my dad’s here.”

Ray’s Texas BBQ
6038 Santa Fe Avenue, Huntington Park, California
Phone: 310-689-6353
Hours: Tues-Sat 10-3
Pitmasters: Sebastian and Raul Ramirez
Method: Mesquite and oak in a cabinet smoker
Year opened: 2014