A restaurant industry veteran and son of Los Angeles is giving our city its own version of Chicago’s Italian Beef, the hulking sandwich given the spotlight through season one on FX’s show The Bear.
Manny Gonzales, owner and chef of Quemada Tacos, recently unleashed El Oso on The City of Angeles at his pop-up restaurant. A take on Italian Beef using Mexican-inspired ingredients, El Oso takes the form of a soft, hot, Pico Rivera-sourced bolillo packed with beef cheek barbacoa dipped into a demi glaze made by reducing the meat’s braising liquid and accented with pickled escabeche.
Gonzales, who was born and raised in Norwalk before his family moved to Pico Rivera in 1991, isn’t afraid of the frenzied demands a hot beef sandwich might forebode, nor the heat of cooking professionally alongside loved ones, as depicted in the show.
After graduating high school in 2003, it was his dad who reached out to an acquaintance to help secure Manny a job at Disneyland, where he started out washing dishes and serving drinks.
“It was just a summer job,” he recalls. “A summer job that blossomed into 14 years.”
Climbing the rungs of restaurant industry advancement, Gonzales would eventually be named sous chef before helping to open Cars Land and tackling R&D and guest research for the entire resort. In 2016, he left to become a general manager of several Westside locations of the Sweetgreen chain, including Marina del Rey, which he says was the highest grossing location of the pandemic.
Gonzales left the company in the middle of 2020 and found himself at a crossroads, full of passion to strike out on his own. He initially began making his own nixtamal at home to sell to friends and family, growing to his own backyard pop-ups highlighting tortillas and salsa, then serving as the food vendor at neighborhood markets between booths selling the stickers and the Crocs.
Today you’re likely to find Quemada Tacos, its tortillas hechos a mano, and menu of Mexican eats on weekends at one of L.A.’s independent breweries. He credits Augustin Ruelas, of Pico Rivera’s Brewjeria, for supporting him with a consistent spot on Sundays, and Angry Egret chef-owner Wes Avila for showing him how a kid from the neighborhood can find success in the culinary world..
“When I got to meet him briefly years ago, it was a turning point,” Gonzales says. “I thought if this gentleman from Pico could do it, then so could I.”
He named the pop-up Quemada, which means burned or scorched, after the sense memories of stepping into his grandma’s kitchen when he’d get home from private Catholic high school each day.
“The name is an ode to my upbringing,” he tells TACO. “My nana would be making tortillas a la mano, fresh. You come in to the house and that burning flour, that aroma, just overfills the home, and that’s why that word resonates with me. As soon as I came home at 3:30, I’d have like three tortillas with butter and another four with dinner. And maybe one more with sugar at the end of the night. Oh my god. Those were the best feelings, and I wanted to bring her out of it with the name and just bring it all together.”
Manny usually has a handful of his best friends helping out with the business. Naturally, The Bear’s depiction of kitchen leadership and working alongside family resonated deeply with him.
“It’s a family affair,” he says. “That show hit so many parts of what it is working in the kitchen and working with family. It kind of hit home a little bit.”
An Angeleno with heritage from Jalisco, Leon, and Guanajuato, it wasn’t long before he had visions of making his own Mexican beef dip. Sharing this idea with his crew, someone brought up the sandwich on The Bear. And this, El Oso, aka “the bear,” was conceived: a heap of super tender, thinly sliced, braised beef cheeks between a bolillo purchased from a small bakery at Slauson and Rosemead, saturated with reduced beef au jus in an explosion of umami that gets somewhat disciplined by micro cilantro, onions, and a side of pickled jalapenos and cauliflower in place of the giadiniera found with the Italian version.
“As soon as you put that pickled jalapeno and pickled cauliflower bite with it, everything just comes together,” he says. “You get the fat, you get the acid, the salt. It all comes together at that point.”
Find El Oso at Quemada Tacos through spring, along with its short rib barbacoa and yuzu aioli-assisted, battered fish taco on a blue corn tortilla, at its regular brewery pop-ups. The next will be Saturday, December 10, at El Segundo Brewing, followed by Sunday, December 18, at Brewjeria in Pico Rivera.