Javier Ramos is one to watch. The LA native and former chef de cuisine at Silver Lake’s Sqirl has established a track record of crafting inventive plates, utilizing peak-season produce and a knack for fermentation, gaining a devoted following in the process. Now at Trois Familia—and on the cusp of opening his own neighborhood eatery—the chef is on a path to reinvent Los Angeles cuisine.
Ramos’ foray into cooking was a serendipitous one. He took his first kitchen job in Downey, an inland suburb of Los Angeles, to make money so he could go on tour with his friends’ band. Instead, he got hooked, following up that experience with culinary school in Chicago, and eventually honing his chops in some of the city’s star-studded restaurants.
The chef attributes his technical skills to stints at the now-closed Nightwood—under chefs Jason Vincent (currently of Giant) and Jason Hammel (currently of Lula Café)—and at the Midwest city’s Vie, working for Paul Virant, when the restaurant gained its first and second Michelin star. Paul Virant championed relationships with farmers, and when it came time to make the most of those farmers’ ingredients, Chicago’s harsh winters were rich in lessons: “I learned how to preserve properly, ferment, make jams, and plan,” Ramos says.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, duo Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo had just opened Animal (2008). The restaurant marked an inflection point for the local food scene—and it was Ramos’ impetus for returning home. “At the time, Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton were kind of running LA, and [Jon and Vinny] were the edgy [new] dudes,” he says. Before embarking on a more progressive path, Ramos had to first deepen his expertise in the fundamentals of cooking, so he returned to Goin’s iconic West Hollywood restaurant, Lucques, and, following a three-year stint, landed at Sqirl. It was at the pioneering Silver Lake eatery helmed by Jessica Koslow that Ramos’ ambition began to run wild.
Given California’s year-round abundance of produce, contending with the shorter seasons of the Midwest regions was no longer an issue. “It’s the opposite structure: There’s so much [produce] to take advantage of. You have to preserve so that you’re not letting farmers’ work go to waste.” That ethos fueled Ramos’ creative process at Sqirl, where he never repeated a daily special. Add to that a burning desire to advance, a penchant for nostalgia, and a steady stream of inspiration from local eateries, and you get Javier Ramos in a nutshell.
Now in his new venture at Trois Familia, the chef is no longer at Sqirl, but he hasn’t left the neighborhood. In preparation to open his own restaurant, Ramos has been testing dishes at the Silver Lake mainstay. His residency started at the end of January, promising a rotating menu, his favorite songs, and pours by Helen’s Wines—every Tuesday and Wednesday night. He’s calling it El Vy, and it’s been very well-received; Last week, owners Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo, and Ludo Lefebvre announced that they will close Trois Familia and flip it to a new restaurant, to be overseen by Ramos. (Until the team obtains the proper permits to remodel, the chef has been granted more days to cook his pop-up menu: Trois Familia will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, with Ramos in the kitchen from Wednesday through Sunday.)
This means, to the delight of Ramos’ new crop of regular diners, his signature dishes are here to stay. The chef has developed a small handful of staples over the past six months, each representative of his style in distinct ways. One of them, a braised cabbage number (with puffed meyer lemon, dehydrated sauerkraut, and avocado seed tahini) was inspired by a Mexican braised stew that his mom used to make. “The cabbage would always stick to the bottom of the pot and get overcooked, but it would caramelize,” he says. “That was always my favorite bite.” Another is a white sweet potato dish that was born after the neighbors down the street at Mh Zh gifted Ramos “a circus” of dates and herbs. He decided to root the dish in sweet potato as an homage to the restaurant, since they have their own sweet potato dish that he loves, landing on a popular creation with spiced yogurt, hoja santa oil, spicy mustard greens, and dates marinated in chamomile salt.
“I always tell people I’m degenerately putting food on [the menu],” Ramos laughs. “Everybody thinks I’m joking when I say that junk food inspires me, but it really does.” Take his chicken wings, for example: his recipe began with a surplus—this time of fermented tomatillos and fermented chilies—and developed from a desire to channel his favorite, super-crispy wings from OB Bear, a storied KTown bar. When you take a bite, your teeth rip through an extraordinarily delicate crackle of fried skin and an even layering of spice coats your tongue.
Whether or not to put a burger on the menu is a predicament that Ramos shares with many chefs. “Because no matter how good your food is, people are always going to order the burger,” he explains. Yet his version—comprised of ground chuck combined with dry-aged scraps, brushed with tallow for a beefy flavor, melted with Kraft singles, slathered with lemony aioli, and topped with acidic pickles on a squishy bun—“inadvertently stole the show.” And he’s not mad about it. “We’re not trying to be pretentious,” he says. “We’re just trying to make food that seems approachable.” Ramos’ ultimate goal is to evoke a sense of familiarity for diners, while still offering something that tastes different from anything they’ve had before. That narrative comes full circle for guests who finish their meal with his donut: a light and airy specimen that’s dipped in a butterscotch coating. “The butterscotch lacquers and creates this magic shell, so that when you bite into it, it snaps,” Ramos tells us with a smile.
When Ramos’ still unnamed restaurant finally opens, his creations will have a leg up in the race to become iconic LA dishes. After all, they’re already in conversation with some of the city’s great bites. Diners can also look forward to the seasonally-inspired concoctions he’s bound to whip up from the market’s bounty. One thing that’s guaranteed to be part of the experience is music. Ramos already has two playlists he’s happy with, loaded with Sonic Youth, Portishead, and, naturally, a few local bands.