In the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the beef tri-tip, ribs and sauces that turn taste buds into tentacles are at The Park’s Finest BBQ Restaurant. If that sounds like hyperbole, just ask Stevie Wonder, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Kevin James or Guy Fieri. I name-drop without the assumption that nobody reading this profile of Chief Chef Johneric Concordia, age 36, can actually contact those celebrities.
Park’s Finest was started by Johneric, his wife Christine Araquel-Concordia, friends Michael and Ann Pajimula, and Oscar Bautista as a catering business in 2009. After hovering among the top Los Angeles “restaurants” on Yelp for two years, the group knew they had a prophecy to fulfill and made the transition from wedding parties, quinceañeras and bar mitzvahs to a sit-down restaurant in 2011. It’s located at 1267 W. Temple Street among the Echo Park residents who raised Johneric.
The Difference Between Innovating and Improvising
Johneric never went to culinary school and does not identify with the new crop of Los Angeles innovators, such as Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, Roy Choi of Chego and Kogi, and Jesse Barber of Dudley Market. There isn’t a pair of tweezers in his kitchen and if there’s a blowtorch, what’s cooler than a blowtorch?
Johneric carries on the tradition of his father, Antonio “Big Tony” Concordia, a Batangas City native, who still comes to parties to man the barbecue, making do with whatever ingredients he can scavenge in the host’s kitchen.
“Salty, savory, spicy, sweet, whatever makes the sauce complete,” Johneric recites a family rhyme. “If there’s no brown sugar in the cupboard, I can use Tang, cranberry sauce or 7 Up for the sweet side of the sauce.”
Once he became known as the "Barbecue Brother" to invite to every Echo Park cookout, he was expected to bring Big Tony's signature barbecue sauce made of soy sauce, pineapple, tomato and brown sugar.
One result of Johneric’s improvising is a white barbecue sauce made of Mexican crema, atomic horseradish, and pink sea salt. Flavoring Filipino recipes with Hispanic and other ethnic seasonings is unique yet sensible considering Echo Park is located within Historic Filipino Town.
“Our barbecue doesn’t cater to the mainstream palate. You’ll notice that we use white rice as the starch while mashed potatoes are typical among barbecue restaurants.” Johneric further elaborated, “As Filipinos, we like salt, pepper, garlic and onion seasonings with our blend, and texture.”
Among the choices on a small menu, Filipinos will recognize Ann’s Cornbread Babingka, Elote, Ligaya Veggie Medley, Mt. Mayon Hot Link Medley, Mt. Taal Chicken, Mt. Malindang Pork Ribs and Riblets, and Leah’s Coconut Beef as a variation, and arguably an improvement, on Ginataang Baka. Leah is the chef’s mother, Leah Concordia.
“We serve our sauces on the side,” Johneric added as a characteristic of Filipino cooking. Based on this cultural proclivity, he knows barbecue is good “if the meat can stand alone without marinade and sauces and if the texture and flavor profile can be enjoyed by itself. Then we enhance the taste with a sauce or several sauces.”
True to his underclass roots, Park’s Finest sauces aren’t thick for slathering on like a capitalistic extravagance. It might take BBQ lovers more than a single dipping to adjust to sauces without the viscosity of syrup.
The First Destination for Antarctic Explorers on Leave
Hugo Hernandez glories in his legal troubles because the thirty-mile drive from West Covina to downtown Los Angeles to see his lawyer is always capped off with a stop at Park’s Finest. “The coconut beef is freaking awesome.” His advice to others making the trek: “Come hungry.” He then gave his heavy sack of takeout a shake to corroborate his testimony.
For a restaurant that doesn’t court the lowest common denominator of diners, Park’s Finest casts a wide net. It’s a favorite hangout of German tourists though word of mouth extends as far away as Antarctica. Researchers from the United States Antarctic Program make a beeline to the restaurant when on leave from the South Pole. Dodger Stadium is a mile from Echo Park, but Johneric’s restaurant becomes neutral territory when fans from the archrival San Francisco Giants invade the area.
Some diners travel amazing distances for the ribs and rice. Johneric Concordia, too, has come a long way. The Park’s Finest BBQ is a distinctly Los Angeles success story about a boy who started out among the at-risk youth Echo Park nonprofits, including Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), strive to keep out of gangs. Johneric is living proof that the guiding principles of his community can succeed. “You have to keep kids engaged through activities like community cleanups,” he said. “And you give them something to eat.”
Anthony Maddela seldom eats at the restaurants of the chefs he profiles for lack of an expense account, but he gladly swiped his debit card for Park’s Finest. He is always writing. He thinks his original hometown of Seattle should be more like his adopted hometown of Los Angeles with a richness of culture.
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