Food for Thought: Joe Romero, The Barbecue King of Greater Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After Laura Temple’s death in late 1922, a friend who’d assisted in her care, Modesta (Maud) Romero Bassity, stayed with the Temple household and eventually became Walter Temple’s paramour, living with him after he left the Homestead in 1930 and spent several years in Baja California and San Diego and returning with him to Los Angeles when his cancer worsened.  He died in November 1938 living at the home of her parents, the late Jose (Joe) Romero and Modesta Carrasco.

It is not known how the Romero and Temple families became acquainted, but it could well have been as far back as the 1870s or 1880s when Joe Romero was a horse trainer of note in Los Angeles, including work on the ranch owned by Dr. John S. Griffin and Hancock Johnston in the community they developed called East Los Angeles, later Lincoln Heights.  It may have been no accident that the Romero home where Walter Temple died was located in that neighborhood.

Los Angeles Herald, 14 July 1890.

Romero, who was born in San Diego in 1852 and came to Los Angeles as a young boy, also became known by about the mid-1880s for his traditional Californio barbecues, including slow-cooked beef, beans and other dishes.  In fact, for over forty years he achieved no small amount of renown in greater Los Angeles as “The Barbecue King.”

As the city and region grew dramatically, so did the scale of his barbecues.  There were numerous examples of how Romero and his crew, including family members, cooked for massive crowds, sometimes in the tens of thousands, for large public events, housing subdivision grand openings, conventions, and others.

Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1902.

One of the earliest documented barbecues led by Romero took place in July 1890 at Sycamore Park, likely Sycamore Grove Park which is still in the Mt. Washington neighborhood along the Arroyo Seco.  The event was hosted by the Iroquois Club, a group that supported the Democratic Party in Los Angeles.  For the “bullshead breakfast”, which literally meant the cooking, serving and eating of ten bull’s heads and a dozen sheep, the Los Angeles Herald of the 14th noted:

The heads and sheep were cooked up under the supervision of the genial Joe Romero, who proved himself an expert in getting up such a spread of such a nature.  The heads and meat were greatly relished and that manner in which it was prepared was a novelty to the many who had never seen anything of that kind before.

Romero seems to have been something of a political “boss” in the ethnically diverse area north of downtown, formerly known as Sonoratown and now part of Chinatown.  For example, there was a report of a fight between Romero and other Latinos in the neighborhood during the height of the Spanish-American War, with the former supposedly defending the United States against the others.  It turned out to be a bad rumor, though the fight did take place, but for purely personal, not partisan, reasons.

Herald, 20 March 1909.

In 1902, the Los Angeles Times reported that Romero hosted a “political barbecue” at his home for the “Spanish-American residents” of his neighborhood.  It was stated that “beef, brains and beauty contested for the supremacy all day” where political office seekers wooed “many of the leading families of Sonoratown.”  A drum corps was followed by guitarists and singers and it was stated that over 200 persons attended the event.

Sometimes the events he cooked for involved elements of early California history.  In 1906, for instance, there was an annual fiesta at the Dominguez Rancho, the headquarters of the family on the Rancho San Pedro.  The family adobe still exists as a historic landmark along with a Catholic seminary in Compton, but, at that time, the family still resided there, specifically María Victoria Dominguez de Carson and her family.  Incidentally, Anita Davoust, whose mother was a Dominguez, married John H. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1888 to 1899, while John’s brother Walter was a close friend of Sra. Carson’s son, David.

Times, 9 September 1913.

As for Romero, he dug massive pits for roasting the meet under wide-ranging willow trees near the adobe house, while there were “great vessels of frijoles, heaping piles of tamales and quantities of enchiladas.”  The other superintendent was Genaro (listed as “Henero”) Ruiz, said to have been a resident of half a century on the ranch, including half of that as a cook.

Another interesting historical event in which Romero was involved was the opening of the Pío Pico Mansion, the Whittier home of the ex-governor who was a neighbor and friend of the Workman and Temple families, in March 1909.  The restoration of the adobe was conducted by a group of Whittier leading lights and, among the many elements of the reception, was a barbecue by Romero, described by the Herald as “a Spanish chef from Los Angeles.”

Times, 6 May 1922.

A unique gathering in February 1924 was what was touted as the first-ever “radio barbecue,” hosted by KHJ, the radio station fairly recently acquired by the Times-Mirror Company, owner of the Times.  Kathryne Thompson’s Southern California Saxophone Band, comprised of male and female musicians, provided the entertainment, while Romero was “chief cook of the big feed.”  This included eight pits sixteen feet long, four-and-a-half feet deep and four feet wide for the roasting of 2,500 pounds of meat.

Large-scale events of a truly massive size would include such examples as the 1922 affair for the “spudding in” or the beginning of drilling, for an oil well south of Norwalk in 1922; a barbecue for the national Shriners convention in 1929; and any number of promotions for real estate subdivision.

Times, 12 November 1922.

In advance of the coming of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which transformed a largely dry San Fernando Valley into a suburban behemoth, the creation of Owensmouth in 1911 meant a big Romero spread.  A couple of years later, the subdividers of Santa Monica Highlands, a tract off San Vicente Boulevard, offered a free barbecue by Romero along with a $500 drawing.

In 1922, the “Barbecue King” provided the food for opening of an industrial district in downtown Los Angeles and its polar opposite, the tony subdivision of Flintridge Grove in today’s upscale suburban community of La Cañada-Flintridge.

Times, 17 February 1924.

In 1928, when Romero was gravely ill and thought to be near death, the Times ran an article in tribute to him, stating that, for two decades, he annually served 75,000 people at his barbecues and a crowd of 3,000 at a single event was considered “routine.”  It was reported that

the crowning glory of his career came at the Elks national convention in 1909 when Joe ordered 17,000 pounds of meat and dug pits that looked like warfare trenches [this could presumably more easily be said a decade after World War I] and served 30,000 persons at the old [“Lucky”] Baldwin ranch in Arcadia.

Romero overcame that illness, caused by an infection after a fall, and kept on with the big-scale barbecues.  Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph, date stamped from this day in 1929, when, as the pasted-down typed caption on the reverse noted

Jose Romero, internationally famous for his skill in preparing barbecue dinners, is getting ready to serve a great feast to the Shriners when they hold their national convention in Los Angeles, June 1.  The barbecue will be held on the Meyer [Ed Maier, a local brewer] Ranch, near Los Angeles [San Francisquito Canyon near today’s Santa Clarita], and the huge meal will use 5,000 pounds of meat, 8,000 rolls, 6,000 radishes, 4,000 bunches of young onions, 800 bunches of celery, 100 gallons of olives, 500 gallons of coffee, and 600 pounds of beans.

Although the photo, which showed a woman in a traditional mantilla and shawl holding a large stack of plates, with many steel buckets and tubs behind her in a yard, claimed that the lady was Modesta Romero, she was far too young (and Anglo) and was likely a daughter-in-law.

Romero BBQ photo

Another Times tribute to “Romero, the Barbecue King” in May 1931 reviewed his long and memorable career.  It added that he was a cattle buyer and interpreter for the federal government, was an associate of a Cherokee Indian scout, “bred and trained some of California’s most famous racing horses and trotters,” but was obviously best known for his long years as the master of barbecues.

The piece noted that he lined his large pits with stones on the floors and walls and used oak which turned to a white ash and settled deep into the pit.  Thirty pound chunks of meat were seasoned with vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano and held to the meat by cheesecloth wraps.  A sheet iron lid allowed for an airtight seal to properly cook the beef to perfect tenderness.  He also prepared a chile sauce, beans and salad, though his wife Modesta often provided other dishes (presumably tamales, enchiladas and more).

Times, 31 May 1931.

Three of his sons were part of the team, including Ed, a well-known detective with the Los Angeles Police Department; Ralph, who worked as an auto upholsterer; and Frank, who, in 1931, was also a police officer, but before Walter Temple’s financial downfall, worked in Temple’s oil fields, served as a chauffeur for the family, and was foreman at the Homestead.

Romero told the Times that his first major barbecue was in 1885 at Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park.  Among his celebrity clients were actor Leo Carrillo, humorist Will Rogers, and film studio owner Hal Roach.  Though the 1928 article in the paper pointed out that the Elks event at the Baldwin ranch was his best-known, this piece stated that it was the 1924 KHJ radio event that was the greatest of all of Romero’s barbecues giving details of the preparations lasting days and which served some 38,000 people (though 60,000 tried to get in to the Maier ranch mentioned above and near where California’s first major gold discovery took place in 1842.)

Times, 30 June 1932.

In June 1932, a little over a year after this full-page tribute, Joe Romero died at about 80 years of age at his Lincoln Heights home.  It gave some of the same information provided in the earlier tributes and noted that his “recipe for happiness” was “work hard, have a big family [there were 14 children in his] and play whenever your work permits.”  In listing his surviving children, it was reported that his daughter, Maud Bassity, was a resident of Puente, though she was actually then either in Baja California or San Diego with Walter P. Temple.

Some years ago, I got acquainted with Jack Romero, son of Frank and grandson of Joe.  He conducted an oral history interview with me and one of the aspects he discussed at some length, then and at other times, was his grandfather’s status as “The Barbecue King.”  Jack noted that he was taught in turn by his father and that, in the late 1990s when I knew him, he was cooking barbecues in the old style for groups, including the American Legion, of which he was a member.  Jack told me he’d passed on the tradition to one of his sons and, hopefully, that legacy continues over 130 years after José Romero cooked his first barbecue at today’s Exposition Park.




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