As I was dining on barbecue by Los Gios Smoke and Grill in Amity Township, the chef stopped to ask how everything was tasting.
I typically don't order ribs when I go out to eat, I explained, but these were phenomenal — moist, fall-off-the-bone meat with a delicate crisp outer layer, perfectly seasoned and not an ounce of fat in sight.
"It's probably the bark," said Giovanni Gonzalez Estrada, referring to the tasty crust that forms on the surface of smoked meat. "Most restaurants don't have time to cook ribs like that."
Yes, the bark was one aspect, but it was also the flavors, which Gonzalez describes as a new concept he's dubbed "Mexi-smoke fusion." The Los Gios Style Ribs, for example, are marinated in a chili-based sauce with citrus accents — though a traditional St. Louis style is also available.
"I was inspired looking back at how my grandfather cooked meats in his fire pit for hours, and how so much time and dedication was put into each and every meal," said Gonzalez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at 14. "I wanted to bring that to people through Los Gios. I wanted to give people a choice to enjoy classic BBQ or something that represents where I’m from."
Gonzalez has accomplished just that, whether with his signature Gio's Trio sandwich piled high with brisket, pulled pork, sausage, mac and cheese and house-made BBQ sauce, or the Gloria chicken, a recipe passed down through generations in his home of Oaxaca and named for his mother.
And, of course, all the trimmings, from cornbread to off-the-cob street corn to salsa and guacamole — everything fresh and made-to-order, right out of his Amity residence.
How Los Gios was born
Like many workers, Gonzalez was impacted negatively by coronavirus shutdowns in March. However, five days after being furloughed from his job as chef at Legal Sea Foods in King of Prussia, he and his wife, Kristen, also welcomed their first child, Giovanni.
"On that day, my brain started to think 24/7 of ways I could provide for my family," said Gonzalez, adding he was determined COVID-19 would not be the end of his career.
Gonzalez has been in the restaurant business since coming to the states, starting as a busboy at a Carrabba's Italian Grill and eventually working his way up to head chef. He later spent time at the Mendenhall Inn before moving on to Legal Sea Foods.
Perseverance was nothing new to Gonzalez, either. Growing up in Kennett Square, Chester County, he understood well that teaching himself English would open doors. While at Carrabba's, he would stay after hours learning to cook. He also got into bodybuilding.
"My dad always instilled a strong work ethic," said Gonzalez, who moved to Amity Township with his wife in 2017. "He would leave the house at 2:30 a.m. and wouldn’t be back until 3 p.m.
"I knew I couldn’t disappoint him or my family by giving up there."
When the pandemic closed restaurants, he started cooking more at home, then later purchased a smoker from Facebook marketplace and began posting cooking videos to YouTube.
Once he saw the interest in those videos, it inspired him to create "something of my own."
After placing phone calls to the township and board of health, Gonzalez realized it was possible to run a retail food business out of his home, and Los Gios was born, the name coming from the Spanish-language plural of his and his son's names, Gio.
How to order
When I last stopped by Los Gios — this time to pick up some pulled pork, chorizo beans and jalapeno slaw — Gonzalez's home garage had been effectively transformed into a commercial kitchen.
Indeed, despite its location in a residential neighborhood, Los Gios is up to date on all permitting, including Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture health inspections.
Gonzalez waved me around back to see the meat and potatoes of the operation: three smoke cones, one of those cooking wings, which aren't officially on the menu, yet are quickly gaining in popularity.
The looming question is whether it will be large enough to feed the masses. Since launching over Labor Day weekend, Los Gios already has been racking up five-star reviews on Google and social media.
For now, Los Gios is accepting orders by phone or email through Wednesday for meals prepared and ready for pick-up over the weekend. The full menu is available online at losgios.com, with payment being taken through PayPal or Venmo.
Long-term, Gonzalez could look into investing in a food truck or, depending on what happens with the pandemic, maybe one day open a full-service Los Gios restaurant — perhaps even multiple.
In conversation, Gonzalez frequently mentions the need to continue to evolve and adapt in addition to how much he loves cooking.
"It makes me feel good to see people enjoying the food I make," Gonzalez said. "The dinner table is one of the places that can bring people together, and I enjoy connecting with people through food."