LOS ANGELES: How Hamburger Hamlet created a Oaxacan kitchen dynasty


My story is today’s paper is about how the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain helped create a Oaxacan kitchen workforce that is now essential to upscale dining in Los Angeles.

I found this out as I began interviewing Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico about why there were so many of them in the kitchens of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. I ran into many who told me they started at El Hamlet.

One thing led to another and I discovered that one guy, Asael Gonzalez (pictured above with his wife, Emma, who also worked at El Hamlet), was responsible for grabbing a beachhead there in 1968 and over the next 30 years hiring hundreds upon hundreds of men from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountains who got their first jobs washing dishes or busing tables at Hamburger Hamlet.

One thing that didn’t make it into the story is that Gonzalez converted to evangelical Christianity in the mid-1970s. When he did this, he changed the religious life of many Zapotecs in L.A. Many converted as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least a dozen churches were formed, in Pico-Union and Mid-City, with congregations of Zapotecs who worked at Hamburger Hamlet.

These churches acted as reception centers for arriving immigrants for Oaxaca, where they knew they could find kind words, help finding work, maybe some food and coffee and possible lodging.Emma and Asael Gonzalez

All of which makes Gonzalez an enormously influential figure in LA during this time for the way he transformed his own community and parts of the city. I interviewed him and his wife, but family illness kept me from pursuing his story with sufficient depth.

So the story focuses on Marcelino Martinez, who was hired by Gonzalez in 1970 and later became supervisor of kitchens as the chain expanded, training in the kitchens the hundreds of men Gonzalez hired.

When they were amnestied in 1986, they left the Hamlet and spread out to other restaurants, some leaving food preparation entirely.

As the story says, Martinez is still at it, 43 years later. Amazing….

Today, in LA, there are so many Oaxacans with so much skill and experience that they keep restaurant costs low by allowing owners to dig into the vast Zapotec labor pool to quickly replace workers who are leaving, and with almost no training costs.

Zapotec Indians, from a peasant culture where only women prepared food, now make up some of the best chefs and kitchen workers in Los Angeles.

It’s all in the panorama of today’s L.A.

Photos: Emma and Asael Gonzalez




Filed under Los Angeles, Mexico, Migrants, Southern California, Storytelling

5 Responses to LOS ANGELES: How Hamburger Hamlet created a Oaxacan kitchen dynasty

  1. Zoila bonilla

    Emma Gonzalez has passed away on November 3, 2017. She was a fabouls women full of so much talent and skills. She was a loveable women and very hospitality to people who didn’t have.

  2. PGuzman

    I can attest to AV Conde’s statement that the reason he stayed w/ Hamburger Hamlet so long was because he lived off the kick backs that he charged the hundreds and hundreds of Zapotecs he hired. My grandfather, uncles and father were some of his contributors. Of course restaurants want to keep the costs down by hiring illegal immigrants! Who else are they going to pay below minimum wage! My father is now a physician in the U.S., but I can tell you that it was definitely not because of Mr. Gonzalez’s “help”. People like him only added to the chain of debt that our townsmen faced in trying to get over to the US. He did no one any favors.

  3. A.V. Conde

    FYI this man charged not only my father, but uncles and cousin and many of my Oaxacan people a fee for fiding them a job at “El Hamlet”. My father worked there in 1971 and was charged a “fee” of $125, when was barely making $1.25 per hour. Shame on you Mr. Gonzales for taking advantage of many of your own people!

  4. Hola Sam, this reminds me a lot of your piece on the popsicles. I so admire what you’re doing in this kind of report– blazing past the generalities (“Mexicans”) into the very human particulars– this particular person from a specific Oaxacan community. Interesting the note about his conversion to evangelical Christianity and how that influenced so many others. (Gosh, I remember eating at Hamburger Hamlet about 500 years ago.) By the way, I’ve noticed that many of the waiters in northern California are from Jalisco– a very different group.

  5. Great story!! Keep ’em coming…

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