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I Drove More Than 100 Miles and Waited over Two Hours to Try Orange County’s Latest Latino-Led BBQ, and It Was Worth It

3:25 PM PST on November 24, 2020

    [dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]eekends are for adventure and good food. 

    Though most food dreams can be fulfilled by exploring the large and bountiful local Los Angeles, this past weekend, I decided to drive down the 5 South to San Juan Capistrano. The last time I took a drive to the area was in the third grade for my Mission de San Juan Capistrano project. This time, 22 years later, my visit was way more exciting. I was on a new mission to try some of California’s best barbecue: Heritage Barbecue, owned by Latino couple Daniel and Brenda Castillo. 

    Brenda and Daniel started out cooking for their usual weekly carne asada kickbacks at their home. Daniel grew up in the Pico Rivera, Montebello, La Puente, and Whittier areas, the part of Los Angeles known as the East of East L.A. He met his wife in high school, and after marrying, the pair moved to Midway City in Orange County. Before running their highly anticipated, popular, and growing eatery, Daniel shares that he spent his days as a mechanic working on lowriders and hotrods during the week and cooking carne asada, beer can chicken, and ribs for family and friends on the weekends. 

    Daniel and Brenda Castillo of Heritage Barbecue.

    After beginning to taste his ribs and chicken, Daniel’s own family began placing small catering orders, and the word got out. “Back in the day, you could say my family and I lived paycheck to paycheck. So when people began asking to order my food, the extra cash helped out!” After some thought, Brenda, Daniel's wife of 20 years and the backbone of Heritage BBQ encouraged him to take one step further and attend culinary school and explore the idea of selling their food widely. 

    In his two years in culinary school at Orange Coast College, Daniel dedicated his days to learning traditional French techniques in the kitchen. Though he appreciated the skills he acquired, he realized more with each day that he wanted to break out of the conventional chef career path. 

    By the time I arrived at the front of the line, my heart ƒmy heartfelt happy and ready.

    He knew that applying to restaurant positions would only mean less time with his family, which meant less time away from his grill. “After culinary school, I noticed most people's lives were consumed on holidays and weekends. I didn’t want to commit to working in a fancy restaurant, so I started to take our BBQ dream more seriously.” Daniel took his skills and turned them towards developing his dream of making the best BBQ in the O.C.

    With the money he and his wife made from side catering gigs and his temporary job as a corporate chef for Whole Foods, Daniel began browsing Craiglist. He started his professional smoked meat journey by buying what he calls “cheap, rusty pieces of shit,” which was an oil drum converted into a smoker. Those rusty pieces of shit got him started on his way.

    When asked if he had received any BBQ training, Daniel shared that his mom would send him to stay with an aunt who lived in the Dallas Fort-Worth Texas area over many summers in his youth. He remembered how great a lot of the BBQ tasted in Texas, where brisket is king. He decided to plan a trip and visit some of Texas’ best BBQ joints. His cousin and General Manager at Heritage Barbecue, Vincent Cifuentes, shared with us that Daniel’s work ethic and people-oriented attitude have helped the business grow. He is the networking king. Anywhere he goes, he wants to make sure to make it a point to get to know everyone and introduce himself.” 

    This love of mingling is precisely what Daniel did on his momentous Texas trip. He set off to visit seven places he had researched before, and in each site, he made it a point to find and introduce himself to the pitmasters and find a way into each of their pit rooms. One underrated place that particularly stood out to him was Brett’s Backyard BBQ in Rockdale, TX. He shared that he loved the place's small-town feel and that the owner, Brett Boren, inspired him because he added a different flair to his BBQing style. “Brett was creative, and he used spices I hadn’t seen used in BBQ before.” 

    After chatting with Brett, Daniel devised an unorthodox internship-esque experience by asking him if he could return to shadow him and his business for a week. Not knowing Daniel, Brett agreed, “To this day, I’m surprised he let me do this, for all he knew, I was full of shit, but he saw my passion for BBQ!” Daniel shared he learned so much during the week-long shadowing experience and witnessed Brett’s magic under wild Texas weather conditions. 

    During his BBQ eatery's construction, Daniel shared that it was mandated by the county that an archaeologist and person native to the land known as the Juaneño Band of Mission Indian from the Acjachemen Nation be present if any artifacts were uncovered in the ground.

    Besides these experiences, most of his talents come from practice and learning from other BBQ business folks. Heritage Barbecue’s journey began in the Castillo backyard as Heritage Roasters and then quickly evolved into a popular pop-up business for local OC breweries. One of the Castillos favorite hobbies was to visit breweries and enjoy time together. Vince shares, “Going to breweries was how we bonded on weekends. We’d go and drink beer and chill. It was great how Daniel networked and found a way to begin pop-ups.” Backstreet Brewing was the first pop up Heritage BBQ ever did. Fast forward six years, and several brewery pop-ups later, after opening for good in August.

    A trip there can be described as nothing short of smoked meat magic. The Heritage BBQ team encourages people to line up two hours before an 11 AM opening. I arrived at around 10:15 AM on Sunday and stood in a line of about 40 people, excited and eager for some good food. The sun was shining hot, and some canopies were set up for shade. Capistrano Beer Co. was ready to keep my thirst quenched. In line, people came prepared with camping chairs and cute dogs as line companions. The experience was COVID safe, as bricks were lined up six feet apart for guests to honor social distancing. In total, I waited for two and a half hours. 

    Though some would say, this wait time is excessive, waiting for gloriously tender smoked meat is a common pastime. Some good company and the great beers helped. By the time I arrived at the front of the line, my heart felt happy and ready. After chatting with the General Manager, Vince, and learning that his favorite item was the brisket, I had to try it for myself. Vince shared, “You can taste the effort when you get that first bite. It’s always a tender, moist, and sometimes a fatty piece of meat.” 

    Aside from the brisket, I also ordered the beef rib (and was lucky they still had one on the menu at this time), the jidori smoked half-chicken, brisket borracho beans, choriqueso mac and cheese, and garlic mashed potatoes with brisket gravy. Our platter was heavenly and paired with white bread slices, sweet and tart pickled onions, and pickles. After taking a bite of the beef rib, I felt my heart melt into a puddle of BBQ dreams. The seasoned meat tasting of woodfire felt right off the bone and into my mouth. The choriqueso mac and cheese was a decadent bite with a kick of chorizo bits. The garlic mashed potatoes were creamy and topped with tasty gravy, complete with substantial brisket pieces. The brisket borracho beans tasted like the frijoles puercos of my dreams.

    After noticing that we had not ordered dessert, Daniel was nice enough to serve their seasonal pumpkin banana bread pudding, made from a locally sourced sourdough banana bread from FKN Bread. It had locally farmed pumpkin smoked, then pureed and mixed into a banana custard, mixed with wafers, and topped with bourbon candied pralines. The first bite changed my life, and I can’t wait to go back to try more of their menu. 

    Aside from serving up some fantastic food, Daniel and his team are also serving the local community in many ways. Since the pandemic hit in March, Heritage Barbecue organized the OC Smoke Kitchen events coordinated with OC breweries like the Craft House in Dana Point and Brewery X in Anaheim to support restaurant industry workers who have been affected and may have lost employment due to COVID-19. During one of the events, the team provided 1,500 pulled pork sandwiches and brisket tortas to participants. For the Thanksgiving holiday, Daniel and his team plan to giveaway 100 free whole smoked turkeys for families in need on Wednesday, November 25th. 

    “Getting people used to Texas-style lines in the O.C. area is sometimes difficult.”

    Another way that Heritage honors the community’s sacredness was highly evident in their experience in building their location. Heritage BBQ is located adjacent to the San Juan Capistrano mission. The site is historical in that it honors and upholds catholic sanctity, but for many, it is a site remembered for being a space where native tribes were forced to become Catholic and murdered if they refused. During his BBQ eatery's construction, Daniel shared that it was mandated by the county that an archaeologist and person native to the land known as the Juaneño Band of Mission Indian from the Acjachemen Nation be present if any artifacts were uncovered in the ground. Daniel was happy this detail was included in the building of his space and shared that at his grand opening on August 8th, the pandemic, the celebrations began with a tribal blessing. 

    All in all, Heritage Barbecue is a family-oriented, welcoming, and authentic business that is the latest in the lineage of Latino-led BBQ-style in Southern California. Alongside players like Moo’s Craft Barbecue, East L.A. BBQ Co., Ray’s BBQ, A’s BBQ, Ragtop Fern’s BBQ, and Black Sugar Rib Company.   

    Many folks don’t know the owners and their backgrounds and stories, but these details are central and inspire how they run their operation. Many of the business struggles are attributed to the patron’s frustration when they realize that one-third of the experience at Heritage Barbecue is the wait. Daniel wanted to provide the community with a true central Texas-style reality. No amount of money or complaints or negative Yelp reviews will change this philosophy. 

    Daniel went as far as to burn congratulatory mail from Yelp in his smokers on an Instagram post in recent weeks. He is not at all in agreement with what the review website does to businesses. “Getting people used to Texas-style lines in the O.C. area is sometimes difficult.” But who doesn’t enjoy prime, slow-cooked, juicy, flavorful BBQ made by people whose philosophy reeks of love and supporting community? 

    Just make sure to arrive early and avoid BBQ heartbreak because they tend to sell out the quickest on weekends. 

    Heritage Barbecue is at 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, California

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