Barbecue is a very big deal in many parts of America. It's more than just food; it's a lifestyle. It's something that people in many places across the country take a whole lot of pride in. Their style—and there are many—is unique, it's their own, and (depending on who you ask) is the best you'll ever sink your teeth into.
There are many tried-and-true barbecue styles across the country—Texas, Santa Maria, Memphis, Kansas City, the list goes on—but we recently had the chance to catch up with a visionary pitmaster who's doing things a bit differently. We're talking about pitmaster Daniel Castillo and his team at Heritage Barbecue, who are creating a whole new style they’ve dubbed “Cali Craft Barbecue.”
It all started when Castillo and his wife had the idea to bring mouthwatering central Texas barbecue to San Juan Capistrano, CA, an up-and-coming foodie hotspot in southern Orange County. They opened their restaurant in the summer of 2020, and at the time, they were the only establishment in the state legally licensed to cook with the same offset smokers used in Texas. Although they started out making authentic central Texas ‘cue, California’s seasonal offerings and local flavors started to take them in a different direction, and Cali Craft Barbecue was born.
We can personally attest that Castillo and his team are creating and plating the finest barbecue you'll find in California right now. But don't take our word for it: Heritage Barbecue was named 2022 Restaurant of the Year by The Orange County Register—that's a pretty huge deal.
At the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel's Culinary Cookout Series, which brings top local culinary talent to arguably the most stunning venue in all of Southern California, we got a chance to speak with Castillo about his infectious love for serving people great food and his relentless drive to take barbecue to new heights.
Men's Journal: Where does your love for great barbecue come from?
Daniel Castillo: It’s a long story. I’m a big barbecue nerd. Barbecue had its time way before us in California, with the vaqueros. There’s a gentleman named Joe Romero, and they used to call him the “King of Los Angeles Barbecue.” He would throw these giant barbecues. It was the most indigenous way to barbecue, which was to dig these trenches, and you would throw wood in there and burn it down to coals. Then you would throw whatever type of meat you want into this pit, directly on the coals, and cover it up.
Romero would cook for Pío Pico, who was the last Mexican governor of California before it became part of the U.S. He would cook any whole animal, whether it’s beef or lamb, and they would serve thousands of people at one time. Barbecue was (and is) all about community.
What type of grill do you cook on?
I use an offset grill. If you’ve ever been to Lockhart, TX, you’ll see a live fire on the ground and then you have a brick pit. The fire is offset from that brick pit, and those flames are being drawn sideways to cook the food. The evolution of that method is what I use now. It’s the same principle, but now it’s a vessel that’s permanent, and it’s not going to fall apart.
Heritage Barbecue was the first to be able to legally use these offset grills in California, correct?
Yep, 2020 was when we got through all that red tape. Since then, only two other places now use these types of grills, but we pioneered it. In this form, the barbecue is definitely Texas style. At first, we pigeonholed ourselves by calling ourselves “authentic central Texas-style barbecue.”
Since then, we realized that Texas barbecue doesn’t flow through our veins like it does in Texas. In Texas, people wake up in the morning and they crave brisket. In California, people don’t wake up and crave brisket, they crave tacos or something like that [laughs].
So that’s where the “Cali Craft Barbecue” label comes in?
In my opinion, if I were only to do brisket, ribs, and sausage every single day, I think Californians would be bored out of their f*ckin’ minds, and they would go someplace else. So we decided to get more creative. And being here by the coast we do things like seafood and more “California cuisine.” We embrace things like fresh produce and seasonality.
If you’re going to a good restaurant, the menu should change by season, and that’s what we do. When things come into season, like corn in the summertime, we don’t buy it from South America when it’s not in season here or get it from a can. It’s grown locally, we get our hands on it—and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Cali craft barbecue at its core is seasonality and creativity. We feel that like anything here, if it’s in California long enough, it becomes part of California. I don’t consider my brisket to be from Texas anymore. We took it, it’s here now, and now it’s part of what we do. Just like anything else that comes here. Like any international food that comes here becomes part of California. So now we’ve embraced the thinking of, “Ya know what? We’re doing our own Southern California craft barbecue.”
Aside from your Banh Mi Brisket Sandwich, what other dishes are you creating that you’re proud of?
We’re doing musubi, but we’re doing it with brisket. I think good cured pork belly that’s smoked and then seared is way better than a piece of Spam. We take that and put it in a musubi, and then our chef Nick adds shaved toro. But I can’t take credit for a lot of it because our team is so diverse. Our kitchen is multicultural, and I let them run with that creativity. They can basically do whatever they want in that kitchen.
How many people do you have working in your kitchen?
We have three chefs in the kitchen, and they all get their time. My wife and I are the founders.
The word “chef” is used so loosely now, and so is the word “pitmaster.” But I’m confident in what we do and I consider myself to be a pitmaster. And I know our barbecue is good, because we work at it everyday, and we have standards, and we have to remain a certain way. The only way we're going is up. We’re not stagnant. There’s always experimenting going on—good and bad. When we find something that went well, we say, “What happened? What change did we make that made it better?” And that’s just what we do.
What sets Cali craft barbecue apart from any other type of barbecue in the world?
Creativity, and not being afraid to do something different.
What’s it like doing an event at The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel?
I think what we’ve done is what we strived for since we opened. And when the Michelin thing started [Heritage Barbecue was a 2021 Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient], we wanted to get the recognition that barbecue deserves. Because there’s so much praise for fine dining, right? But we work a whole lot harder than those guys. [laughs]. And we’ve been able to accomplish that. Now, people are educated when it comes to our food.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can keep up with all the happenings from Castillo and his team here, and keep an eye out for all of the epic culinary events that The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel is hosting in the coming months—including the Brews & Bites beer festival on Feb. 19.