Barbecue is a pretty big deal in many parts of America. It’s more than just food. It’s a lifestyle. It’s something people get into Many places across the country You take great pride. Their style—and there are many—is unique, it’s their own, and (depending on who you ask) it’s the best you’ll sink your teeth into.
There are many tried-and-true grilling styles across the country — Texas, Santa Maria, Memphis, Kansas City, the list goes on—but we recently had a chance to catch up with a visionary manager who’s doing things a little differently. We are talking about pitmaster Daniel Castillo and his team in Heritage Barbecuewho are creating an entirely new style they call “Cali Craft BBQ.”
It all started when Castillo and his wife had the idea to bring delicious Central Texas barbecue to San Juan Capistrano, California, a 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 were beginning to make an authentic reference to Central Texas, the seasonal offerings and local flavors of California began to take them in a different direction, and Cali Craft Barbecue was born.
We can personally attest that Castillo and his team craft and build the best barbecue you’ll find in California right now. But don’t take our word for it: Heritage Grill is named after 2022 Restaurant of the Year by Orange County Register– It’s a pretty huge deal.
In the The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel‘s Cooking Serieswho brings the best local culinary talent to Southern California’s coolest place, we got a chance to talk with Castillo about his infectious love of serving people great food and his relentless drive to take barbecue to new heights.
men’s magazine: Where does your love of great grilling come from?
Daniel Castillo: it’s a long story. I am a big grill student. It was barbecue time before us in California, with Vaqueros. There is a man named Joe RomeroThey called him “The Los Angeles King of Barbecue”. He was making these giant barbecues. The most popular method of grilling was, you would dig these trenches, and you would dump the wood in there and burn it to charcoal. Then you throw whatever kind of meat you want into that hole, right on the coals, and cover it up.
Romero would cook for Pio Pico, who was the last Mexican governor of California before it became part of the United States, and would cook any whole animal, whether it be meat or meat, and would serve thousands of people at once. Barbecue was (and still is) all about community.
What type of grill do you cook on?
I am using an offset grill. If you’ve ever been to Lockhart, Texas, you’ll see live fire on the ground and then have a brick pit. The fire from that brick pit is offset, and that fire is pulled aside to cook. The evolution of that method is what I use now. It’s the same principle, but now it’s a permanent vessel, and it won’t collapse.
Heritage BBQ was the first to be able to use these grills legally in California, right?
Yes, it was 2020 when we got through all that red tape. Since then, only two other places use these types of grills, but we created it. In this form, barbecue is definitely Texas style. In the beginning, we branded ourselves by calling ourselves “Authentic Central Texas Style Barbecue”.
Since then, we’ve realized that Texas barbecue doesn’t flow through our veins like it does in Texas. In Texas, people get up in the morning and crave brisket. In California, people don’t wake up and crave brisket, they crave tacos or something. [laughs].
So this is where the “Cali Craft BBQ” tag comes in?
In my opinion, if I was just going to do brisket, ribs, and sausage every day, I think Californians would get bored out of their damn brains, and go somewhere else. So we decided to be more creative. And being here on the coast, we do things like seafood and more “California cuisine.” We embrace things like fresh and seasonal produce.
If you’re going to a good restaurant, the menu should change depending on the season, which we do. When things are in season, like corn in the summer, we don’t buy it from South America when the season isn’t here or get it from the can. It’s homegrown, we get our hands on it—and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Calicraft’s barbecue at its core is seasonality and creativity. We feel like anything here, if it’s been in California long enough, it becomes part of California. I don’t even consider brisket from Texas anymore. We took it, it’s here now, and it’s now part of what we do. Just like everything else that comes here. Like any international food that comes here it becomes a part of California. So now we’ve embraced the idea of, “Oh you know what? We’re doing our own barbecue in Southern California.”
Apart from your Banh Mi Brisket sandwich, what other dishes are you making and proud of?
We do Musubi, but we do it with brisket. I think a bacon belly that’s been smoked and then burned is so much better than a piece of spam. We take that and put it in musubi, and then our chef, Nick Toro, adds shaved. But I can’t take too much credit for that because our team is so diverse. Our cuisine is multicultural, and I’ve let them run wild with that creativity. They can basically do whatever they want in this kitchen.
How many people do you work in your kitchen?
We have three chefs in the kitchen, and they all get their time. My wife and I are the co-founders.
The word “chef” is used loosely now, as is the word “pitmaster”. But I am confident in what we do and consider myself a manager. And I know our barbecues are good, because we work at them every single day, we have standards, and we have to stay a certain way. The only way to go is to go up. We are not in a recession. There are always experiences going on – good and bad. When we find something is right, we say, “What happened? What change did we do to make it better?” And that’s exactly what we do.
What sets Calicraft BBQ apart from any other type of barbecue in the world?
Creativity and not being afraid to do something different.
What is it like to do an event at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel?
I think what we did is what we have strived for since we opened. And when the Michelin theme began [Heritage Barbecue was a 2021 Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient]We wanted to get the recognition that barbecue deserves. Because there is a lot of praise for fine dining, right? But we work much harder than these guys. [laughs]. And we have been able to achieve that. Now, people are learning 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 over hereand watch each Epic culinary events that The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel She’s hosting it in the coming months — including the Brews & Bites beer festival on February 19th.
To access exclusive videos about the equipment, interviews with celebrities, and more, Subscribe on YouTube!