Daniel Castillo has every right to take a break when Heritage Barbecue opens for business on July 3 at 11 in the morning.
He’s been there—Castillo and his wife, Brenda, own the San Juan Capistrano restaurant—since 4:30 a.m., stoking the white oak–fueled fires that power his four (so far) 1,000-gallon offset smokers, each packed with enough meat—pork, beef, chicken, turkey, 800 pounds in total—to feed an army division.
And on a holiday weekend like this, he just might. Food & Wine named Heritage one of the best ’cue spots in California. Orange County Register restaurant critic Brad A. Johnson—a native Texan and notoriously finicky about everything—said of Castillo’s Austin-inspired creations, “Barbecue doesn’t get any better than this.” Heritage is already at the point where fans ask for Castillo’s autograph, beg for his secrets, and hound him for selfies even when he takes out the trash. And the buzz is not just about his food; it’s about his persona, too: ethical, thoughtful, and Chicano in an industry long dominated by white men. Castillo is bona fide barbecue royalty.
Join us LIVE from Heritage Barbecue's smoker with chef Daniel Castillo and journalist Gustavo Arellano on Wednesday, October 20 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
“Not bad for a first restaurant, huh?” Castillo tells me with a soft laugh. His crew of 12 this morning are ready for the crush of early customers as the Texas Tornados blast on a sound system. Menus—an A-frame blackboard, papers taped to the window, a permanent fiberglass marquee—list the meats for the day: tender brisket, chewy pork ribs, succulent Jidori chickens. Sides—house-pickled jalapeños and red onions, creamy mac ’n’ cheese, and banana bread pudding—sit on a table ready to get stuffed into bags.
A staff member lifts the roll-top door to Heritage’s take-out window. The line outside is already 50 deep. A queue of cars snakes up the old El Camino Real, not scared off by the $100 minimum for pickup orders.
David Brown, an Orange-based caterer, is the first dine-in customer of the day. He showed up three hours before Heritage opened for the weekend-only beef ribs. “I was thinking, Shit, should I really go this early?” Brown says, sitting in a foldout tailgate chair, a lime Gatorade by his side. “But the answer was obviously, Yeah!”
Castillo waves at Brown and the other fans who try to slow him down as he goes to check on the smokers near Heritage’s outdoor benches—his idea of a break.
“People will just walk up to these smokers and open them,” says Castillo, shaking his head in disapproval. The smokers are at once imposing and as playful-looking as mini-submarines. At 42, Castillo is tall and wide, with the presence of an NFL defensive-line coach, the deep voice of a quiet-storm DJ, and the laid-back attitude of an uncle.
A cousin tends to mustard-flecked hot links. Another worker sets down slabs of brisket with the care of a bricklayer—the beef will cook for 12 hours. People gawk and take photos, but Castillo doesn’t notice them. He kindly tells his crew to move their meats around so they slow-cook better. Satisfied, he announces he is going into the tiny Heritage kitchen to continue his break by helping staff there.
A few minutes later, he emerges, cooler than a Zen master on holiday. Things are running smoothly inside.
“If the person on top is upset, that fucks up the rest of the day and the food,” Castillo explains as he returns to again check the fires of the smokers. “You gotta be chill.”
Castillo is living the dream of every weekend backyard barbecue warrior, which is what he was until 2018. That’s when the City of Garden Grove shut down his unpermitted home operation. It consisted of a 500-gallon smoker that Castillo had grabbed off Craigslist and fired up in his driveway to feed crowds of people.
The civic crackdown was just the latest obstacle in a life full of them. Castillo and his wife had become parents as teens. He struggled with drugs and alcohol and his weight into adulthood. There were tough periods when he and Brenda “had just $20 in our pockets.”
Yet Castillo had set out to go legit, to make a career out of his passion for cooking. He enrolled in culinary school at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. But administrators soon booted him after finding out he’d never graduated from high school and had forged his transcripts to get into the community college.
Castillo nonetheless pushed on, landing a job as a corporate chef for Whole Foods. Over the next seven years, he read books on barbecue, watched YouTube videos, and decamped to Texas to apprentice at various pits. He and Brenda began their driveway enterprise. Castillo had the word “barbecue” tattooed across his fingers; the same word on the right side of his forehead is a recent addition.
But the Sunday cookouts proved popular—too popular. City officials took notice and forced Castillo to stop them. Rather than bemoan l’affair Garden Grove, it “pushed us forward,” he says. “You can take something like that as a defeat, or you can take it as a next step.”
The Castillos went all in. They took a week off, then restarted the cookouts in the Westminster backyard of Brenda’s grandmother. After that, they rented a commercial kitchen and began planning pop-ups. Brenda told Daniel to quit his Whole Foods job (“I never thought she’d fucking say that”), then left her career as a corporate banker. In the spring of 2018, they officially launched as Heritage Barbecue, debuting with a series of pop-ups in Orange County’s vibrant brewery scene, with a 1,000-gallon, custom-built offset smoker replacing the 500-gallon one.
Success was instantaneous, so much so that developers and investors began to hound Castillo to open a restaurant. “They’d come with business cards and even plans,” he cracks. “That’s cute, but where [would my] 1,000-gallon smokers go? They’d never have an answer, so nah.”
That was until the owners of Heritage’s current location approached Castillo. The San Juan Capistrano storefront was airy and spacious and could easily host his smokers. But just as Heritage started construction, the coronavirus pandemic nearly derailed everything.
Heritage began selling vacuum-sealed barbecue meal kits and barreled on. In the summer of 2020, when cookouts were allowed again in Orange County, Heritage joined other restaurants to give free food to hospitality workers—one weekend, the Castillos’ donation was 10,000 pulled-pork sandwiches. When three Heritage workers had family members pass away from COVID-19, Castillo let them take the time off they needed. Paid.
“No one wants to work in a dead-end job where the owner is a complete asshole,” he says. “The days of Gordon Ramsay—no one wants to be that anymore.”
When Heritage finally opened its brick-and-mortar eatery in August, the wait was six hours long. The queues have shortened since then but can still top an hour, which gives Castillo a front-row seat to the human condition.
“It’s crazy, dude,” he says. “You’ll see people become friends in line, then one of the guys gets the last of the beef ribs, and they start cursing each other out.”
Castillo is amused by the irony of Heritage’s location: San Juan Capistrano, stuck in a Spanish fantasy past, deep in South County, the last true red redoubt of Orange County. He admits to never having visited San Juan Capistrano while growing up in the Chicano suburb of Whittier.
“South Orange County wasn’t built for people like me,” Castillo declares proudly, defiantly. “It’s fucking weird, man. People will find out I’m the owner, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, what, are you surprised?’ I’m an old punk. I like to make people feel uncomfortable.”
He channels some of this urge into creative, unconventional offerings that riff off Central Texas–style BBQ. Fans know to look for specials. A crunchy pastrami torta stuffed with milky Oaxaca cheese and a chile-spiked consommé for dunking. Luscious brisket bánh mì. A pulled-pork adobo bowl, a shout-out to the Filipino roots of executive chef Nick Echaore.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole us,” Castillo says. “We’re not a one-trick pony. It’s boring. We’re in California, man.”
Already, Castillo is looking to relocate to a bigger location, or to expand his current digs. “But I don’t want to get too big to where I can’t control it, you know?” he says while checking the brisket inside the smokers again.
Outside, the line has grown even longer.
Before I leave, I ask him to tell me the secret of Heritage’s success.
Castillo quotes a friend of his from Texas: “Salt, pepper, and a whole lot of prayer.”
That Fourth of July weekend, he would eventually sell 1,600 pounds of meat.•
IF YOU GO
- Heritage Barbecue, 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano