There has always been a ceiling to greater Los Angeles’s Texas-style barbecue scene, at least legally speaking. Anyone chasing that regional version of brisket and ribs in Southern California over the past few years often found themselves sequestered away in back yards and underground locations scouted via Instagram DMs, in part because of the less-than-legal equipment used to bring all of that meat to life. Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, Moo’s Craft Barbecue, and countless others from Bartz to Flatpoint have relied on offset smokers to get the same quality cook as places in Texas, but those big barrel-shaped metal containers have never been fully legalized in LA or Orange County — or likely anywhere else in California.
Heritage Barbecue, the longtime operator out of Anaheim, is now believed to be the state’s first offset smoking pop-up to emerge as a fully-licensed standalone restaurant. Owners Brenda and Daniel Castillo worked for years to advance the ability of offset smoking in their own home county, hoping that the push to fully legalize the operation would lead to an expansion of the genre across the state. “I feel like we can open the doors for a lot of people,” says owner Daniel Castillo by phone. “It’s a huge accomplishment. And honestly, if we couldn’t use the offsets, I don’t think we would have opened the restaurant.”
They’re far from alone. Others like Austin favorite La Barbecue have been public about wanting to open in Los Angeles for years now, but ownership has repeatedly said that they wouldn’t consider a formal plan until smoker permitting was approved. Matt Horn of Oakland’s Horn Barbecue is still hoping to open with a similar outdoor pit setup this year in Northern California, though that has faced city delays. Moo’s went from backyard barbecue operator to weekly Smorgasburg tenant by operating with a vendor’s event-style permit, but has yet to secure a fully-realized offset smoking restaurant setup of its own. When Trudy’s went legit under the name Slab on West Third Street, it followed in the footsteps of places like Bludso’s on La Brea and Maple Block in Culver City, opting instead for an indoor health department-approved box smoker sitting under a ventilation hood, instead of a more Texas traditional outdoor offset.
Ray Ramirez of Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park has talked for years about building a standalone space adjacent to his strip mall restaurant for permanent smoking, to be permitted by the city of Huntington Park and the county of Los Angeles, but of late has been cooking on two giant pits from the parking lot instead. Similar setups can be found across the state from places like Ribtown BBQ in Jefferson Park to Jav’s BBQ in Anaheim and Grand Old BBQ in Flinn Springs, where offset smokers are passively allowed to operate, even if they aren’t fully licensed to do so. Getting all the right paperwork — instead of a tacit head nod of approval — requires often halting and expensive conversations with city officials, the department of building and safety, any and all local health departments, and even the state’s air quality management district, just to start.
“It really just boils down to a lot of money,” Castillo says with a laugh of the long permit approval process. His team worked with engineers and builders and the city of San Juan Capistrano at every step to ensure compliance for not only fabrication of the smoking units but placement on property and best practices for wood storage, air flow, and worker health and safety. The steps added tens of thousands of dollars to the bottom line, and took months to complete — even scuttling a planned July 4 official opening party.
Soon fans will be able to stand line line for Heritage Barbecue, marveling at the uniqueness of it all, at least by Southern California standards. The all-outdoor dining area is perfect for the state’s new pandemic guidelines, complete with appropriately-distanced queueing areas that push past the sectioned off dual 1,000-gallon Harper-built smokers. That’s where Castillo and crew will work the brisket, hot links, beef ribs, and more, while the indoor kitchen handles mac and cheese and other necessary sides. A Texas state flag and string lights sway over picnic tables and gravel. “It’s really wide open,” Castillo says, “That’s the Austin vibe we were going for, where you just drive down the street and something’s just on the side of the road. You can walk right in.”
The grand opening for Heritage Barbecue is July 18 in San Juan Capistrano, and just like in Texas, everything will be available until it all runs out, starting daily at 11 a.m. The plan right now is to serve “a couple hundred people a day,” seven days a week, says Castillo. “But I really don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we’ll be a phenomenon, like Howlin’ Ray’s or something.”
Phenomenon or not, there’s no denying that Heritage Barbecue is already the first of its kind.
Heritage Barbecue. 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA.