The last time I went to California looking for barbecue, most of the good stuff was underground. It was four years ago, and the popular pitmasters were running illegal pop-ups out of backyards and breweries, cooking on smokers not approved by the state, and dodging health department officials who aimed to shut them down. Fortunes for many of them have changed. The state of California has since updated its health code to be more barbecue friendly, and the popularity of smoked meats, especially Texas-style brisket, has elevated some of those renegades into bona fide restaurant owners.
Walking through the historic mission of San Juan Capistrano, on the southern end of Orange Country, on a recent Friday morning, I spotted an empty barbecue pit and a brick oven on the grounds. I studied their constructions, then did a double take as I was walking away. The smell of grilled meats and wood fire hit me. I realized the aromas were wafting in from Heritage Barbecue across the street.
Heritage’s owners, Daniel and Brenda Castillo, operated one of those underground barbecue pop-ups, starting in their backyard in Garden Grove in 2017. Those early menus were all Texas, with smoked brisket, spare ribs, sausage, and basic sides. Daniel was also working at Whole Foods Market at the time, traveling to stores around the country, including the Austin headquarters. That’s where he first tried Texas barbecue. Daniel loved Franklin Barbecue and Terry Black’s in Austin, then eventually found Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Rockdale. Owner Brett Boren taught him the ins and outs of operating a barbecue joint, and Daniel returned to California with more confidence in his future.
By 2018, the Castillos’ barbecue was popular enough that Daniel quit his job. Their pop-ups had moved out of the backyard and into Anaheim-area breweries. “We would make more in one weekend from the pop-up than he made in two weeks at work,” Brenda said. By 2019, she was able to quit her day job, too. Prosperity brought more praise in the local press, but also more scrutiny. The city and county health departments organized a sting that year. “They simultaneously hit our commissary kitchen and our home,” Daniel said. The officials found them preparing food for a pop-up in their commissary. They took photos of the offset smoker, which wasn’t approved for restaurant use, and fined the couple for the wood stacks, which were defined as “business materials,” stored in their backyard. Their operation was essentially shut down.
Daniel was dejected, but Brenda was defiant. She questioned officials about the lack of specific regulations against wood-fueled barbecue pits. “She was the one really pushing us,” Daniel said. They were in the midst of planning a permanent restaurant, and met with the health department seeking any sort of relief while remaining steadfast about cooking with wood. They sought a higher authority. The state of California agreed there was a gray area in the state’s code book when it came to cooking barbecue. They said they’d allow a smoker that had been National Sanitation Foundation–certified by a third party, so the Castillos hired the testing firm Intertek. It took a few months and $10,000 to get their new smokers certified. The state released a new retail food code in 2020 with specific language about barbecue operations, and the Castillos felt like they’d been a big influence in legalizing wood-cooked barbecue in the state. “I know it was because of our persistence,” Daniel said.
It was all looking great until early 2020 when the pandemic postponed their restaurant plans. Heritage Barbecue finally opened that summer in the heart of San Juan Capistrano, and it was unlike any other California barbecue joint that came before. They were the first in the state to get approved for using wood-burning smokers under the new regulations, Daniel said. They now have four offset smokers and a wood-fired grill. I watched as a member of their crew flipped smoked tri-tips, California’s iconic barbecue cut, over the fire before I grabbed a spot in line. Most folks were there for Texas-style smoked brisket and spare ribs, but my attention was captured by the many rotating specials.
The Eggplant Armageddon is comprised of layered slices of smoked eggplant and fresh mozzarella topped with a spicy and creamy tomato sauce. Tucked in beside it all is a perfectly smoked link of house-made Italian sausage, flecked with fennel seeds. Smoked beef cheek barbacoa filled a massive, freshly made raviolo, and was topped with a smoked chicken jus and shaved parmesan. If those don’t sound like your average Texas barbecue options, chalk it up to Daniel’s creative side. He also credits the inspiration he has drawn from John Bates of Austin’s Interstellar BBQ, whose special-menu dinners venture far from the Texas trinity. Out on the Pacific coast, Daniel said he feels untethered by traditional rules, and cooks in a style he calls “Cali Craft Barbecue.”
There is plenty for Texas barbecue fans to love as well, like brisket so juicy it gleams in the California sun. Slices have a stout bark and are pull-apart tender. And leftovers go into the smoked chili con carne (no beans), heavy on cumin with just a slight heat. The tri-tip was tender and smoky, and the smoked ground brisket burger features a mammoth of a coarsely ground patty. The sweet-glazed spare ribs are smoked to the perfect tenderness, and the locally made flour tortillas can’t contain the overflowing juiciness of the pulled pork taco topped with cotija and pico.
The team manning the smokers has a deft hand, as do the bakers on staff. Fluffy, butter-brushed cornbread and slices of potato bread are anything but throwaways. They add some beef tallow to the chocolate chip cookies for a savory hint, and the cookies are subbed in for Nilla wafers in a spectacular banana pudding. They’ll be making their own tortillas when a second Heritage Barbecue location opens early next year in Oceanside. Brisket will still be a star there, but Daniel plans to push even more into seasonal California cuisine with his new place.
Heritage wasn’t the only underground L.A. joint to get shut down. The Castillos saw the same thing happen to Moo’s Craft Barbecue the year before their own brush with the health department. Andrew and Michelle Muñoz had just served their first customer at a local brewery when they were told to stop. The Castillos were in line waiting for their first taste from the couple who started serving out of their East L.A. backyard in 2017. Michelle announced to everyone the pop-up was cancelled. As the brewery owners discussed the situation with the health department officials, the Muñozes packed up all their food before the health department had a chance to talk to them. The Castillos got word of the new, secret location, which happened to be Andrew’s grandmother’s house. “We felt really bad about what happened to them, so we ordered a lot of barbecue,” Daniel said.
After that day, the Muñozes found themselves at a crossroads. Barbecue had been a hobby until then. Michelle was a stay-at-home mother, and Andrew worked for an insurance company. If they wanted to continue selling barbecue, they’d need to get the proper permits. They examined their goals, saw the encouragement they received from their customers, and decided to give it a solid year. “We’re either going to go all in or all out,” Michelle said. They found a commissary kitchen from which they could serve take-out orders. Andrew quit his job, and negotiated with the Los Angeles County health department to allow his smoker to operate for their once-a-week cooks. By 2019, they were invited to serve at Smorgasburg, an open-air weekend market that’s a sort of restaurant incubator.
They found a space for their permanent restaurant in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood in early 2020, but hadn’t yet opened when the pandemic hit. They pivoted to bi-weekly take-out orders. “If we can weather this time, and still keep a roof over our heads, then we know we have something special,” Michelle said. They opened their brick-and-mortar in June 2021. They cook with all California white oak, and burn it down to coals for their direct-heat BQ Grill, which they bought for the occasional whole hog. Since the price of turkey breast spiked, they’ve switched to chicken halves done over coals on the BQ. The juicy and nicely crisped birds, finished with a garnish of lime zest, were one of the highlights at this joint doing the best Texas-style barbecue I’ve tried in L.A.
If Heritage Barbecue is the experimental place looking to put its own regional stamp on California barbecue, Moo’s is the comfort-food spot for wayward Texans looking for a taste of the Lone Star State. “We do Texas-style barbecue as best as we can, and that’s what we’re always going to represent,” Michelle said. A tray here includes house-made links of jalapeño cheese sausage and a chile relleno sausage inspired by a dish Michelle’s aunt would cook for her as a child. Both boldly flavored sausages showed a deft hand at the craft. The rest of their beef trim is used for the. smoked burger, which is a dead ringer for the beloved one from LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in Austin. The Muñozes readily admit it’s an homage, though they add some zip to the peppery smoked patty with a horseradish aioli. It was so good, the Los Angeles Times featured it in its recent list of the 101 best restaurants in L.A. Moo’s ranked seventh out of all restaurants, which is astoundingly high praise for a barbecue joint. (Heritage Barbecue was not too far behind them at nineteenth.)
I’ve enjoyed many meals with L.A. Times food critic Bill Addison, so I’m sure he’s happy to have brisket of Moo’s caliber in town. The smoked prime-grade beef from Harris Ranch (located in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California) is reminiscent of the best joints in Austin, like La Barbecue, where the Muñozes first enjoyed Texas barbecue together in 2016. Before then, Andrew had brought barbecue leftovers back from Dallas business trips in his carry-on, but this was the first time Michelle had tasted fresh Texas barbecue. “At that point, I became obsessed over it like he did,” she said. Like La Barbecue, they also use a sweet glaze on their spare ribs, which were tender enough for a clean bite from the bone.
Since opening the restaurant, Andrew has gained some help on the pits from Frank Gonzalez and Adrian Melgoza. They leave the sides and desserts to Michelle. “Texas barbecue is really rich and really heavy,” she said, “so I wanted the sides to have a balance of freshness.” The Mexican street corn is a cold corn salad, so it’s not as heavy as the butter-laden elotes usually found at barbecue joints. The crunchy slaw has a mayo-and-vinegar dressing with plenty of celery seed, and the potato salad has fresh herbs and goes light on the dressing. But there’s nothing light about the rich pinto beans or the creamy five-cheese mac and cheese topped with garlic-butter panko crumbs. Whether you want a perfect key lime pie or warm tres leches bread pudding with fresh strawberries, don’t skip dessert.
Of all the not-so-legal barbecue pop-ups in the L.A. area, the most buzz I heard was about Trudy’s Underground Barbecue. By late 2018, pitmaster Burt Bakman had gone legit with the opening of Slab Barbecue in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles. This was before the rule changes and the smoker certifications that benefited Moo’s and Heritage, so the Southern Pride cabinet smoker doesn’t have much in common with an offset, though Bakman says he’s grown to love it. There wouldn’t be be much room for one in the cramped kitchen of the small storefront on Third Street anyway. A new location opening soon in Pasadena will use a similar smoker, but will have room for a bigger one.
Slab was my first stop on this trip to L.A., and had better barbecue than I’d had previously at a joint in the city. The lacquered spare ribs were well seasoned and tender. Because proteins like chicken and sausage cannot get bark from the smoker alone, they’re finished on a hot grill just before serving. With all the time the brisket spent in the cabinet smoker, it gathered a bit of a stale smoke flavor, and the edges had dried out, especially on the thicker parts of the brisket point. Still, the influence of Texas barbecue was very much evident, though the joint’s stature slipped as I tried the other new joints in the area. But the glorious mac and cheese and the grilled elotes remained some of the best sides of the trip.
Before leaving town, I stopped in at Strand Brewing Co. in Torrance to see the surprising new face of barbecue pop-ups in L.A. Adam Perry Lang had established himself as the premier name in dry-aged steaks with the opening of APL Steakhouse in Hollywood in 2018 and Perry Lang’s in Yountville the following year. The pandemic did a number on many fine-dining restaurants, and his weren’t immune: both permanently closed in January. I first met Perry Lang when he was cranking out barbecue takeout in Jimmy Kimmel Live‘s back lot in 2013, and the vibe at his current pop-ups is reminiscent of those days in Hollywood.
After a successful run earlier this year in Pasadena, Perry Lang found a new spot in Torrance, though he says these pop-up locations and durations will continue to change until he finds a permanent home for the operation. He has already announced that his weekend gig in Torrance will come to a close soon, and he’ll move to an as-yet-undisclosed neighborhood in L.A. “I’m trying to capture that first three or four moths of excitement that every opening has,” he told me after I’d enjoyed a feast of his perfectly cooked beef ribs and eminently juicy smoked pork loin.
His pork rib–slicing videos have racked up millions of views on Instagram. “They want to get an experience they can capture and share,” he said of customers who double as an audience. I too was mesmerized by the thwack-thwack of the cleaver and the twirl of the sauce mop. Most important, the pork ribs provided the pure pleasure of smoky, fatty, saucy barbecue, best enjoyed without a paper towel—until at least a half rack of bones are clean. “It’s great to finally start working again,” he told me, referring to the pain of closing his namesake restaurants. Just then a customer walked past our table.“Best ribs I’ve ever had in my life,” he told Perry Lang who looked at me with the satisfaction of a pop-up well done.
California barbecue has changed significantly over the last decade. A culture is now developing there at a rapid pace, fueled by more forgiving regulations and a customer base with higher expectations. Daniel Castillo told me, “When something comes here”—like Texas-style barbecue—“it becomes part of who we are in California.” He feels like that openness bodes well for the state’s culinary future. For me, I was excited to see how much barbecue has improved there over the last four years, and how much of that is due to inspiration drawn straight from Texas. It’s also refreshing to see that the barbecue business is now blooming instead of remaining underground.