True barbecue is among the foods individuals devote their lives to learning to prepare properly. Like a brew master to beer or an itamae to sushi, a pit master spends years developing craft and technique, often taking up traditions passed down through generations.
Daniel Castillo, owner and pitmaster at Heritage Craft Barbecue, is one such devotee, and to mark the two-year anniversary of his San Juan Capistrano restaurant, Castillo hosted the Craft BBQ Invitational on Aug. 13 at Sea Terrace Park in Dana Point. The inaugural one-day event featured a lineup of 50 of the most celebrated pitmasters from all over the country.
“It started off as an anniversary for us; now it has become more of a festival moving forward,” Castillo said.
The difference between the invitational and most barbecue festivals is this one was not a competition but rather the gathering of a community.
“The biggest thing about craft barbecue is community. It is a close-knit group of people who know how hard it is working early mornings and late nights; it’s a marathon,” Castillo said. “It takes a special individual to pull that off, and it’s something we can all relate to.”
When such passion is put into a craft, disciples are inevitable. If you smoke it, they will come.
A thousand tickets were sold for the event that included local pitmasters like Rebecca King, pitmaster and owner of the Bad Jew, based in Los Angeles, and known for porkstrami reuben sandwiches. King staged at Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, which makes its own pastrami, and she learned how to smoke meat from friends at Flatpoint Barbecue.
“For the barbecue community, it makes it almost less competitive,” said King. “Because you are all in one place, and this event isn’t about who is selling the most. It is just about getting together and meeting each other and having more fun.”
The event also featured plenty of Texas barbecue, like Feges BBQ from Houston, which served pork-jowl pastrami at the event.
“We are centered around central Texas barbecue,” said Feges pitmaster Patrick Feges. “My wife and I have a fine dining background so we bring that to it. We change up the sides. We don’t do your regular Texas barbecue sides — we try to keep it fresh and seasonal.”
For Feges, the invitational was an opportunity to network.
“It is a chance for us to get together and trade ideas, show each other tricks, and spread the gospel of Texas barbecue,” Feges said.
Feges also said he was impressed by SoCal’s enthusiasm for Texas ‘cue.
“It is really awesome to see all these people out here from California excited about Texas barbecue,” he said.
Other Texas barbecue legends included Snow’s BBQ, 2M Smokehouse, Interstellar BBQ and Killen’s BBQ. Among California’s best were Moo’s Craft BBQ and Slab BBQ.
In the past two years, Heritage has had much to celebrate. Michelin gave it recognition in 2021, and the restaurant recently announced plans to expand into San Diego County. Heritage Barbecue and Brewing in Oceanside will be a 10,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor space with a full bar and 18 beers on tap with plated, composed dishes.
“It is going to be a different concept. It is a sit-down restaurant, and we are doing a different menu,” Castillo said.
Castillo said beer brewing would be a focus too.
“This, above all else will be a brewery — that will be the heart of it,” said Castillo. “So a different kind of craft, if you will.”
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Sarah Mosqueda covers culture, food and features for TimesOC. She also has several years of experience in the restaurant industry, including as a proprietor. Mosqueda earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Cal State Fullerton.
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