’Cue it up! Try 3 of the newest Orange County BBQ joints this Fourth of July weekend
This is it. The Fourth of July we’ve all been waiting for. Now that the state has reopened, and you and everyone you know are vaccinated, it’s finally time to celebrate the beginning of summer, if not the rest of our lives, by eating tons of charred meat together at a full-bore Independence Day BBQ.
But wait. Your backyard Weber grill is looking a bit rusty, and after slaving over a hot stove throughout the lockdown, you’d rather that someone else do the barbecuing. Thankfully when it comes to BBQ, there’s no lack of options out there, especially when you consider that the term means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Whether it be a Texas-style slow-smoked brisket, an herb-packed Lao sausage or Pakistani chicken tikka, what we call BBQ across our cultural tapestry transcends any specific definition, except that it’s always best enjoyed with a side of friends and family.
What follows are three of the newest places to eat BBQ in Orange County and get the meat sweats this Fourth of July.
31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Witness the lines that snake around the block at Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano, and you’d swear you were somewhere in Texas’ BBQ Belt. The outdoor restaurant has inspired the same kind of cult following that brings the brisket faithful to queue up at all hours at such institutions as Franklin BBQ in Austin.
But when you factor in that Heritage opened only last August in the middle of a pandemic, it further underscores the remarkable career path of owner Daniel Castillo from a car mechanic and backyard BBQ hobbyist, to OCC Culinary Arts grad, to Whole Foods corporate chef and, finally, Southern California’s buzziest (and busiest) BBQ pitmaster.
The BBQ that he cooks in outdoor smokers resembling SpaceX rocket boosters has garnered nods from the national press. But taste it yourself and you’ll also agree that Heritage Barbecue is very much in the same league as anything found in the Lone Star State.
Cloaked with a peppery concentrate of jet-black bark and gushing melted collagen and fat, Castillo’s brisket is so tender and juicy, it’s its own sauce. His beef ribs are like candy and his pulled pork weeps soup. But the most sought-after item is his burnt ends. The spine-tingling sensations it triggers as you eat it can only be described as orgasmic.
The sides, especially the rich Texas chili, the luscious brisket beans and the kaleidoscopic array of house-cured pickles, are by themselves already worthy of the car trip and the long lines. After you experience this meal, just like the swallows that fly back to the Mission, you’ll be forever drawn to return to Capistrano — but probably much more often than just once a year.
KRA-Z-KAI LAOTIAN Barbeque
12885 Beach Blvd., Stanton
Up until a couple of years ago, there were few places in the state where you can sample a really good Lao sausage. Now with two locations in Southern California, Kra-Z-Kai’s Laotian Barbeque seemingly has the monopoly on it. The newest branch opened last fall in Stanton’s Rodeo 39, and like the original outpost of Kra-Z-Kai’s in Corona, its food court kitchen produces the best Lao sausage in the region.
The tangy tropical fragrance of lemongrass features prominently in the thick pork link, but even if you’re a stranger to Laotian food, your tongue detects that other Asian herbs and spices are definitely in play. It’s unknown how long owner Musky Bilavarn took to hone his recipe, but one thing is for sure: This is as close as you can get to tasting the glistening sausage coils that roast over coals at open-air night markets in Laos itself.
In fact, the whole point of Kra-Z-Kai is to transport you to that Laotian street BBQ experience. Start your journey with that snappy-skinned sausage. Chase it with a balled-up morsel of glutinous sticky rice that functions like a side dish and utensil. Use the tips of your fingers to carry the rice and the sausage to your face. Then move on to the beef jerky, chicken, beef short ribs and pork spare ribs, which are marinated in a secret blend of oyster sauce and other seasonings. It turns what’s typically sticky and sugary in American BBQ to something that’s ultra-savory and addictive.
Dribble the bracing lime-and-chili spiked fish sauce that comes with the lean pieces of sliced beef called “beef dip” on everything — it’s electricity in liquid form.
For a side dish, pay the upgrade fee that substitutes the obligatory green salad for the shredded papaya salad. Dressed with funky-but-good dressing that surely involves one or more fermented sea creatures, this papaya salad could be eaten with rice and still be called a meal. But when paired with the Laotian BBQ meats, it is a refreshing palate cleanser much like dill pickles are to a pulled pork sandwich.
BUNDOO KHAN - THE ORIGINAL BBQ
2736 Nutwood Ave. Suite A, Fullerton
The pieces of char-roasted beef called “bahari boti” from Bundoo Khan pack a wallop. They’re so generously caked in spice paste marinade, it’s almost a batter. And when you eat them, you feel the slow burn overtake your mouth while your brow dampens and your pulse quickens.
Like anything that stimulates the rush of endorphins, you immediately want more. And so you do, eating one piece after another. And as the spices smolder on your tongue with the half-life of something radioactive, it’s natural to try to figure out what exactly is in that addictive seasoning blend. Forget about it. It’s impossible to decipher. There’s certainly cumin, coriander, ginger, garlic and chilies, but you’re better off just chalking up the rest to alchemy and magic.
You could eat the beef bahari boti, the ground meat stogies called seekh kabob or the crimson-tinted pieces of chicken tikka straight up. But most customers pick them apart and wrap the pieces inside an oil-blistered paratha bread or a fluffy naan before adding thinly sliced red onion, tomato and cucumber to balance the punch.
Raita (a tart-and-spicy yogurt drizzle) and tamarind chutney are self-served from the spigots of a repurposed juice circulator, but all the barbecued meats — which are threaded through metal rods and roasted over an open flame by an army of cooks in a smoky room — are so flavorful it needs no assistance from any sauce.
To Pakistanis, the original Bundoo Khan, which opened in 1948 in Karachi, is legendary. And its founder, Al-Haaj Bundoo Khan, is an icon akin to Harlan Sanders and Julia Child wrapped into one.
It is for this reason that this first American outpost is already bustling on weekends despite being open less than two months. Families from all over converge to this normally quiet strip mall across from Cal State Fullerton in a pilgrimage to taste the BBQ of their homeland. You should too. Just bring a terry cloth towel for your sweat.
Food writer Edwin Goei is a contributor to Times Community News.
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