San Juan Capistrano’s restaurant selection has seen more growth over the past year than in the last five. Unique concepts are now walking distance to the historic California mission and train depot with more in the works. Locals who haven’t wandered down to SJC lately may want to explore what all the fuss is about.
Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
The Texas BBQ Outdoor Line Culture Grows in San Juan Capistrano
Residents may be used to standing in theme park lines, but waiting hours for beef ribs or brisket is a different mood altogether at Heritage Barbecue. Texas BBQ line culture is a regular occurrence at this outdoor venue, so I sought out pitmaster and owner Daniel Castillo for his take on the phenomenon.
A standard for carnivores craving true Texas craft barbecue, hovering around for long periods wasn’t an easy concept for customers to initially adapt to. Yet visitors are finally catching on. “They now come and bring camping chairs, play card games and bring coolers with ice cold beverages,” Castillo said.
Castillo feels the culture is comparable to timeframes at popular table service establishments: From being placed on a waitlist, getting seated, ordering, dining, then paying the check, the meal easily surpasses an hour or two. “It’s just a different state of mind with waiting in line. And the atmosphere is much more friendly in BBQ lines. They make a point of having it be a fun experience.” Castillo also points out his entire kitchen crew is well-versed in full-service dining, making them comfortable in the fast-paced setting – efficiently banging out 200-plus orders every day.
For a typical Heritage Barbecue shift, Castillo begins his morning somewhere between 4-6 a.m. and remains until the end of service. Why the long hours? One reason is because the preparation for its briskets begins the day before, being added to a smoker at 11 a.m. and coming off the next morning around 1 a.m. “People seem to trip out about that whenever we tell them how long it takes to properly smoke a craft brisket,” he said. Initially opening with two smokers custom made from Harper Barbecue & Pitworks, the team soon realized it needed to up its capacity to meet the barbecue demand, requesting another pair for Heritage’s inventory. Currently, there’s a 4,000-gallon capacity with two additional 1,000-gallon offset smokers on order, which will bring the total equipment count to six.
Best advice for first-timers to Heritage is three-fold: According to the pitmaster himself, weekdays (Wednesday through Friday) are best to avoid lines – plus, all the specials are only available on those days. Brenda Castillo (a.k.a. Mrs. Heritage Barbecue) provides further insight: “After lunch rush on weekdays there’s zero wait.”
My advice to BBQ fanatics is to take advantage of the online, $100 minimum order curbside service while it’s still available. Although rumor has it that it’ll be pared down to weekdays only.
COVID Was Not a Deterrent for Mayfield
Categorizing Mayfield Restaurant into one particular cuisine isn’t fair, since its menu floats between regions in the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa. A creative mix of international tastes and seasonal flavors, it is ideal for eggy breakfasts, cravable lunches, spirited cocktails and definitely dinner.
Mayfield originally opened with very limited service. I recall my initial in-person lunch visit to the establishment literally had chicken and a few sides available. It pushed through 11 months despite being both a newcomer and having to adhere to strict COVID guidelines, earning a spot in my list of favorite destinations for 2020. As the restaurant celebrates its first anniversary next month, owner George Barker continues to make subtle adjustments for longevity’s sake. Daytime service is currently paused on Tuesdays until staffing is back to an optimal level. The marketplace footprint will expand its focus on wines, further developing Barker’s curated selection of lesser-known regions and varietals.
Past the glass window separating dining from kitchen, chef Jayro Martinez leads the charge, continuing to generate a desirable weekend supper club menu showcasing hearty proteins, sides and a starting “rip and dip” course of spreads with chewy focaccia. Barker also mentions the seasonal return of Mayfield’s frequently requested corn ribs finished with morita chili and sumac dust, plus lime leaf aioli – an unexpected guest favorite.
Hotel Properties (and the Restaurants Inside Them) Continued to Open
Found within the Inn at the Mission, Ysidora Restaurant is a fine dining experience led by chef Aaron Obregon. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu, Obregon’s résumé includes Mexico City’s progressive Biko plus Albaca on Coronado Island.
Obregon’s approach to Ysidora’s menu blends classic Spanish cuisine with modern tendencies, including use of a wood-fire grill to prepare breads and roasted adobo cauliflower. A mojo rojo chicken and chorizo paella Valenciana is fitting for larger appetites, while Obregon’s vegan lifestyle carries over to a verduras del huerto (vegetables from the garden) salad incorporating pistachios and vegan ricotta plus a tomato beet tartare alongside plantain chips.
Ysidora’s presence is a reminder that corporate brands (the inn is a part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection) do strive to produce concepts comparable to successful, independent ones.
Parking Near the Train Station
Many of the new restaurants in San Juan Capistrano are walking distance from the train station.
The parking structure at the station used to be free, but a pay system was installed a while back. Recently, the outdoor parking lot has also become a pay to park location.
The Scene Continues: What’s Opening Soon in San Juan Capistrano?
It’s More Than Bread at FKN Bakery
In November 2020, I wrote about the upcoming FKN storefront. The bakery, named after the owner’s sons Finn, Kane, and Nash is finally gearing up for customers five months after its scheduled opening.
Co-owner Bree Vandenberg allowed me to peek at its opening menu. Still a work in progress, FKN’s selections are divvied up between three categories: toast, sandwiches and salads. One of the tastier-sounding toast options is the Cali (avocado, mozzarella, tomato, basil and balsamic), yet my loyalty lies with a PB banana toast with its sweet/savory balance. For sammies, I’m digging the turkey option with pepper jack and arugula, but don’t dismiss the veggie version offering pickled beets, hummus, onion and sprouts.
Per Vandenberg, “It’s been a long and winding road but we are finally at the end, and so ready to welcome people into our bakery. The community that has been built through FKN Bread is amazing and we are so thrilled to always be surrounded by so much support.” Soft opening is this week with a grand opening date of July 20 across the street from Heritage Barbecue at 31760 Camino Capistrano, Suite B.
Ramen Finds a Home
Other Restaurants on the SJC Scene
Beyond the restaurants mentioned in this column, here are some of the others in close proximity of the train depot.
Trevor’s at the Tracks: global cuisine sourcing local ingredients; housed in the original train depot
Rancho Capistrano Winery: wine bar with a seasonally inspired menu
Hennessey’s Tavern: Irish pub grub open late
Ramos House Cafe: a breakfast and lunch spot on Los Rios, the historic residential street in the heart of SJC
The Tea House on Los Rios: English entrees and midday tea service
Bueno Bueno Mexican Kitchen: cocktails with casual Mexican fare
Keizo Shimamoto’s instincts were spot on when he decided upon a location for his future ramen shop. Best known for creating the original ramen burger (a social media sensation that tastes even better than it looks) and launching multiple noodle concepts in New York, he felt San Juan Capistrano’s deep historical roots had the potential to become Orange County’s next great food destination. As a director of innovation for ramen manufacturer Myojo, Shimamoto plans to use his upcoming Ramen Shack space as a test site when developing future noodle recipes. Expect tasty collaborations and future video content discussing all things ramen.
When asked about soup etiquette, Shimamoto didn’t offer any strict guidelines. “The best way is to enjoy it as you like and let it soak into your soul by any means possible. Slurping is encouraged.” And how does he like his ramen prepared? Shimamoto describes a Tokyo-style shoyu version (akin to clear chicken soup) as his ideal bowl of nostalgia. He dines on an unfussy combination before each service – just noodles and soup, sans toppings. Look for his shack this summer on the corner of Camino Capistrano and Verdugo Street.
Breaking News: Sal’s Famous is coming to Laguna Beach
Chef Scott Brandon’s O.C. journey has come full circle since his move from San Francisco in the ‘90s to Laguna Beach’s Five Feet (5’) restaurant. Stints at Corona del Mar’s Oysters, The Crow Bar and Kitchen and Costa Mesa’s Observatory (the last time Brandon and I crossed paths) followed. On a fast track to open before Labor Day, he is updating the former Gina’s Pizzeria space to an Italian American kitchen called Sal’s Famous Pizzeria at the intersection of PCH and Boat Canyon.
Having a personal stake in the business, Brandon will co-own Sal’s with his brother Michael, whose background is in real estate. During the initial shelter-in-place last year, Scott Brandon spent time brainstorming concepts and menus, at first considering going in an entirely different direction by starting a ghost kitchen, i.e. foodservice only intended for takeout or delivery. After Gina’s closed its doors, the landlord reached out to the other Brandon for help in filling the vacancy – thus starting a brotherly exchange of ideas.
When asked about the particular style of pizza he’ll be serving up, Scott Brandon elaborated by describing how the 48-hour, cold fermented dough recipe was one he’d been perfecting for over a year. Prepared in sheet pans to bake squared edges, “The Sal’s Famous Pizza slice is sort of a cross between the Sicilian ‘Grandma’ pie, traditional pizza Romana al taglio and just a smidge of Detroit-style pizza.” Layers will typically start with 100% grande whole-milk mozzarella, followed by a sauce made from organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes that’s spread to the edges to form a caramelized crust. “Lots of olive oil in the pan gives the pie a super crunchy bottom and an airy middle that leaves you craving another bite, another slice.” He prefers it right out of the oven, but adds that it’s tasty to consume at room temperature (Roman-style) or the next day, right out of the fridge.
Full-size sheet pans of his focaccia hybrid can accommodate 12 rectangular slices. Plans are for a selection of five pies by the slice: pepperoni; veggie; combo of clam, garlic and parsley; triple cheese and a daily special. Bonus: A gluten-free option will be available to order by the half-sheet.
In addition to pizza, eaters can order wings finished with your choice of Calabrian or roasted garlic lemon pepper flavors. “Balls of deliciousness” is Scott Brandon lingo for the veal/pork/beef meatballs also making an appearance. Hearty salads dressed in roasted tomato vinaigrette or Caesar-style will complement Sal’s meaty offerings. He’s even thought about dessert with cannolis, a vegan peanut butter bocce and tiramisu rich with marsala sabayon.
Further details include a forthcoming beer and wine license plus catering services. Delivery is not an option at the moment although Brandon hinted that if an order was sizable, Sal’s might make an exception.
And who is Sal, exactly? He/it is a reference to the pizza joint in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” one of Brandon’s favorite movies. Sal has become an alter ego; a Sicilian twin, if you will. “The ideas and concepts of using only the best ingredients simply and properly applied to create the most delicious dishes,” Brandon said. “Sal is like a feeling or mirage, always there but never seen.”
Sal’s will welcome diners in early August.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.