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.

San Juan Capistrano’s Heritage Barbecue was one of my favorite new restaurants when its brick-and-mortar debuted in 2020. While pitmaster Danny Castillo focuses on smoky meats, the unsung hero of Heritage’s team is one Nick Echaore. He’s the executive chef and his hearty contributions of signature borracho beans, nuanced potato salad and lip-smacking bread pudding keep patrons content and the meat sweats at bay. 

Echaore’s unique upbringing and passion for hospitality translate into a menu that brings folks back for more. I kindly declined an in-person interview at his workplace in (what feels like) 1,000-degree heat to converse remotely about the journey that led him to Heritage.

A Busy Childhood

As the provider in Echaore’s single-income family, Santiago Echaore, Nick’s father, was a role model with a jack-of-all-trades skill set. In addition to being a real estate agent, the elder Echaore was a high school history and home economics teacher, weekend detention supervisor, driving instructor and even taught G.E.D. (general educational development) courses in night school, “all while maintaining some semblance of a family life,” Nick Echaore said. 

Nick began assisting alongside his dad around the age of 10, grocery shopping for his home economics class the night before. While Dad taught in the evening, young Nick was correcting assignments and tests for his day classes. Weekends were a combination of detention duty and real estate work. As a child, being too busy to play didn’t seem fair. 

Reflecting on all the time he spent helping his father, Echaore sees the bigger picture: “I remember feeling jaded and angry at times, but when I look back now, I realize that he set me up with the work ethic needed for me to survive in this crazy industry.” 

Until he had a son of his own, Echaore didn’t fully grasp the dedication and sacrifice involved with both raising a family and having a career. “It’s a whole other level being exhausted from work and still having the energy to be present for your family,” he said. Thankfully, his father already proved it was possible. 

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From Home Ec to Heritage

His father’s kitchen savvy originated from working in a number of restaurants while attending San Francisco State University – the most notable one being Victoria Station, a railroad-themed steakhouse chain. Wanting to teach the home ec students everything he learned, Echaore’s father revised the elective’s curriculum; lessons in knife skills, butchery, sauces and stocks plus breadmaking were included. Word got out about what was being taught and the school enlisted his class to provide in-house catering services and even daily lunch specials for its teachers. 

One of Mr. Echaore’s former students moved to Paris for formal culinary training before returning to his hometown to open a French/Italian restaurant of his own called Demaggio’s Cafe. Young Echaore would work there for five years, starting as a host before becoming the catering manager and wedding coordinator. In his final year, Echaore transitioned to the kitchen side of operations.

From 2005 to 2013, Echaore would move to Las Vegas where he attended culinary school. He would work in a number of off-strip establishments including a French restaurant and bottle shop named Marche Bacchus. Coming back to California, Echaore decided to shift from working in restaurants to private catering with Whole Foods Market. What began as catering only would expand to overseeing in-house beer dinners. It is here where Echaore would initially work with Daniel Castillo. “He was a kick-ass worker, ultra-creative chef and just an all-around great human being,” Echaore said.

Pitmaster Danny Castillo, left, and executive chef Nick Echaore of Heritage Barbecue. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dylan J. Ho

Castillo would leave a few years later to do Heritage Barbecue pop-ups. Echaore would follow suit after a year to assist Castillo with his vision. “It was his passion for barbecue and live fire cooking that really drew me in,” Echaore elaborated. Learning a new style of cooking would expand his repertoire as a chef. He considers joining Heritage his best job switch ever.

Kitchen Confidential

At Heritage, Echaore tries to build all his sides to complement the smoked meats. For example, he makes both a watermelon salad and an heirloom tomato salad that go great with any of Castillo’s proteins. “They’re both very fresh and vibrant dishes that help to balance the salty richness/meatiness from barbecue,” he said. 

According to pitmaster Castillo, Echaore is what makes the food at Heritage Barbecue really sing. “With his background in fine dining, he’s able to bring so much thoughtful balance to our meat-centric menu, with beautiful and composed sides,” Castillo said. Guests are always asking for his ever-changing specials like smoked pork belly musubis (a Hawaiian snack of rice and meat wrapped in nori) and a pulled pork adobo rice bowl. 

Personally, Echaore loves chili mac and Texas-style queso as much as the next diner, but adds, “I’m not sure if it’s the Californian in me that wants that bite of crisp, juicy cucumber or the sweet, subtle brightness of a tomato in between my bites of beef ribs and sausage, but to me, it’s the missing component that takes the meal to the next level,” Echaore said. 

Pulled pork nachos from Heritage Barbecue. Credit: Photo courtesy of Mint Value Media

When it comes to underrated dishes, he believes the loaded nachos don’t receive enough love. The chili that it’s topped with is made from ground smoked brisket plus a chile purée made with three different dried chile varieties. “We have so many great sandwiches and tacos that oftentimes people forgo the nachos because they’ve just ordered so much already. We put a lot of time into our chili and Texas queso and it shows,” he said. Echaore recommends adding on some pulled pork or chopped brisket to an order of nachos the next time you’re in line – you won’t need anything else to make your belly happy.

Spice-wise, he’s begun incorporating more Sichuan flavors in his cooking, loving the punch of flavor from blending Sichuan peppercorns, star anise and Japanese chiles. “A lot of their food has similar spice profiles to other dishes we currently make like our barbacoa and al pastor, so it’s great to mix things up every now and then,” he said, believing that’s when some of the best creations happen. 

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Watching the team at Heritage Barbecue who work the smokers is a part of its line culture, but that’s only one of many moving parts. One team preps ingredients, another handles service-related tasks and there’s the additional staff working outside (a.k.a. the front of the house). In addition to rounding out the menu at Heritage, Echaore’s other responsibilities include coordinating and organizing all the different areas as well as purchasing inventory and developing new menu items.

Customers placing their orders at Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dylan J. Ho

During meal service, Echaore is hands-on alongside everyone, whether that means assisting in the kitchen or being present along the cooking line, jumping in to move things along. “I’ve found that staying in motion helps keep you going on those long days,” Echaore said. 

With the increased demand for quality barbecue in Southern California, Castillo plans to open a second location in San Diego County. In fact, he’s already relocated his family to Oceanside in preparation for Heritage Barbecue 2.0. What does that mean for the original location?

According to Echaore, Eric Linares, the current chef de cuisine at Heritage Barbecue, will be in charge of the Oceanside branch when it opens later this year. A part of the team since it originally opened, Linares will be throwing his own creative spin on the Heritage name. “I’m sure we will be bouncing ideas back and forth,” Echaore said. He also noted that the kitchen down there is easily twice the size of the original one. 

Castillo confirmed that Echaore will initially help get the second location going, but his long-term focus will ultimately be in San Juan Capistrano as he will be assuming greater responsibilities while expanding into his role as a true executive chef. Per Castillo, “Everyone will get promoted so Nick will be by my side as we figure out the logistics so both operations will run smoothly.”

As a father who taught his son that any career path (or multiple, in his father’s case) is possible, Santiago Echaore is proud of his son’s decision to pursue one in restaurants. “In a time of opportunistic commercialism that is systematically corrupting our concept of true American cuisine,” Santiago said, “Nicholas has endeavored to stay true to an exemplary path of original, traditional and creative American barbecue preparation.”

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.


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