Consider yourself warned: if you head to Central California, there is a 99.9% chance I will invite myself. Not just because of the great towns (Santa Barbara! Los Alamos! Paso Robles!) or the world-class wine, but mostly because of the tri-tip. This cut of meat hails from this stretch of the Golden State, and, imo, it's the crown jewel in California's native BBQ style known as Santa Maria-style BBQ.
I know, you think American BBQ and you think of Texas, Georgia, the Carolinas. You probably do not think California. Truth is this is more a style of wood-fire grilling, but, semantics aside, it's worth getting to know because Santa Maria-style BBQ is like the Golden State: original and so worth exploring.
The epicenter of California BBQ is the Santa Maria Valley in California's central coast and any self-respecting BBQ lover would jump at the chance to visit. So, when I was invited to Alisal Guest Ranch to make like a modern cowgirl all while learning about Santa Maria-style BBQ at BBQ Bootcamp, I was very much game. For a few days, I lived the California ranch life, with daily horseback rides, wine tasting, and a crash course on Santa Maria-style BBQ. Here’s what I learned, and, if you find yourself in the area, where to go for some seriously good tri-tip.
IT'S GOT MORE THAN A CENTURY OF HISTORY
The Santa Maria-style BBQ is a style of wood-fire grilling that dates back to the mid-1800s when the vaqueros (cowboys) who ran the local cattle ranches would throw mega fiestas. To fed everyone, they'd dig massive pits, layer in coast live oak (aka "red oak") and willow branches and grill tons of beef. It would pretty much always be served with a chunky salsa and the pinto-like pinquito beans. Since this took place across the central coast's Santa Maria Valley, well, eventually the BBQ style was named after the area.
BUT CAME INTO ITS OWN IN THE 1930s
Though the vaqueros get the credit for kicking things off, the BBQ style we see today really got refined in the 1930s. The local Santa Maria Club would throw monthly barbecues and the style was altered when they took the beef, strung it on rods, then cooked it over the coals of red oak. It was so popular that by the mid-centery a few local restaurants (including the original Hitching Post) were getting recognition. Turns out, the Santa Maria-style became such a part of California culture that President Reagan threw a few Santa Mara-style BBQs at the White House.
IT STARTS WITH "RED OAK"
The central coast of California has always had a ton of coast live oak (called "red oak" locally) and some wise local evenutally started using it for BBQ. Thanks to the fact it's technically an evergreen and it has small leaves, "red oak" a pretty perfect wood for wood-fire grilling because it burns hot but doesn't burn too fast or create too much smoke. One quick sidenote: what we here in California call "red oak" is in fact coast live oak. It can cause some confusion since it's not the same as the red oak you find in other BBQ hotbeds like Texas.
AND THE NAMESAKE SANTA MARIA GRILL
The traditional grill is this one you see here: a massive cast iron grill that gets loaded with "red oak" coals then topped with a lattice grill grate that gets lowered and raised as needed to adjust the cooking temperature. You don’t have to have this type of grill to make a serious Santa Maria-style BBQ but it certainly helps. Oh and because these grills are open pits the meat gets a sort of hybrid grill and BBQ action so the smoke flavor is less than you'd taste elsewhere.
THE NAME OF THE COOKING GAME IS FAST AND HOT
While most BBQ aficianados will proclaim BBQ is all about "low and slow" as in low heat and a slow, long cooking time, Santa Maria-style is the exact opposite. The local style is to use relatively quick-cooking cuts and grill them over a hot fire in a short amount of time.
THE SPICE RUB IS SIMPLE AS CAN BE
Seriously, the spice rub is so simple — salt, pepper, and garlic powder — and usually it's applied by rolling the cut of meat in the rub so everything is really well coated. The nuance then comes down to the proportions. Frank Ostini who is the fearless leader of the BBQ Bootcampand who is chef and owner of the legendary tri-tip spot the Hitching Post II, claims they use no less than 25% salt in their rub.
These days you’ll find two groups: those who are spice purists and others who aree putting their own twists on the classic rub. Personally, I like to give a nod to the region's Spanish, Mexican, and ranching roots and add in dried chilis for spice, some paprika for smokiness, and some dried mustard. The rub I came up with during BBQ Bootcamp is this Ancho Chile Spice Rub, which is multipurpose for anything grilled, though I’m especially into it for meats.
THAT WAY THE TRI-TIP GETS THE SPOTLIGHT
At the end of the day, the key is for the tri-tip to not get overpowered but any fussy marinades or fancy rubs. The tri -tip is king when it comes to Santa Maria-style BBQ so you gotta give it its due. Now about that tri-tip: it's a triangular cut from the bottom sirloin is the go-to cut for California’s only native BBQ style, known as Santa Maria-style BBQ. Like the style of BBQ itself, the cuts that have been cooked Santa Maria-style of evolved over time and the tri-tip only dates back to the 1950s.
The cut is the brainchild of local butcher Bob Schultz who worked at the Santa Maria Safeway supermarket. It came about when Bob decided to rotisserie roast a hunk of the lower sirloin instead of grinding it up. These days a perfectly cooked tri-tip will cook in about 20 to 45 minutes and should be a bit charred on the outside, a medium-rare rosy pink, and a perfect mix of tender and chewy.
BUT IT'S NOT ALL TRI-TIP
Though many associate Santa Maria-style BBQ with the tri-tip, it's not the only beef in BBQ town. You'll see everything from sausages to filet, rib eye, and even chicken. That said we're partial to the tri-tip because it's a cut with such local history and, frankly, it's really effing delicious.
THE GO-TO SAUCE IS SALSA CRUDA
Another piece of tradition is to serve the tri-tip with a side of salsa cruda, which is a sort of barely spicy take on pico de gallo salsa. Loaded with tomatoes, onions, chiles, and cilantro, we like it best when it has a bit of a kick.
AND THE OLD SCHOOL SIDE IS PINQUITO BEANS
The pinquito beans are small, pink beans that are native to the Santa Maria Valley so they've been the go-to side for Santa Maria-style BBQ foreever and a day. They're basically a smaller take on a pinto bean and we wouldn't think to have local BBQ without them.
WHERE TO GO FOR A TASTE OF SANTA MARIA BBQ
True, pretty much everything about Santa Maria-style BBQ brings on big opinions but possibly nothing causes a bigger rift than where to get the best local BBQ. Some places make it all about a full BBQ plate, some about a fine dining experience with a glass of local Pinot Noir, whereas we're all about tri-tip.
If you've seen the movie Sideways (which you should if you haven't), then you know the Hitching Post II even if you don't know you do. First of all this is Frank Ostini's place as in the same Frank who taught me all I know at the BBQ Bootcamp at Alisal. Also, this is the same Frank who owns the acclaimed Hitching Post Wines (I'm partial to their "Pinks" Dry Rose and their Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir). If you're looking for a sitdown meal with some great local BBQ, this is your spot. While they don't usually have tri-tip on the menu, they often are cooking it so just be sure to ask!
Even if you weren't planning on stopping here for tri-tip, I'd tell you to go because they have a great selection of local beer, wine, and artisanal food. But we're talking tri-tip so let's concentrate! Los Olivos Grocery has a saucier (is that a word?) tri-tip than Cold Spring Tavern but it's a really good bet if you're already stopping by.
Okay, full disclosure: I'm partial to this place because my Aunt used to run it so she grew up spending weekends at this old Stagecoach stop among ZZ Top-looking bikers while noshing on tri-tip sandwiches. Well, she no longer works there but everything else is pretty much the same. Of all the tri-tip I've had in the valley, this sandwich is my favorite. Smoky tri-tip is served on a French roll and you can have it with BBQ sauce, pico de gallo salsa, or a horseradish mustard sauce. Go on the weekend when they're grilling tri-tip by the 10s, set up shop under a Live Oak tree, and enjoy one of their tri-tip sandwiches with any of the local beers or wines they serve.
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