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 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 BBQ is like the Golden State: original and so worth exploring.
Where Does Santa Maria BBQ Come From?
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 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 BBQ. Here’s what I learned from what is Santa Maria BBQ, what are the key tips to make it great, and where to go for some seriously good tri-tip.
SANTA MARIA BBQ HAS MORE THAN A CENTURY OF HISTORY
The Santa Maria BBQ is a style of wood-fire grilling that dates back to the mid-1800s when the vaqueros (cowboys of Mexican origin) 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 and Santa Maria BBQ was born.
BUT CAME INTO ITS OWN IN THE 1930s
Though the vaqueros get the credit for kicking things off, the Santa Maria BBQ 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 beef, strung it on rods, then cooked it over the coals of locally-grown 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 BBQ became such a part of California culture that President Reagan threw a few Santa Maria BBQ at the White House!
IT STARTS WITH "RED OAK"
The central coast of California has always had a ton of coast live oak (known as "red oak" locally) and some wise local evenutally started using it for Santa Maria BBQ. Thanks to the fact it's technically an evergreen and it has small leaves, "red oak" is the Goldilocks of wood for wood-fire grilling: it burns hot but not too fast and without a ton of smoke. Just to reiterate what we here in California call "red oak" is in fact coast live oak -- in other words it's not the same as the red oak you find in other BBQ epicenters like Texas.
AND THE NAMESAKE SANTA MARIA GRILL
The traditional grill used for Santa Maria BBQ 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 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 COOKING METHOD 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 BBQ is the exact opposite. As opposed to Texas-style BBQ, this Calfiornia style uses relatively quick-cooking cuts (namely tri tip) and grills them over a hot fire in a short amount of time.
THE SPICE RUB IS SIMPLE AS CAN BE
Yes, there is a traditional spice rub used for Santa Maria BBQ and it's so simple — just salt, pepper, and garlic powder! This spice rub is usually applied by rolling the cut of meat in the rub so everything is really well coated. The nuance in flavor then is not determined by the ingredients but rather by the proportions. Frank Ostini who was the fearless leader of the BBQ Bootcamp and 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 Santa Maria BBQ rub camps: the first are spice purists and use nothing more than salt, pepper, and garlic powder while the other camp likes to put 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
The tri-tip is the king cut of beef when it comes to Santa Maria BBQ. If you haven't heard of tri-tip, we understand because it's a cut you mostly find here in California. If you're not familiar, the tri-tip is a triangular cut from the bottom sirloin and it's the go-to cut for Santa Maria BBQ. Like the style of BBQ itself, the cuts that have been cooked Santa Maria-style have evolved over time and the use of 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 25 to 40 minutes and should be a bit charred on the outside, a medium-rare rosy pink, and a perfect mix of tender and chewy. At the end of the day, the key is for the tri-tip to not get overpowered but any fussy marinades or fancy rubs but for it to get the smokiness of the red oak and for its natural flavor to come through.
BUT IT'S NOT ALL TRI-TIP
Though many associate Santa Maria 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 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 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 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 also know the Hitching Post II as it makes an appearance in the film. 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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