The city of Santa Maria on California’s Central Coast is commonly known as the state’s barbecue capital. Its barbecue always features a beef cut called tri-tip, a triangular-shaped piece of bottom sirloin, cooked over red oak.
Or so I thought.
At the Hitching Post, a decades-old institution located just outside Santa Maria, a sign out front touts “Worlds [sic] Best Bar-B-Q Steaks.” A slender middle-aged man with a rugged face and a 10-gallon hat waiting for his wife nods in friendly acknowledgment as I approach the front door. “How’s the barbecue?” I ask. “Best around,” he answers.
On the menu, I’m not surprised that I don’t see any of the low-and-slow items that define barbecue in other places: smoked brisket, ribs, chopped pork. I know that Santa Maria style is about faster grilling, making it somewhat akin to Baltimore pit beef. What does surprise me is the absence of that celebrated cut of beef I thought was de rigueur here.
“No tri-tip?” I ask the waitress.
“No,” she answers. “The steaks are as good as you’ll ever taste, though.”
I’m here, so I get a rib-eye. While I wait, the waitress brings me a bowl of mild homemade salsa. I ask what the salsa is for. “For the barbecue,” the waitress says.
I watch as a pitman grills the steaks on a so-called Santa Maria grill: It’s raised and lowered with a hand crank over red oak. My rib-eye is fine, but can this be called Santa Maria barbecue if it’s not tri-tip?
I dash back into town and grab a table at Shaw’s Steakhouse before it closes. I check with the hostess. Yes, she says, we have tri-tip. Finally, the cut I’ve heard so much about.
I watch as the glassed-in pitman cooks the meat on a Santa Maria grill. As at the Hitching Post, Shaw’s, which opened in 1953, serves a complimentary basket of packaged crackers, a small platter of sliced vegetables and a bowl of mild, chunky homemade salsa. “It’s more like a salsa cruda,” manager Carl Betty says. “It’s used with the meat.”
The tri-tip arrives: thick slabs of lightly charred, rosy, tender and pleasantly chewy pieces, like a great steak. Which tri-tip basically is. No low-and-slow here. Tri-tip weighs about 2 pounds and takes 20 to 40 minutes to cook.
Santa Maria barbecue is cooked without sauce. I try the salsa on the meat. After several bites, I decide it’s an acquired taste. I like the other traditional sides better: The pinquito beans are wonderfully rich in flavor, and who wouldn’t love grilled garlic bread?
The road to Santa Maria barbecue, I learn later, begins in the region’s cattle ranches of the mid-1800s. Vaqueros, or cowboys, dug a trench in the ground, lit coastal red oak — which is said to be different from other types of red oak — and placed green willow branches over the burning wood to hold the grilling hunks of beef. Salsa (of course) and pinquito beans were served, just like today.
Over time, pitmen cane to use iron rods to grill the meat on what came to be known as a Santa Maria grill: mobile in backyards, stationary in restaurants. They’re open-pit, so the smoke flavor is light. In the 1930s, social clubs began barbecuing for get-togethers and fundraisers. One group, Los Compadres, went to the White House five times to cook for President Ronald Reagan.
Ask most anyone around town for a primer, and they’ll point you to Ike Simas, an 89-year-old who might be called the Elks Lodge pitmaster emeritus. For 60-some years, he has been an Elk, and he has been barbecuing even longer than that. He learned, he says, from “the old-timers.”
“We used to cook with bone-in rib-eye,” he tells me. “When rib-eye got too expensive, when we were cooking for 400, 500 people, we went to top sirloin. That started roughly in the late ’40s.”
The top sirloin, which weighs about 12 pounds, is seasoned only with salt, pepper and garlic powder, folded in half or cut down the middle, and slid onto a long, flat rod.
In the early 1950s, the story goes, a one-armed butcher named Bob Schutz who worked at the Safeway supermarket in Santa Maria took a hunk of lower sirloin and, instead of grinding it up as usual, put it on a rotisserie. He called it tri-tip, and it is now the cut most closely associated with Santa Maria-style barbecue.
The style continues to grow in popularity. An online company called Susie Q’s Brand sells pinquito beans, classic Santa Maria barbecue rub, red oak chips and, of course, Santa Maria-style salsa. It started in 1981 with just the beans. “Today, we do in a month what we did the first year,” says owner Susan Righetti.
One reason for tri-tip’s growing popularity is that cooking it is easy for backyarders, even on your basic Weber kettle. Another reason is that, although lean, tri-tip is juicy, and its beefy flavor gives it a special-occasion vibe.
I’m beginning to get the picture. Santa Maria-style barbecue can be the signature tri-tip, or top sirloin, or even a plain old steak. But to earn the name, it must be cooked over red oak on a Santa Maria grill, and served with pinquito beans and mild tomato salsa.
California has a history of going its own way. Why should its barbecue be different? Santa Maria barbecue is about the experience — and the history.