Movie stars. Wine. Disney Land. Pretty Scenery. BBQ. Huh? Yup, did you know that there is a California style of BBQ? Santa Maria-style barbecue is nothing to laugh at. It's a unique style of grilling that has a long history and distinct method, serving brisket, tri tip, pork ribs, and more with style and class.
Texas and the deep south usually get all the BBQ glory, but down in the Santa Maria Valley on California's central coast, there's a unique BBQ style of wood fire grilling that you can't deny is pretty amazing. Well, you could deny it, but it tastes really good and you'd miss out.
Santa Maria BBQ Isn't a New Trend
Santa Maria BBQ is a style of wood-fire grilling that dates back to the mid 19th century when local ranchers would throw annual Spanish style fiestas every spring for the hard-working Mexican vaqueros. To feed everyone, they'd dig a giant hole in the ground, fill it with native red oak wood and willow branches, and start cooking.
In 1931, no one wanted to work that hard for their BBQ, so the digging big holes in the ground part of the fun was done away with. The local Santa Maria Club came up with a better idea of stringing the meat on skewers and cooking it over a coal fire of red oak and willow. The event was called the "Stag Barbecue" and held monthly every 2nd Wednesday. Over 700 meat eaters would show up!
By the late 1950s, the craze expanded to local restaurants. The Far Western Tavern, Hitching Post, and Jocko's became synonymous with Santa Maria BBQ. A local butcher named Bob Schutz (I was kinda hoping his name would be Sam for you Brady Bunch fans out there) perfected a new cut called the tri-tip, a triangular bottom sirloin cut that became the official meat cut of Santa Maria-style barbecue. To this day, the tri-tip cut is pretty much only found in California.
Fun Fact! President Reagan threw five Santa Maria BBQ parties on the south lawn of the White House. The Santa Maria-style barbecue menu was copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1978.
The actual grill used to create a Santa Maria-style BBQ is made of cast iron. It gets loaded with red oak coals and then a grate attached to a hand crank is placed on top. To adjust the temperature, the grill is cranked either closer or further from the fire. The open pit style of the grill gives a less smoky flavor to the meat.
Low 'N Slow vs. Hot 'N Fast
Barbecue is usually an all day affair. The meat is cooked "low and slow" as hours pass, beers are had, and storytelling abounds. Even though California is considered the capital of the laid-back life, Santa Maria BBQ is the exact opposite. This California style uses the relatively quick cooking tri-tip cut which is ready in about 30-40 minutes.
For pre-grilling seasoning, the meat is simply rolled in salt, black pepper, and garlic powder. You'll find some variations on the seasoning with some wild 'n crazy chili powder or smoked paprika added to the blend. But for the most part, not many mess with the tradition. By the way, if you order chicken, sausage, a tri-tip sandwich, or other cuts of beef cooked Santa Maria BBQ style, you won't get tossed out of the restaurant. It's all perfectly acceptable.
Santa Maria BBQ Traditional Sides
Your heavy-duty paper plate will be loaded with delicious sides at an authentic Santa Maria BBQ. You'll have salsa cruda, a mild chunky salsa of tomatoes, onions, chilis, and cilantro. There will also be pinquito beans. It's practically a law to eat these small, pink beans along with a tossed green salad, and grilled garlic bread.
The most well known place to order your own plate of Santa Maria grill is a restaurant called The Hitching Post II. It was made famous in the movie Sideways, that famous ode to pinot noir and destroyer of the merlot market. Owned by Frank Ostini, they don't always list it on the menu, but it's often made on the down low. Just ask. I think the locals want to keep it all to themselves.