The smell of smoke. The aroma of savory meat. The hallmarks of “barbecue.”
The nuances and details of that word can spark heated debates about beef versus pork, mustard sauce or no sauce, hickory wood or mesquite. The one thing most of the USA can agree upon is that “barbecue” means low and slow, meats cooking for hours and hours in closed smokers tended by grizzled pit masters.
That’s not what it means on California’s Central Coast.
If you were so bold as to roll out a Santa Maria-style barbecue rig in Memphis, Texas, or the Carolinas, you’d be laughed right out of town. Technically, what we do here is grilling – sizzling meats on an open flame. However, this revered cooking method is an integral part of our culinary history, and we call it Santa Maria-style barbecue.
It was recently feted in style at the inaugural tri-tip cookoff held at the picturesque Presqu’ile Winery. Those lucky enough to attend this event got to enjoy all the sights, sounds, and smells of seven dueling chefs, and sample their creations while overlooking stunning views of the sunny Santa Maria Valley.
The tradition of Santa Maria-style barbecue dates back to the mid-1800s when local rancheros hosted a festive meal to thank all the hired help and locals who had helped with the rancho’s cattle drives. Meats – usually beef, maybe also wild boar now and then – were roasted over pits glowing with the coals of native red oak and typically served with pinquitos, the small red beans indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley and recognized as such in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.
Over the years, those in-ground pits were replaced with either built-in brick pits or trailer-like contraptions. The red oak logs and ultimately coals are in the pit or the trailer bed, and the cooking surface is a grill rack suspended over the flame. A hand crank allows for the rack to be adjusted up and down to control cooking temperatures.
In 1931, a men’s group — the Santa Maria Club — began holding monthly barbecues, and cemented the institution of this local culinary style. The custom continued until the club dissolved in the 1970s, but the Santa Maria Elks Lodge also began barbecuing in the 1930s, and is still going strong to this day. Who knows how many tri-tips have been ‘cued to perfection over their pit!
As the mobile rigs gained in popularity, Santa Maria-style barbecue became ubiquitous throughout the region between San Francisco and Los Angeles. You could find a wafting pit of smoke and grilling meat on almost every corner in Santa Maria – mostly as fundraisers for various community organizations. That’s not as prevalent today, but the barbecue style is ingrained in this part of California, and can be found at casual backyard get togethers, organized community gatherings, and even black tie weddings. In 1978, it was even been copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce!
The original cut of choice for this beef extravaganza was top-block sirloin (aka top sirloin). Just as it is today, it was treated with a dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic powder before being put on the grill. Just as in Texas, there are no slathered on sauces such as you’d find in most of the rest of the Barbecue Belt.
In the 1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz popularized the tri-tip cut – a triangular piece of meat at the lower end of the bottom sirloin. Now, though many restaurants still hew to the top-block, tri-tip has become an equally sought after cut, and rightly so.
“Tri-tip is often called the ‘butcher’s cut’ because it was often considered just trim for hamburger,” explained Brian Stein of Stein’s BBQ & Catering Company in Paso Robles. “But butchers would take it home to barbecue for themselves. They knew the good stuff! It’s second in tenderness only to tenderloin, but it’s got so much more flavor, and is much more versatile.”
As popular as tri-tip is on the Central Coast, however, it’s barely known in other regions of the country.
“It’s a very unique cut of meat that’s not found in a whole lot of places outside of this area, but here it’s a signature ingredient,” said Stein.
Over the years, the sides served with Santa Maria-style barbecue became as much a part of the tradition as the meat itself. The pinquitos are still a staple, and have been joined by French bread slathered with melted garlic butter and toasted on the grill, a salad of iceberg lettuce tossed with Italian dressing, and homemade tomato salsa – the only “sauce” you’re allowed to put on your tri-tip.
Other accompaniments might also include mac-and-cheese and a retro, old school relish tray with celery, carrots, sweet pickles, olives, and green onions. And, it’s popular these days to include chorizo sausages and chicken quarters rubbed with the same mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
As culinary luck would have it, the signature red wine varietals of this region match up perfectly with Santa Maria-style barbecue! To the south, in Santa Barbara County (which includes the “Santas” Maria, Barbara, and Ynez) bold Pinot Noirs are usually the wine pairing of course. In San Luis Obispo County, from Pismo Beach to Paso Robles, it’s typically zippy Zinfandels or even predominantly Syrah-based Rhône blends.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not out to redefine the word barbecue throughout the land. I’m just as much a fan of Kansas City burnt ends, Texas brisket, and Carolina pulled pork as the next carnivore. I’m happy to respect and revel in all of barbecue’s rich culinary traditions … including those of Santa Maria-style!
— By Katy Budge