Memphis. Central Texas. KC. You probably already know these places are synonymous with barbecue: tangy pulled pork and dry-rubbed ribs, beef brisket, and thick tomato-based sauce over burnt ends, respectively. From South Carolina’s mustard sauce to Kentucky’s mutton, hyperlocal authenticity is largely associated with the South. But way out west in California—well outside the metropolises of Los Angeles and San Francisco—Santa Maria barbecue is the alpha and omega, and has been for over a century.
When you’re watching celebrity chefs tend to their smokers, they don’t often bring up the cultural roots of barbecue, but it’s a rich culinary tradition influenced by European settlers, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and, along California’s Central Coast, the vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys. Their barbecue starts and ends with smoking meat exclusively over red oak, a wood indigenous to Western California.
Santa Maria–style barbecue is therefore a technique more than a specific type or cut of meat. You’re apt to find chicken, pork ribs, or even fresh fish like halibut thrown on the large specialized grates. But since it was developed by cattle ranchers, beef is the most prevalent. And over the last 60 years, it’s veered away from pricy ribeye and become largely associated with a triangle cut from the bottom loin called tri-tip. In fact, it’s quite possible that those living outside the Golden State haven’t even heard of tri-tip, but up and down the state, tri-tip is a staple of almost every meaty menu.
You won’t see it on a standardized diagram of cow cuts, but in the loin, below sirloin and tenderloin, are top sirloin and bottom sirloin. The former is referred to as “top block” in the Santa Maria Valley (expect a plate of top block or a top block sandwich to command an extra ten bucks), and the latter is where we find tri-tip.
The rub melds three simple ingredients: salt, pepper, and garlic (generally in the form of garlic salt, but you might find straight-up dried garlic). You might see the occasional parsley or dried sage, but that’s bordering on showboating. And don’t expect to find a bottle of barbecue sauce at any traditional restaurant in the Valley; the sole condiment for Santa Maria barbecue is fresh salsa. Many people will put the salsa fresca right on their meat, while some simply eat the pico de gallo by the forkful.
A brief history of tri-tip
“The barbecue tradition began in the 1800s when California was still a part of Mexico,” says Cindy Ransick, the curator of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society Museum. “The region was ripe with cattle, and the vaqueros were the gatekeepers to the supply of beef.” Ranchers and vaqueros routinely threw huge picnics for the entire community. Initially, the crowds numbered in the hundreds, and today, a century later, the fiestas have been known to host a few thousand.
To feed that many hungry people at once, Santa Marians no longer barbecue the meat in earthen pits like in the 19th century. Instead, they’ve developed a system in which several seasoned cuts of meat are skewered onto large rods; those rods are placed on steel grates that can raise or lower over the smoky red oak to achieve the perfect cooking temperature. This setup is so prevalent that public parks from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles feature them in the picnic areas, knowing that all self-respecting barbecuers bring their own bundles of red oak instead of charcoal briquettes.
The name Gerald “Ike” Simas will forever be associated with the regional cuisine. The native Santa Marian (who passed away in 2018) convinced the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce to trademark the entire Santa Maria style BBQ menu in 1978—not just the meat, but the specific sides, too. These include fresh salsa, pinquito beans (small, pink, meaty beans originally from Mexico), French bread dipped in garlicky melted butter and grilled alongside the meat (you can use it to make a closed or open-faced sandwich), mac and cheese, and a healthy green salad, because this is California, after all.
Red oak, pink meat
At Woody’s Butcher Block in Santa Maria, Tim “Woody” Woodbury (talk about a name as self-fulfilling prophecy) keeps Santa Marians supplied with optimal barbecuing meat. He’s not just a butcher; he sells hefty tri-tip sandwiches, too. Woody notes that most who helm their grills don’t measure the temperature in degrees but in seconds. “They will set their grate at what they call 5 seconds or 9 seconds. That’s their preferred heat, when they can hold their hand over the fire and count to 9 before jerking it away.” And Woody is even less precise than that; when he smokes his thick cuts, he just looks at the fat dripping off the meat. “You gotta have a good, even drip pattern. That’s just the fat dripping down to the fire at the right pace.”
The cooking style requires a lot of manual labor, and maybe that’s part of why it hasn’t reached far beyond California. Among the half dozen spots most famous for barbecue, Jocko’s in Nipomo has been slinging sirloin since 1925. The Hitching Post in Casmalia dates back even further to 1920. There’s also The Hitching Post II based in Buellton, the very spot that’s featured prominently in the movie Sideways that made the valley’s wine region hotter than red oak coals. Ransick described the original as “cowboy grown” and the newer one as “cowboy’ed up,” meaning Casmalia is more of a beer-and-a-shot place while the Buellton restaurant has its own winery. Then there’s Cold Spring Tavern in Santa Barbara, established in 1886 as a stagecoach stop. The tri-tip barbecued here on weekends draws wine lovers as well as beer and whiskey drinkers, and generally is packed with both bikers and families with tricyclers.
What you don’t hear much about is who makes the best Santa Maria-style barbecue. In part, that’s because the technique and ingredients are so uniform, but also, it’s simply more communal than competitive. “Food is an atmosphere and an experience,” muses Ransick. “Eating is a way to convene people.” There are several local barbecue teams: the Elks field several, The Kiwanis in Santa Maria hosts an annual Brews & Cues festival, and even a community bank sports its own team. But really, everyone who comes leaves a winner.