LIKE lucky families everywhere this season, we're enjoying a visit from vacationing relatives -- what a great excuse to knock off work and head to the beach! -- and after a day of sun, surf, kids and family gossip, no one wants to cook, but no one wants to go out to dinner either. But on such nights, there's usually a 15-minute window till hunger-induced meltdown.
The solution, of course, is takeout. Inspired by the reopening in a new location of a Culver City institution, Santa Maria BBQ, we have a meal that goes beyond problem-solving -- a terrific spread of excellent meats, good sides and a few stand-out specialties.
Barbecue is uniquely suited to grabbing fast and toting home. It's not cooked to order, and the main courses are good at room temperature. Most sides -- cole slaw, potato salad, beans -- are also of the kind best made ahead, and the fries are done by the time the order's all packed up. And when Mom's drumstick sits on a paper plate for 20 minutes while she hurriedly gets the 5-year-old into pajamas, it's not ruined by the pause.
Central Coast style It's clear from its name that Santa Maria BBQ specializes in Central Coast-style barbecue: spice-rubbed meats cooked over wood, preferably red oak, and served with salsa, and often with rice and beans. In addition to classic tri-tip, the restaurant offers barbecued pork sirloin, chicken and baby back pork ribs.
We take an order-almost-everything-and-share approach to feeding our group of seven. Ribs? Enough for everyone to have a least one. Tri-tip? Yes, this one likes beef. Chicken? Yes, we have chicken fans. Sides? Get 'em all. Fries? Absolutely -- they'll be the main course for some in the group.
And the fries live up to hopes: real cut-potato fries (not frozen reconstituted), thick, not crunchy-style, but satisfyingly golden-brown.
Tri-tip, pork sirloin and white-meat chicken are available a la carte or, with two sides, as sandwiches or plates. For the latter the meats are sliced and served open-faced on buttery garlic bread. Tri-tip's the star of the menu and the item most people are gauging the kitchen by, and the tender, flavorful slices are well up to standard, with savory spice-crusted edges setting off juicy meat.
Pork sirloin may appeal to some, but, having been raised on North Carolina-style pulled pork, I find it an odd cut for barbecue. The smoking renders it hamlike and rich; the meat's so dense that a serving here is enough for two to share.
Pork ribs, available on sample platters or by the rack or half-rack with one side and garlic bread, are wonderful, tender and sweet, and chicken dark meat is delicious, smokier than at many barbecue joints where it seems to be an afterthought. Barbecue sauce is available -- a sweet-vinegary version with an A-1 note.
But the best dish turns out to be what might seem like an afterthought, tri-tip chili.
By now, it's been discovered by the dozens of Sony studio workers who descend on this place at lunchtime, but surely it began (in rancho if not restaurant days) as a way to use leftovers. It's a loose, meaty stew with no beans, just chunks of tomato and pieces of braised tri-tip. The meat has a wonderful pot-roasty appeal, there's a bit of chile heat in the broth, and with fries, crackers or a roll, it's a wonderful Old West lunch.
Wrap it up In an amusing sign of the quick-food times, barbecued meat choices are also offered fashioned into burritos, tucked into quesadillas, or diced and served on a bowl of rice and beans, or on a Caesar salad.
Flexitarian choices please the work-lunch groups that pack the handsome but casual space of dark-wood tables and vanilla walls hung with vintage photos and a flat-screen TV: Grilled salmon is handled well, spice-rubbed and moist within, and there are grilled vegetable bowls.
Sides are basic -- picnic-style eggy potato salad with small-dice potatoes and pickle relish; sweet, milky cole slaw with pineapple chunks; and salty pinto beans.
Santa Maria BBQ was first known in these parts as a chuck-wagon-style catering operation, then gained a following at its first location farther west on Culver Boulevard. In its new home in the heat of the revitalized downtown, it's holding its own as an outpost of drop-in, takeout family-style dining. Not that locals don't appreciate the wine-bar thing. But sometimes you need to feed a hungry crowd at the drop of a (cowboy) hat.
Santa Maria BBQ
Location: 9552 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 842-8169; santamariabbq.com.
Price: Kids meal, $6; sandwiches, $8.50 to $10; plates, $8 to $10; salmon, $16; half-rack ribs with side and garlic bread, $11.50; bowls, $7 to $9; chili, $3.25. A la carte and takeout available by weight (for example, sliced tri-tip, $14 per pound; chili, $7 for 24 ounces).
Best dishes: Tri-tip chili, baby back ribs, tri-tip plate, dark-meat chicken plate.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 9 p.m. Sundays. Lot parking across the street. Beer and wine. Major credit cards.