Even though it was almost 20 years ago, my mouth still waters when I remember my first taste of great Santa Maria barbecue. I was meandering up the 5 Freeway on my way north. It was lunchtime, and for some reason Coalinga sounded like a nice place to stop (hey, I was new to California). I drove into town with my windows rolled down, following a trail of wood smoke to a parking lot where there was a tarp tent. Under it, a guy was busy tending one of those oil-drum barbecues.
He pulled a chunk of meat off the side of the grill, sliced it thin and layered it on a plate with a little bit of the carving juices. I took a bite and had to pause to catch my breath. It was a perfect piece of beef: pinkish medium-rare inside with a slightly charred crust outside and an irresistible tang of smoke. I gulped down the rest and asked him to make me three sandwiches to go -- one for right away, one for the drive and one for my hotel room in case I got hungry that night.
I still dream about that lunch.
For those who know Santa Maria barbecue, this will be no surprise. It is one of California’s heritage foods, as much a part of the state’s culinary soul as abalone and orange trees. On the Central Coast, you’ll find it at restaurants, charity fundraisers, farmers markets and even stalls set up in random parking lots -- basically anywhere a crowd of hungry people might gather.
Delicious as it is when it’s done right, Santa Maria barbecue can also be incredibly frustrating. Cooking the meat so it has just the right tinge of smoke but still remains moist requires walking a fine line, and it seems as though most cooks stumble.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve detoured off highways between Los Angeles and San Francisco, hoping that by some miracle my dream will repeat itself.
But too often my barbecue fantasies have been dashed on the shoals of careless cooking -- meat that is over-smoked and bitter or, more commonly, overcooked to the point of parching.
So this season, rather than waiting for someone else to make my dream come true, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I would try to create the perfect Santa Maria barbecue in my backyard, using nothing but my standard kettle grill. While I was at it, I’d attack the traditional, usually lackluster, accompaniments too. Doesn’t one of the great stars of the grill deserve equally fabulous supporting players?
To me, this was a project worthy of Nobel Prize consideration -- great barbecue that didn’t require a road trip.
Cut from a different cloth
Santa Maria barbecue is based on a thick cut of meat -- somewhere between a steak and a roast -- that is perfumed by wood smoke but, unlike most traditional barbecues, has a seared peppery crust on the outside and is still juicy and pink inside.
I have no quarrel with the side of beans that usually accompanies them -- especially if they’re the local pinquito. But the rest of the meal frankly smacks of obligation -- they just needed something extra to fill the plate. It shouldn’t be that way.
First, a little history. Santa Maria barbecue is a throwback to California’s rancho days. Traditionally, it was made by threading 3-inch-thick blocks of top sirloin on willow poles and then cooking them over long pits filled with smoldering coals of local red oak.
Although most barbecue is cooked slowly to let it absorb the most smoke and tenderize tough cuts such as ribs and brisket, Santa Maria barbecue is much more like grilling, though there is a smoky aspect because of the 30 minutes or so it takes to cook that much meat. But this is barbecue you can serve rare.
These days, rather than those monstrous top sirloin blocks, the meat is more likely to be tri-tip, which has the main advantage of coming in family-sized pieces of 2 to 3 pounds. The tri-tip began to gain popularity in the late 1950s when, according to Santa Maria legend, a local butcher named Bob Schutz started setting aside meat he had previously ground into hamburger.
This was a handy bit of timing, because that is just when Santa Maria barbecue was beginning to boom.
Though it had always been appreciated locally, during the 1950s its reputation was spread by the hordes of hungry pilots and other Air Force personnel who had trained at Vandenberg Air Force Base during and after World War II.
Traditionally, Santa Maria barbecue was a big group feed. The best-known was the one held every month at the private Santa Maria Club from the early 1920s to the early 1980s.
And in the 1950s and ‘60s, volunteer barbecue teams from the local chamber of commerce and Elks Lodges spread the reputation by taking it on the road for fundraisers, cooking for events as varied as political conventions and studio openings.
Somehow, despite such popularity, tri-tip has remained almost exclusively Californian. It is virtually unknown east of the Rockies. Last year, according to the National Cattleman’s Beef Assn., 80% of the tri-tip sold in the United States went to California (add in the rest of the West and you’ve got more than 95%).
It’s indisputably an ideal cut for Santa Maria barbecue: thick enough that it won’t dry out during half an hour of smoking, but not so big that it needs to cook for hours.
If you’ve ever been to a big Santa Maria barbecue, you surely have noticed the grills. These look like something dreamed up for a joint episode of “Emeril Live” and “Monster Garage,” big as U-Hauls and tricked out with elaborate systems of pulleys and counterweights for adjusting the height of the grid. The meat is seared down low and then raised away from the heat to allow smoking.
All of this is showy and fun, but not necessary. I found you can make great Santa Maria tri-tip in your faithful old kettle grill simply by building a two-stage fire. Mound the coals to one side of the grill (rather than spreading them evenly across the bottom). Sear the meat directly over the fire for just long enough to get a good crust (it’s OK if it blackens in spots). Then push it to the cool side and pop on the lid to let it smoke until done.
That’s pretty much it. Because tri-tip doesn’t have much marbling, be sure not to overcook it; because it’s not as buttery as a fillet, take care to slice it thinly and against the grain to keep it tender.
Do make sure that the butcher leaves some fat on one side. This helps keep the meat moist. Also, after testing about a dozen tri-tips, I could find no difference between choice and select grades of meat, aside from the price -- these grades are assigned strictly by degree of marbling, and since this is always a pretty lean piece of beef, the difference is minuscule.
Although most barbecue relies on an extensive wardrobe of dry rubs, mops and sauces for its flavor, Santa Maria tri-tip comes to the table pretty much au naturel. The traditional seasoning mixture is garlic salt and black pepper. This works fine, but put together a quick garlic paste in the blender and it’s even better. It lets you better control the saltiness of the meat, and the oil in the marinade helps create a crunchier crust.
This paste doesn’t need much time to do its thing: Slather it on an hour before cooking and you’re ready to go. Though it might seem pretty strong (six cloves of garlic!), the flavor is subtle: an initial burst of pepper followed by little more than a lingering sweetness from the garlic.
Timing in the kettle is critical. Because the meat can dry out so quickly, use an instant-read thermometer plunged deep into the center of the tri-tip to keep track of the temperature. My favorite thermometer is connected to the readout by a heat-proof wire cable so I can leave the probe in while the meat is cooking.
It will go in a hurry. During the last part of the cooking, the interior temperature can increase at a rate of almost 2 degrees a minute. Because the difference is so small between firm-but-rare (125 degrees) and rosy medium-rare (135 degrees), there’s little margin of error.
(The ends of the tri-tip are much thinner than the center, so you’ll inevitably get a wide range of doneness, including some medium-well, even at the lower temperatures.)
For me, the hardest part of perfecting tri-tip was the wood. Traditionally, Santa Maria barbecue has been cooked over native red oak. For some reason, oak chips seem to be extremely hard to find these days. I tried substituting other woods. Hickory, my usual go-to grill wood, was OK, but a little strong. Apple was too mild. Mesquite, to me, has such a strong kerosene tang that I really don’t use it that much.
Finally, I tracked down oak chips and drove 45 minutes to get some (hint: Barbeques Galore stores carry them). Because it was such a schlep, I picked up a couple of bags. That turned out to be a good thing: Oak really is the best wood for tri-tip.
A couple of handfuls of chips are all you need if you soak them beforehand. Once the coals are set -- glowing under a coat of white ash -- drain the chips and throw them on the fire. I tried doing this both before and after searing the tri-tip and found that it really didn’t make much difference. Before is more convenient since you don’t have to mess with the grill after the meat is already on it.
This is pretty close to my dream of a tri-tip barbecue. A hot sear gives it a good crust, careful cooking keeps it moist, and there is just the right amount of smoke -- it seasons without overpowering.
Fixing the fixins’
The traditional accompaniments to Santa Maria barbecue are pretty basic -- and though I wanted to improve on them, I kept them simple too. I wasn’t trying to turn a backyard barbecue into a three-star extravaganza.
The most interesting traditional side dish is the beans. Pintos are commonly used today, but the traditional choice is a locally grown favorite called pinquito. A bean of vague origins and tangled parentage, it is much smaller than a pinto, but has the same meaty flavor. Even better, it seems to stay firm better during long cooking, which makes it perfect for long-simmered ranch-style beans.
This recipe is based on one I found in a 1941 edition of Sunset’s “Barbecue Cook Book,” the earliest reference I could find to pinquito beans. Cooked for many hours, these beans take on a dark, complex character. The smoky spice of chipotle is my contribution; the multilayered spicing of cumin, oregano and sage is original.
Besides the beans, there’s usually a salad, either iceberg lettuce or maybe macaroni. Neither is very interesting. Nor is the salsa, which is traditionally made with celery added. There might be a bland macaroni and cheese. Dessert tends to be one of those cups of ice cream with the flat wooden spoons.
Rather than a bland salsa and a tired salad, I’d rather serve the tri-tip with a dish that has texture, tang and spice. Sticks of jicama dressed with lime juice and minced serranos works perfectly. It’s got some crisp and some tart and just a little heat. It’s a salad and a salsa combined -- just right for a moist, smoky slice of beef.
For dessert, there’s nothing wrong with ice cream, but make it a premium vanilla, something with character. And then spoon on some dark, sweet cherries that have been quickly cooked into a red wine-scented preserve.
Put this menu together this weekend and invite a bunch of friends (the tri-tips can be cooked two and even three at a time).
And then when you’re done, give yourself a good pinch. It’s no dream: great Santa Maria barbecue and you don’t have to get back into your car to drive home.