Just outside the southern boundary of San Luis Obispo County lies a small town called Santa Maria. Most people pass right through it on their way down the coast, oblivious to the fact it’s home to America’s most underappreciated barbecue scene.
Whereas Memphis has ribs and Texas has brisket, the Santa Maria-style stuff centers around tri-tip, a cut of meat Californians are particularly fond of. It is the tender, triangular muscle cut of the bottom sirloin, and because it is low in fat and has only a small amount of connective tissue, it is ideal for this unique open-flame cooking method.
“Most other regions use a smoker for cooking their meats, which cooks with indirect heat and surrounds the food in smoke,” said Brian Appiano, Chef and Owner of Rib Line Catering. “Santa Maria-style pits cook directly over the coals.”
The Santa Maria Style pit is a deep-set pit with an adjustable rack, usually suspended by chains and linked to a turning wheel. This allows the cook to adjust the grill based on the temperature, smoke, and wind. The fuel burning below is a bed of red oak, which grows locally throughout the area. The pit and the wood are the roots of the style that can be traced back to the 1850s.
“Santa Maria Style BBQ started in the mid-1800s by ranchers cooking for their workers, family, and friends by stringing big cuts of top block sirloin on big skewers and cooking them over red oak,” said Appiano. “The dry rub was a simple salt, pepper, and garlic salt applied prior to being cooked. Today, the dry rub has evolved into a more complex mixture to really bring forward the smokiness from the red oak and to add depth of flavor.”
Appiano says there are two ways to enjoy it best. The more traditional prepartion? Prepare it as a steak, served with sides of local pinquito beans and garlic bread. But go to many barbecue restaurants and you’llsee it served as a sandwich topped with sauce or salsa.
Like most places, Santa Maria’s locals don’t agree on the absolute best spot for barbecue, but there are a few front-runners: the Hitching Post, Shaw’s Steakhouse, and the new BBQ in the Stix all serve from food trucks in town. In neighboring downtown San Luis Obispo, try the tri-tip sandwiches at Old San Luis BBQ, Firestone Grill, and F. McLintocks Saloon. For ribs, chicken, and chili, stop in and see Brian at the The Rib Line.