One California town has its very own style of barbeque.
What started out as a casual lunch turned into an intensive meat seminar when I met Larry Viegas and Clarence Minetti at the Far Western Tavern, Minetti's steak house in Guadalupe, Calif. We had gathered so the two octogenarians could tell me about Santa Maria-style barbecue, a preparation of meat so distinctive and fiercely protected by the local populace that it's been copyrighted by the local chamber of commerce in this Santa Barbara County city. Forget the images you may have of intricate barbecue sauces and ingenious smokers because Santa Maria barbecue is deceptively simple, consisting solely of a cut of good meat that is rolled in a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic salt and grilled over a fire made from coastal red oak.
Barbecue purists might sniff that this is merely grilling, but Santa Marians insist that their barbecue is the only true barbecue, and all of those Texans, Southerners, and Kansas Cityans with their mesquite chips and hot sauces and pork ribs are but pale pretenders.
"I went down there once," said Minetti with a grimace, remembering a trip to Texas. "They use brisket and cook it for 12 hours! They marinate the devil out of it."
Who wouldn't be in a meaty mood in the dining room of the Far Western? The self-proclaimed "home of the bull's-eye steak" is decorated with drapes made of cowhide, murals of grazing steer, and an impressive array of cow heads mounted on the walls. A Scottish longhorn's head is yoked together for eternity with one from a Mexican corriente steer, both of which hail from Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara.
Viegas, a former butcher and barbecue cook extraordinaire, had come armed with diagrams of a cow and a well-rehearsed argument about tri-tip, a triangular cut of meat found on the bottom edge of a top sirloin. This flavorful portion, which weighs in at 2½ to three pounds, perfect for a family barbecue, came into vogue in the late 1950s. Considered a stepchild of sirloin, tri-tip had previously been discarded or cut into chunks for stew, but when it was roasted whole, barbecue magic happened. It is now the choice of Santa Maria's home barbecue chefs, although, as I would learn later, something of a controversy surrounds the use of tri-tip.
"Ask your supermarket meat cutter how many tri-tips there are on a beef," Viegas challenged. "They can't tell you! There's only two on an animal, one on each side."
Let's just leave my meat cutter out of this, shall we?
Meat and barbecue are on the minds of Santa Marians as movies are on the minds of Angelenos and grapes fill the thoughts of Napans. The place is a Disney-land for Atkins dieters.
This return to Meatville is no shrewd marketing ploy by the local visitors bureau. Santa Marians have loved their barbecued beef since the days of the great rancheros in the early 19th century, and grilled beef provides a fragrant thread through the local history.
At the Elks Club, to which I was graciously invited for the Friday night "cook your own" dinner, I was taken under the collective wing of Ted Scott, the Elks' historian; Bill Cadam, a firefighter with a terrific handlebar mustache who does much of the club's barbecue cooking; and Bob Alvarez, who claimed the modest title of Exalted Ruler this year. They showed me the club's impressive barbecue, which occupies its own building and features a 19-foot concrete pit covered by a metal grate raised and lowered by a winch.
Some 350 Elks milled around, slapping rib-eye steaks onto one section of the enormous grill. The walls of the bunkerlike structure were lined with cowhide-shaped plaques into which were burned the names of the donors who contributed to the barbecue building fund.
"If you're gonna cook barbecue here, you're gonna cook it the Elks way or it's the highway," said Cadam, who was preparing to cook ribs for 500 people the next night.
A proper Santa Maria-style barbecue begins with a fire made from coastal red oak wood that is native to the region (never white oak, volunteered Scott). Top sirloin is seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic, and then impaled on a long iron rod. The pierced steak is placed on racks, fat side down, over the fire. ("It's not Santa Maria barbecue if it doesn't have a square hole in it," said Cadam, referring to the mark left by the rod.) The meat roasts for an hour to an hour and a half and is then sliced across the grain into strips and served immediately.
In the meantime, someone has simmered a big pot of pea-size pinquito beans, a mild-flavored legume that makes a delightful side dish when combined with a little bacon and seasoning. This is served with a green salad and thick slices of French bread. The only condiment for the meat is a fresh tomato salsa made with mild green chiles.
It is California ranch food, pure and simple, and the flavor of the meat seems to be released by the sweet, redolent red oak. When our steaks were ready, I sat down and noticed that the Exalted Ruler slathered his meat with salsa, so I did, too. Delicious. The meat was juicy and tender, with a woodsy tang that seemed to bring out the full beefy flavor rather than overpower it. The beans were equally extraordinary, with a smoky hint of Spanish pimiento seasoning in their red sauce.
"You guys must go through a lot of tri-tip," I said, and Cadam looked at me like I was an interloper from the Rotary.
"We don't even know what tri-tip is here," he said. "At the Elks Club, we only use top block (top sirloin)."
"The Elks have never done it any other way," said Scott quickly, hoping to avoid an incident. I let the matter drop.
Local restaurateur R.H. Tesene, in his book Santa Maria Style Barbecue, describes the hold beef has had over the community since the days of the great cattle ranches that occupied these surrounding hills. Tesene writes that John Charles Frémont camped his weary battalion at one such ranch in 1846.
In the '20s, the Santa Maria Club began to hold "stag barbecues" on the second Wednesday of every month. Santa Marians were big meat eaters: "For a Stag Barbecue of this type, [the Club] would plan for a pound and a half of meat per person," writes Tesene. He offered barbecue to travelers when he began to invite chefs to do the grilling at his Beacon Outpost and Cocktail Lounge in the '50s at gatherings attended by dozens of townspeople, as well as visiting celebrities like Jane Russell.
Across town, the elegant Santa Maria Inn hosted the likes of William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and their Hollywood pals when they stopped by on their way to San Simeon.
In 1952 in nearby Casmalia, a tiny outpost of 200 people on the coastal side of the rolling green pasturelands, a family of Italian immigrants opened the Hitching Post restaurant, which is still family owned and claims "the world's best bar-b-q steaks."
"We were doing this before there really was a Santa Maria barbecue," says Hitching Post manager Terri Stricklin. "We cook everything over red oak: halibut, lobster, and ribs, but steak is our specialty. We don't use tri-tip because our top sirloin is so excellent. Top sirloin really is the original Santa Maria barbecue."
I'm going to have to do a great deal more research before I decide if I'm a tri-tip guy or a top sirloin devotee. They both seem exquisite to me, but I have only begun to eat. With every fiber of my being calling out for meat, I succumb to the urge and light into another portion of juicy, delicious barbecue. Make no mistake about it: In Santa Maria, beef is what's for dinner.
Here's the beef
Santa Maria-style barbecue can be found at any number of restaurants and impromptu grills set up on Broadway and Main Street (follow the smell of red oak smoke), especially on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Barbecue restaurants include the Hitching Post (805-937-6151, www.hitchingpost1.com )
In Casmalia; the Far Western Tavern (805-343-2211, www.farwesterntavern.com )
in Guadalupe; Shaw's Steak House & Tavern (805-925-5862) on S. Broadway; and BBQ Land (805-346-8537), a take-out place on S. Broadway that sells an entire roasted tri-tip for $14.95. For Santa Maria's distinctive beans and seasonings, check out Susie Q's, a specialty food company operated by Clarence Minetti's daughter, Susan Righetti (805-937-2402, www.susieqbrand.com ).
Photography by Jessica Boone
This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.