The grill in action at The Hitching Post I. Photo by Jeffrey Bloom.

Red Oak Smoke Rising

Santa Maria-Style Barbecue

Where there’s smoke, there’s barbecue. But if that smoke is from red oak, more precisely California coast live oak, it just might be the famous Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Countless magazine articles, blog postings and even celebrity chefs have raved about our local barbecue—the meat, the menu and the tradition. If you grew up in Santa Barbara County, especially in Santa Maria, the smell of barbecue smoke is the smell of summer. And you would walk over hot coals to sink your teeth into the perfectly grilled beef of a tri-tip sandwich.

What if, on the other hand, you are new to this area—or you were raised by vegetarians? Sit back and let us explain.

There are some who think that all barbecue is Southern barbecue—centered around pork and various sauces. There are some who say that Santa Maria-style barbecue is grilling, not barbecue. Clearly they have not spent enough time on the Central Coast. And perhaps they have not experienced the real deal.

Although I have had excellent grilled tri-tip at any number of places in Santa Barbara, in order to get that real deal I decided I needed to head up to Santa Maria. I hooked up with fellow food writer and Santa Maria resident Maniya Untal to spend some time exploring the tradition and lore of Santa Maria-style barbecue.

The first thing that Maniya wanted to make sure I understood was that there are three very important components to authentic Santa Maria barbecue: the grill, the meat and the menu. The other thing that she didn’t mention, but rather demonstrated to me immediately, was that it’s all about hospitality. I suppose it’s probably pretty obvious that barbecue is not something that you make for yourself and eat solo in front of a television on a Tuesday night. Barbecue is about celebrating, getting together with people, and it’s about community.

I could not have felt more welcomed into the community than after the day I spent eating barbecue with Maniya and the Caicco family. Santa Maria has a population that is actually larger than the City of Santa Barbara, but there is a small-town feel to the place as soon as you start talking to people. Everyone is connected by one or two degrees of separation. And there is something about the process of fire, smoke and turning meat into a meal that brings us even closer together.

From left to right: Shawna Fisher, Mat Korsberg, Anna Dupuis, Julie Caicco, Joe Caicco, Krista Harris, Maniya Okol Untal, Vincenza Caicco-Korsberg.

From left to right: Shawna Fisher, Mat Korsberg, Anna Dupuis, Julie Caicco, Joe Caicco, Krista Harris, Maniya Okol Untal, Vincenza Caicco-Korsberg. Photo by Steven Brown.

When you are standing around a grill with the Caicco family, it’s a grill that is made locally by Santa Maria BBQ Outfitters, their family business. The grill and the pungent smell of the smoke takes you back to an earlier time.

The origins of barbecue in our area are murky, but it is likely that Native Americans used buried cooking pits, and the technique was picked up by the vaqueros, or cowboys, in the Spanish Colonial period. The local ranchos had enormous herds of cattle that were raised for hide and tallow export. At the end of the season the plentiful beef was cooked in large pits, and a fiesta tradition was established.

As the massive scale of pit cooking became less practical, the meat, often top-block sirloin, was cooked on rods over the hot coals of the local red oak. In the book Encarnación’s Kitchen, a translation of Encarnación Pinedo’s 1889 book El Cocinero Español, there are wonderful glimpses of what food was like in 19th-century California. She has a recipe for pit barbecued beef head (barbecoa carne asada en hoyo o cabeza tatenada), which calls for a pit at least three feet deep. The technique sounds like a very authentic old-style barbecue—although it’s interesting that she only refers to using this technique for the head.

Her recipe for Mexican-Style Grilled Beef (Asado de buey a la Mexicana en asado) says that this is the most primitive way to prepare it. She calls for threading the slices of meat on a four-sided iron rod with a point on the end. Her only other instruction is “Put it over some coals and watch it continuously, turning the meats so they stay moist yet get well browned.” This is good advice for a modern cook as well.

After World War II, restaurants started specializing in oak-grilled barbecued steaks. The first of these was The Hitching Post in Casmalia in the 1940s, then Shaw’s Steakhouse and Tavern in 1953, Jocko’s in 1956 and the Far Western Tavern in 1958. It was also in the 1950s that the tradition further evolved with the introduction of the tri-tip cut of beef. Sunset magazine helped spread the fame of Santa Maria-style barbecue, and it got a further lift in the 1980s when President Reagan featured it at his Santa Ynez ranch and later at several barbecues on the White House lawn.

The one thing that has changed since the early days of barbecue is the source of the meat. It’s difficult to find a place that sources local beef. But increasingly we are finding local grass-fed beef at farmers markets, so it is entirely possible to bring back this tradition.

And tradition is the core concept in Santa Maria-style barbecue. It has been highlighted by celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, and you can find numerous authentic and not-so-authentic recipes and blog entries about it on the Internet. But the best way to experience the tradition and the lore of Santa Maria barbecue is to be in Santa Maria. The concept may have spread, but the community and the sense of hospitality is right here, standing around a grill pumping out red oak smoke.

Recipe for Santa Maria-Style Barbecue Tri-Tip, Fresh Tomato Salsa and Barbecue Beans.

Krista Harris is the editor and co-publisher of Edible Santa Barbara. She was raised in San Diego and her first glimpse of tri-tip came in 1983 when she moved to Santa Barbara.
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