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HERE'S THE BEEF : Perfect Steaks and Fries, and a Daring Pinot Noir--All in Cowboy Country

October 23, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

Since discovering The Hitching Post, a roadside steakhouse that features an updated version of Santa Maria barbecue, I keep finding excuses to head for the burnished-gold hills north of Santa Barbara. Exit off Highway 101 at Highway 246, in the direction of Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley. About a mile down the road is a brown building with a plain-spoken sign: World's Best BBQ Steaks. The parking lot is full and the air is scented wood-smoke.

As we pile out of the car, a lean cowboy lopes to the door, spurs softly jangling. The entrance is papered in hundreds of overexposed Polaroids taken at birthdays and anniversaries, which are celebrated at The Hitching Post with a serenade of kazoos. To one side is the bar, where a few die-hard smokers congregate. On the other is the dining room, decorated simply with sprigged wallpaper and old photos of solemn cowpokes on horseback.

We grab the table right outside the kitchen, where we have a great view of the grill at work. The burly, mustachioed fellow in a safari hat and double-breasted chef's jacket is owner Frank Ostini. The pace is fast and furious as thick filets, serious sirloins, hefty T-bones, slabs of ribs, halved artichokes and fat mushrooms go on the heavy ironwork grill. Ostini uses the hot spots to his advantage, moving pieces of this intricate puzzle about in response to the ever-changing oak fire.

The printed menu is superfluous. You have only to choose your cut of steak--and the size you think you can handle. (In 1952, when the Ostini family purchased their first steakhouse in Casmalia, just outside Santa Maria, steaks came in just one size: 20 ounces. Now they come in three sizes, down to 5 ounces.) The meat is Midwestern corn-fed beef, and with the exception of the filet, all are certified Angus.

Ostini is a true cook at heart. Since he took over the Buellton restaurant in 1986, he's expanded on the traditional menu of relish plate, shrimp cocktail or soup, salad, steak and fixings--for one all-inclusive price. He's added more appetizers, some interesting specials, grilled fish and a slew of homemade desserts. Pastry chef Susan Knauss turns out some tempting stuff, such as lemon-almond pound cake with fresh blackberry sauce or the tall slab of black gingerbread, served warm with a dollop of whipped cream.

But while still honoring the style of the Casmalia restaurant, now run by his brothers Bill and Bob Ostini, Frank has introduced some contemporary cooking and turned this Hitching Post into a sort of foodies' cowboy steakhouse. Good simple food like this, made with quality ingredients and with care and attention, is becoming harder and harder to find.

We start with a big platter of mixed appetizers: beautiful charred quails; grilled artichokes, blackened at the edges and served with a deliciously smoky tomato and ancho chile mayonnaise, and glossy pasilla chiles stuffed with shrimp and molten cheese. I also managed to sneak in an order of the special mushrooms, grilled and then finished off in a Pinot Noir sauce.

When you order the thick filet cooked rare, instead of being charred on the outside and cold in the center, the buttery meat is cooked rare all the way through. I've never had such perfectly grilled meat, and regulars tell me Ostini and chef Bradley Lettau can do it every time. Another secret is the basting, which is part of the Santa Maria barbecue tradition. The mixture of oil and vinegar keeps the meat from drying out on the outside. And the seasoning salt, traditionally a mix of salt, pepper and garlic (mostly salt, says Frank) adds flavor. Ostini's version includes a little onion, three kinds of pepper and cuts down dramatically on the salt.

Right up there with the steaks is the pale, moist pork loin that is first cold-smoked, then marinated in vinegar and oil before it is grilled whole. The baby-back ribs are notable, too--not a lick of barbeque sauce, just sweet meat with a haunting whiff of smoke.

A good baked potato you can have any day, but not these fries. Firm Idaho russets (and at the end of the season, local spuds) are peeled and thick-cut, then blanched and cooked twice in beef fat. Not exactly fitness fare, but worth the occasional indulgence.

Though Frank grew up in the restaurant business, he didn't envision a career in it. But a stint after college as bartender at the Casmalia Hitching Post got him interested in wine, and that led to a desire to do something with food. In 1979, he turned his hand to winemaking, eventually producing a house Pinot Noir for the restaurant, a skill he took with him when the family opened the Buellton Hitching Post.

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