SANTA MARIA, Calif. — It's a bit more modest than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland or Cooperstown, N.Y.'s tribute to baseball, but neither of those made me hungry. After perusing the Santa Maria Style Barbecue Hall of Fame recently, I couldn't wait to get to a restaurant.
Having just moved to the area, I wanted to taste the quintessential meal that I'd heard and read so much about when I lived in Los Angeles during the 1970s and '80s. In the process, I discovered the hall of fame and learned to appreciate a style of cooking that Californians have been enjoying for a century.
The hall is actually a room in the Santa Maria Valley Historical Museum, in this Central Coast town of about 69,000. Photographs and memorabilia that cover the walls and fill several display cases chronicle the foods this area is famous for. Staff at the adjacent Chamber of Commerce supplied me with a list of area restaurants, and I was off on the trail of some hearty eating.
Many meals later, I concluded that what's cooked, the seasoning used and the accompanying side dishes have been expanded, varied and even totally changed since the mid-1800s, when Santa Maria barbecue originated. But the single factor sacred to everything is the use of live red oak as the heat source.
Back in the 1800s, huge cattle ranches dotted California's Central Coast. Most of the time, ranch hands handled the work, but when it came time for calf branding and roundups, more help was needed. Family and friends would pitch in, and when the work was finished, the owners served a Spanish-style barbecue. A pit was dug in the ground, and beef, threaded onto willow limbs, was cooked over a fire made with wood from local oak trees. Bread, salsa and pinquito beans were the traditional accompaniments.
In the early 1900s, metal rods replaced the tree branches, and in the late 1930s, sheet metal and concrete cooking pits with mechanically operated systems to raise and lower the rods were being used at some of the ranches.
By that time, stag barbecues were also being served in town at the Santa Maria Club, which had been formed in 1920 by area businessmen. The club's menu, copyrighted by the Chamber of Commerce in 1978 along with the name Santa Maria Style Barbecue, included top block sirloin beef from the upper back of the steer, barbecue beans, tossed green salad, macaroni and cheese, salsa, toasted French bread, a simple dessert and coffee.
Local restaurants had also begun serving foods cooked over red oak. Some of them--the Beacon Outpost, Landmark, Shaw's and Valley Farmer--have closed, but a few from that era remain and others have opened.
In the 1950s, only well-aged top block sirloin beef, 3 inches thick, was grilled, with salt, pepper and garlic salt. Today, you're more likely to see tri-tip roasts and ribs, some brushed with tomato-based barbecue sauces.
Metal grates have replaced the rods over the cooking pits. Pork ribs and chops, chicken (whole, half, parts or kebabs), turkey drumsticks, linguica and other sausages, quail, ham and all sorts of seafood now share space with the beef.
Sourdough is often used instead of French bread. Macaroni and cheese has disappeared or been replaced by macaroni salad. Salsa may or may not be available. Tossed green salad is almost always part of most restaurant meals.
Pinquito beans are still used as an accompaniment, but the seasoning varies, and sometimes they are even combined with other beans. Menus list them as chili beans, trail camp beans or ranch beans, but all are similar.
Despite my consumption of ample amounts of beef, beans and atmosphere, I couldn't reach a decision on my favorite of the restaurants and street stands. I'll leave that for you to decide.
A few blocks north of the Hall of Fame, the Swiss Chalet has been cooking meat in its oakwood pit since 1942. It grills five cuts of steak ($17.95 to $22.95), beef and pork ribs ($11.95 and $19.95), pork chops ($16.95), chicken ($11.95), prime rib on Friday and Saturday ($19.95) and sweetbreads ($14.95) and serves them with soup, salad, a choice of potato or rice pilaf, salsa, beans, garlic bread and coffee.
Lobster tail (market priced), crab legs ($22.95), calamari ($15.95) and most of the other seafood offerings can also be cooked over oak. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths contrast with the dark wood in the cozy two-part dining room reminiscent of a ski chalet.
A little farther north, at Donovan Road, the Central City Broiler has similar offerings and prices, but the meats are brushed with a house barbecue sauce. You get a choice of soup or salad and baked potato, fettuccine Alfredo or French fries, along with sourdough bread.