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Worth Its Wait

This Santa Maria Barbecue Is Hours Away, but the Steaks and Wine Justify the Drive

June 09, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

A few weeks ago, I called a friend who had been working for months without a break and proposed a spur-of-the-moment get-away. "You drive, I'll buy dinner," I told him. I let slip the destination: Buellton. "The home of Andersen pea soup?" he asked, with a maybe-I-won't-be-taking-that-vacation-after-all tone.

"It's not what you're thinking," I hastened to explain. "I want to take you to a cowboy steakhouse for some great Santa Maria barbecue."

"Well, then, agreed."

From Los Angeles, the sleepy little town at the edge of the Santa Ynez wine country is just over two hours on 101 north. The restaurant is The Hitching Post II, a descendant of the Santa Maria-style barbecue restaurant in Casmalia founded by Frank and Natalie Ostini in 1952 and still run by their children. A son, Frank Ostini, opened the Buellton steakhouse in 1986 and turned this Hitching Post into a Central Coast hangout for food and wine lovers.

When we arrive, we manage to get the last remaining spot at the very back of the dirt parking lot. We breathe in the scent of eucalyptus, pine and, unmistakably, a trace of horse manure. This is cowboy country, after all. Under a darkening sky, we stroll toward the front, the smells of red oak and charred beef wafting from the kitchen suddenly making us ravenous.

In this era of the constant upgrade, it's pleasant to find the place hasn't changed since I last was here. It looks like what it is: the best dinner house in a laid-back country town. You won't see its light fixtures featured in the next issue of Dwell or Metropolitan Home. The walls get the old-fashioned treatment--wallpaper--punctuated with framed black-and-white photos of local cowpokes on horseback. In the foyer, a posse of locals visit goodnaturedly as they wait for tables, checking to see if any spots have opened up at the bar, where Ostini is holding court.

As we thread our way toward the bar, I spy two young couples on their way to the prom. They look adorable. One of the guys is wearing a black Stetson and chic nerdy glasses; the other sports a boutonniere and sleek tuxedo. A waitress rushes in, calling out, "Miss, you forgot your purse." As she holds out a minute petal-pink number, a girl in a matching satin dress turns, giggling, to accept it.

On the front of the menu, Ostini is listed as chef and winemaker. Not many restaurants can boast their own winemaker. For 10 years, Ostini and his winemaking partner, commercial fisherman Gray Hartley, were tenants at Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria Valley. Last year, the two began renting a larger facility nearby, where they make The Hitching Post wines. They don't own any land. Instead, they buy grapes, some from the famous Bien Nacido and Sanford & Benedict vineyards. Last vintage, they made seven different Pinot Noirs.

You can taste several current releases at the bar and buy bottles retail to take home, with a 20% discount if you buy by the case. The markups aren't high. Their top Pinot Noir, the 1999 Highliner, for example, is $50 on the wine list, $40 to take home.

The menu isn't very big, but then it doesn't have to be. What it offers is honest food at honest prices. Everybody gets a complimentary relish plate, something I haven't seen since I was a kid. Nostalgic or not, it's amazing how good a carrot or celery stick can taste salted and chilled in ice. I also love that it's served with packaged crackers.

Every entree comes with shrimp cocktail or soup, salad and your choice of baked potato, fries or rice pilaf. (A "lite" option eliminates the shrimp cocktail course for a discount of $2.) The cocktail is a heap of pretty rock shrimp in a spunky horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. The night's chicken-and-vegetable soup is more of a chicken chowder in a tomato-tinged broth. The salad, too, is perfectly fine, and the Thousand Island dressing isn't too sweet.

I always end up ordering too much food because I won't give up favorite a la carte appetizers. Steamed artichokes are finished off on the grill. Smoky and charred at the edge, they're fantastic alone or dipped into a gutsy roasted tomato-ancho chile mayonnaise. Glossy black Santa Barbara mussels are steamed in beer and served with plenty of juices to waltz your bread through. If you're partial to little birds, get the juicy grilled California quails.

The main event, though, is the beef sizzling on the Santa Maria-style grill, a massive iron affair with chains that lower the grate over the red oak fire. The beef is Midwestern corn-fed Black Angus, and, in this style of barbecue, it's basted with oil and vinegar to keep from drying out. The cooks also step up the flavor with what Ostini calls his magic dust, which includes a little onion, garlic, three kinds of pepper and less salt than the traditional Santa Maria 'cue.

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