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Summer Grilling | Cooking | THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Finally, the tri-tip of his dreams

Santa Maria barbecue has always been great; here's how to make it even better, right in your own backyard.

June 29, 2005|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Even though it was almost 20 years ago, my mouth still waters when I remember my first taste of great Santa Maria barbecue. I was meandering up the 5 Freeway on my way north. It was lunchtime, and for some reason Coalinga sounded like a nice place to stop (hey, I was new to California). I drove into town with my windows rolled down, following a trail of wood smoke to a parking lot where there was a tarp tent. Under it, a guy was busy tending one of those oil-drum barbecues.

He pulled a chunk of meat off the side of the grill, sliced it thin and layered it on a plate with a little bit of the carving juices. I took a bite and had to pause to catch my breath. It was a perfect piece of beef: pinkish medium-rare inside with a slightly charred crust outside and an irresistible tang of smoke. I gulped down the rest and asked him to make me three sandwiches to go -- one for right away, one for the drive and one for my hotel room in case I got hungry that night.

I still dream about that lunch.

For those who know Santa Maria barbecue, this will be no surprise. It is one of California's heritage foods, as much a part of the state's culinary soul as abalone and orange trees. On the Central Coast, you'll find it at restaurants, charity fundraisers, farmers markets and even stalls set up in random parking lots -- basically anywhere a crowd of hungry people might gather.

Delicious as it is when it's done right, Santa Maria barbecue can also be incredibly frustrating. Cooking the meat so it has just the right tinge of smoke but still remains moist requires walking a fine line, and it seems as though most cooks stumble.

I can't tell you how many times I've detoured off highways between Los Angeles and San Francisco, hoping that by some miracle my dream will repeat itself.

But too often my barbecue fantasies have been dashed on the shoals of careless cooking -- meat that is over-smoked and bitter or, more commonly, overcooked to the point of parching.

So this season, rather than waiting for someone else to make my dream come true, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I would try to create the perfect Santa Maria barbecue in my backyard, using nothing but my standard kettle grill. While I was at it, I'd attack the traditional, usually lackluster, accompaniments too. Doesn't one of the great stars of the grill deserve equally fabulous supporting players?

To me, this was a project worthy of Nobel Prize consideration -- great barbecue that didn't require a road trip.

Cut from a different cloth

Santa MARIA barbecue is based on a thick cut of meat -- somewhere between a steak and a roast -- that is perfumed by wood smoke but, unlike most traditional barbecues, has a seared peppery crust on the outside and is still juicy and pink inside.

I have no quarrel with the side of beans that usually accompanies them -- especially if they're the local pinquito. But the rest of the meal frankly smacks of obligation -- they just needed something extra to fill the plate. It shouldn't be that way.

First, a little history. Santa Maria barbecue is a throwback to California's rancho days. Traditionally, it was made by threading 3-inch-thick blocks of top sirloin on willow poles and then cooking them over long pits filled with smoldering coals of local red oak.

Although most barbecue is cooked slowly to let it absorb the most smoke and tenderize tough cuts such as ribs and brisket, Santa Maria barbecue is much more like grilling, though there is a smoky aspect because of the 30 minutes or so it takes to cook that much meat. But this is barbecue you can serve rare.

These days, rather than those monstrous top sirloin blocks, the meat is more likely to be tri-tip, which has the main advantage of coming in family-sized pieces of 2 to 3 pounds. The tri-tip began to gain popularity in the late 1950s when, according to Santa Maria legend, a local butcher named Bob Schutz started setting aside meat he had previously ground into hamburger.

This was a handy bit of timing, because that is just when Santa Maria barbecue was beginning to boom.

Though it had always been appreciated locally, during the 1950s its reputation was spread by the hordes of hungry pilots and other Air Force personnel who had trained at Vandenberg Air Force Base during and after World War II.

Traditionally, Santa Maria barbecue was a big group feed. The best-known was the one held every month at the private Santa Maria Club from the early 1920s to the early 1980s.

And in the 1950s and '60s, volunteer barbecue teams from the local chamber of commerce and Elks Lodges spread the reputation by taking it on the road for fundraisers, cooking for events as varied as political conventions and studio openings.

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