Santa Maria–Style Barbecue - Gastro Obscura

Prepared Foods

Santa Maria–Style Barbecue

Californian BBQ involves red oak, sirloin, and special grills.

American barbecue is world-renowned, with dozens of different styles. Cooking methods, sauces, and sides are hotly debated. For all these distinctions, most barbecue styles have one thing in common: They call the American South home. There’s one notable exception. In California’s Santa Ynez and Maria valleys, locals have been cooking their own kind of barbecue for more than a century. Plus, Santa Maria-style barbecue depends on so many regional ingredients that it’s unlikely to spread past California.

The star of Santa Maria barbecue is the beef, typically a triangular cut of sirloin known as “tri-tip,” which gets seasoned with simple garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Chefs use parillas, grills with shelves that can be moved up or down to control the heat, to cook the meat over a fire of red oak (which imparts a unique fragrance). When they’re ready, the slices of beef are often served with specific sides: rosy, local pinquito beans, macaroni, buttery garlic or French bread, green salad, and a chunky tomato salsa. Chicken, sausages, and grilled vegetables from the rich farmland of the Central Coast, such as asparagus and artichokes, are optional.

A vibrant cultural mix gave rise to Santa Maria barbecue. Cattle-raising Spanish landowners in the region once owned vast swaths of the Californian countryside, and their barbecues were legendary. When the Spanish were pushed out by American settlers, the area’s new residents retained the tradition of barbecues for special events. The result was a Spanish-Mexican-American combination feast, cooked by local caterers, social clubs, and restaurants.

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Anne Ewbank Anne Ewbank