Santa Maria Style Barbecue

Steak is the sizzle in the Central Coast’s oldest culinary tradition, and the region’s wines match perfectly.


Published:

When Frank Ostini drives upcoast to cook with his buddies, it is no light jaunt.

Ostini is the owner of The Hitching Post II (hitchingpost2.com) in the modest Santa Barbara town of Buellton. The restaurateur occasionally drives to Bien Nacido Vineyard to cook a special lunch with a couple of buddies, Matt and Jeff Nichols, the chef-owners of Brothers’ Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern (matteistavern.com), in nearby Los Olivos. At such times, Ostini takes his portable grill with him—his half-ton portable barbecue grill, running on its two rear wheels, hitched to the back of his pickup truck.

Is it tough hauling the 1,000-pound steel monster 25 miles along the freeway? Ostini laughs. “That’s a short ride. We’ve driven that thing to Oregon!” Ostini had the steel grill built in 1987 specifically to cook large portions of Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Reduced to its simplest definition—minus the innumerable interpretations that always mark barbecue talk—traditional Santa Maria-style BBQ is beef (not necessarily tri-tip, although some will insist that it must be) grilled hot over native red coastal oak (and only red oak). The meat is placed on flat steel rods and lowered over the fire. Cooktime is generally 45 minutes, but can stretch to 90. The meat is prepared, cooked and served at one time; nothing is prepared ahead of time. It is served family-style with side dishes, especially pinquito beans and salsa. One other thing about Santa Maria BBQ: it is not based on a barbecue sauce, but on a spice rub.

Let’s pause to acknowledge that definitions of BBQ for all but the purists are fluid and forgiving. Grilling vs. barbecue, direct heat vs. indirect, slow vs. fast, smoke vs. fire. All I will say is, the Santa Maria tradition is long and well respected: it’s a form of grill cooking that has been called (in Sunset Magazine) “the best barbecue in the world.” Even the Web site, TexasBarbecue.com (and needless to say, Texas prides itself on its BBQ), hails it as “legendary...There really is no argument anywhere that Santa Maria Barbecue is Tri-Tip Beef Barbecue at its best.”

You can order a meal of Santa Maria barbecue in a restaurant like The Hitching Post or Mattei’s Tavern, but it best expresses its spirit, says restaurateur Rick Manson, at “a backyard party.” Manson owns a restaurant (Chef Rick’s Ultimately Fine Foods in Santa Maria, chefricks.com) and is also a caterer, so he knows what he’s talking about.

BBQ with Mexican roots

“It all started with the vaqueros [cowboys] in the 1800s,” says Eddie Plemmons, who, with his wife, Joanne, runs Plemmons Catering (plemmonscatering.com), which specializes in traditional Santa Maria BBQ. After a long day running cattle, the cowboys would load deep earthen pits with piles of red oak (Quercus agrifolia), let the coals get super-hot, then pile on the meat. The vaqueroes in turn probably learned this ancient cooking technique from the Native-American Chumash people, who had lived in the region for at least 13,000 years.
 

The cowboys relished their protein, but their active lifestyle also called for carbs, which they found in the small, indigenous, pink-brickish-colored beans, called pinquitos, that are still the most popular side dish to eat with Santa Maria BBQ.

The vaqueros are gone, but Santa Maria-style barbecue remains popular throughout the South-Central Coast of California. “Barbecue was all about a hard day’s work and looking forward to what was coming at the end of the day: all that food,” remembers Eli Parker, who ran cattle for his dad, the actor-turned-vintner Fess (who died last March). “That was the tradition I grew up with.”

From the street corners of Santa Maria

Why do they call it “Santa Maria-style” instead of “Santa Barbara-style”? “It started decades ago with street corner barbecue in Santa Maria [city],” says Manson, whose restaurant is in this working class, coastal community of 92,500 people. “There would be fundraiser barbecues all across town, on every corner and parking lot.” Non-profits, such as churches, Mexican and Filipino community organizations and the YMCA, would sell barbecue for a few bucks, piling the meat, pinquito salad and sides onto paper plates. A hungry public lined up, especially on weekends, drawn by the pungent aroma of smoky grilled meat and spices.

Another question: Why did Santa Maria-style BBQ not develop a sauce, the way Texas barbecue did? It’s hardly academic, given the passions barbecue of all kinds arouses. “I can only speculate, but I figure we stumbled onto something that tasted so good on its own, it didn’t have to hide under a sauce,” says Ostini. “The spices and smoke flavor, and the caramelizing effect of grilling, are all in balance, and complement the natural flavor of the food.” Rick Manson says that to sauce such “beautiful meat” as the Santa Barbara ranchers raised would be “a slap in the face!”, while Eli Parker dismisses the thought with one word: “sacrilegious.” Yet there may be real historical antecedents. “This is a result of the Spanish/Mexican influence on the Santa Maria-style BBQ,” explains Matt Nichols, from Mattei’s Tavern. “The tomato salsa takes the place of a sauce.”

Although the spice rub is invariably based on salt, pepper, and garlic (often with minced parsley; there’s also a good deal of debate over the use of sugar), everyone has his or her, often secret, recipe. (See sidebar, “Santa Maria at home”)

Rare red oak, bountiful red wine

Coastal California red oak isn’t widely available, even in Santa Barbara County, where there are ordinances against cutting trees. Plemmons Catering gets theirs from trimmings, or from trees toppled by big storms, common throughout the winter. Itinerant vendors gather it, then sell it door-to-door to local barbecue restaurants. “They’ll drive right up to the back door with a truckful,” says Kevin Plemmons, who burns his way through two cords a month. If you can’t get real California coastal red oak, Matt Nichols suggests “a mixture of any hardwood and some fruit tree, such as apple or pear.”

Far from rare in this barbecue tradition is flavor and variety. At one big dinner in the Santa Ynez Valley I had barbecued artichokes with spicy aioli; bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese; mixed green salad with caramelized pecans, pear and blue cheese; oak-barbecued tri-tip and chicken breast; plus beans, salsa, garlic bread, potatoes and vegetables.

Such a huge spectrum of flavors calls for a variety of wines to match. Steakhouse reds of course—Santa Barbara produces some outstanding Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs. A rich, oaky SB County Chardonnay goes surprisingly well with everything. Beer, obviously, would not be out of place. (See also the sidebar on Bourbon)

But this isn’t the time to be fussy. Santa Maria-style BBQ is all about relaxation with family and friends, with lots to eat and drink. As Eli Parker puts it, “This was all about feeding a bunch of hungry cowboys.” In a way, it still is.

Santa Maria style Black & Bleu Caesar Salad

“This is called black and bleu because of the gorgonzola and the way I like my steaks grilled, black and blue,” says Chef Rick Manson of Chef Rick’s Ultimately Fine Foods in Santa Maria. He means “hard” (some might say burned) on the outside and rare (sometimes meaning raw) on the inside. But of course, this salad will be delicious no matter how you like your steak.

For the dressing
1 cup best quality mayonnaise
3⁄4 teaspoon anchovy paste, or 2 to 3 canned anchovy filets 
“smashed” into a paste
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
3⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the steak
1 giant 2-pound rib eye steak
1 1⁄2 tablespoons Susie Q’s Santa Maria Style Seasoning, or
 to taste (or mix 1 tablespoon of salt, 11⁄2 teaspoon freshly
 ground black pepper, and 11⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
 together)

For the salad
2 large heads of romaine lettuce, cleaned and cut into 
1- to 2-inch pieces
2 cups croutons
3⁄4 cup freshly grated parmesan, or to taste
1⁄2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
2 tomatoes, cut into large dice

Make the dressing: Mix all of the dressing ingredients together. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Prep and grill the steak: Allow the steak to come to room temperature then rub the seasoning all over it. Over a medium-hot fire, preferably one burning red oak, grill the steak until the exterior is very brown, almost black, and very crusty, about 8 to 9 minutes per side. To check for doneness, nick the meat (no thermometers for this barbecue chef) on one side and look at the color. It will appear slightly rarer than it will actually be after resting. Remove the steak from the fire, and while it rests for 5 minutes, make the salad.
 

Make the salad: Place the romaine in a large bowl. Toss in the croutons, sprinkle in the parmesan and gorgonzola cheeses. Drizzle with desired amount of dressing and toss well.

To serve: Place one fourth of the salad onto the center of 4 salad
platters. Cut the steak into slices and place one fourth on top of each salad. Drizzle a little dressing on the meat and sprinkle once again with more parmesan. Serves 4.

Wine recommendations: Try with a dense, full-bodied red wine. Good choices include Zaca Mesa 2006 Black Bear Block Syrah and the spicy Byron 2007 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir. If the salad has you thinking white wine, Longoria 2008 Cuvée Diana Chardonnay will fit the bill.

Barbecued Artichokes with Spicy Aioli

Artichokes may be that item everyone claims can’t pair with wine, but the spicy aioli mitigates the choke’s vegetal flavors, with olive oil and butter adding richness. This recipe, which puts a Latin flair on traditional Italian aioli by substituting jalapeños for garlic, is from Joanne Plemmons of Plemmons Catering.

Spicy Aioli
2 jalapeños
2 roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups mayonnaise
Salt and pepper, to taste
Artichokes
3 whole artichokes
4 lemons, divided
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon salt
1⁄2 cup butter, melted
BBQ seasoning

Make the spicy aioli: Brush jalapeños and tomatoes with olive oil then spinkle with salt and pepper. Grill until tender. Remove stems and then blend in the blender with olive oil until puréed. Mix half of the purée with mayonnaise. Taste, add more purée is necessary. (The other half may be used for salsa).

Prepare artichokes: Trim all of the thorns and peel the stems. Cut in half and remove the hair/chokes. Squeeze lemons into enough water to submerge the chokes. Set the submerged chokes aside.

Cook artichokes: Cut the two remaining lemons into eighths. In a medium-large stock pot add water, lemons segments, white wine, peppercorns and salt and artichokes. Bring to a boil then simmer, 25 to 30 minutes or until tender. Remove artichokes from water and drain. Preheat the grill. Brush the artichokes with melted butter and season with seasoning and grill, face down first. Grill approximately 6–8 minutes on each side. Serve half an artichoke per guest along with the spicy aioli. Serves 6.

Wine recommendations: Try this with a rich, spicy Santa Barbara red wine, such as Stolpman 2007 La Croce blend of Sangiovese and Syrah, or with a ripe, oaky Chardonnay, like Rusack 2008 Reserve.

Santa Maria at Home

If you want to hold a Santa Maria-style barbecue at home, here are some details that will help make it happen.

The grill. At home, Santa Marians use a locally stylized pit with a moveable grill rather than the steel rods. So yes, a standard grill is fine.
The meat. Top sirloin is the acknowledged top choice, but many Santa Marians still revere the tri-tip, which is the bottom cut of a sirloin roast, or more specifically a triangular section of the sirloin primal.

The wood. As noted, red oak is difficult to find (for good reasons). Also as noted, “a mixture of any hardwood and some fruit tree, such as apple or pear” was mentioned as a good substitute. Mesquite and oak chips have been offered as alternatives too.

The rub. To purchase Hitching Post’s Magic Dust, go to hitchingpost2.com (For Frank Ostini’s recipe, click on winemag.com/santabarbbq.) To purchase Susie Q’s click on susieqbrand.com. Be aware that some commercial rubs contain MSG.

The beans. If you can’t find pinquitos at your local markets, pinto beans may be substituted, but plan ahead for the real thing: try poquitos.com or mclintocks.com or, again, Susie Q’s (susieqbrand.com)

Also See:
Additional Santa Maria-style BBQ recipes
Advice on pairing wines with BBQ food
A 'cue-torial on Southern-style BBQ as well as rub recipes from a Texan master griller
David Rosengarten’s pet grilling peeves

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