The origin of the name "Santa Maria barbecue"

August 4, 2001

By JOE O'CONNELL, cbbqa past President 

What's in a name

The grilled tri-tip roast is called many names, including "Santa Maria barbecue" and "Santa Maria style barbecue".  Barbecue cooks doe not refer to "eastern North Carolina style barbecue", nor "Kansas City style barbecue", nor "Memphis style barbecue".  Why then do some cooks refer to "Santa Maria style barbecue"?  

The reason could be as simple as the "why not?" - it's just the name.  But there is another, plausible and more interesting reason, involving lawyers.

Copyright and style

Perhaps because the City of Santa Maria copyrighted the name. These recipes have appeared in numerous cookbooks, brochures, and newspaper articles. To quote an article in the Santa Maria Times: "A copyright, held by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, protects the name, the concept, and the menu. This action came to stop commercial ventures from advertising their barbecue when it wasn't `the real thing.'"

We don't refer to eastern North Carolina "style" whole-hog barbecue, or Owensboro "style" mutton barbecue, or Kansas City "style" barbecue. So we'll drop the "style" and refer only to Santa Maria barbecue.

Location of Santa Maria

Santa Maria is the largest city in the Santa Maria Valley. It is the center of the valley, eighty miles north of Santa Barbara and thirty miles south of San Louis Obispo. It used to be called Central City, but the post office delivered the citizens of Central City, California's mail to Central City, Colorado. In 1882, its name was changed to Santa Maria.

Origin of California Barbecue

history of the missions -- that California BBQ predates Eastern BBQ, including the word BBQ (did the word and style travel from California to East?)

Santa Maria Style Barbeque originated back when cowboys would gather under towering oaks for barbeques after a days work of branding calves and steer.

-- GeneG's theory

In the early days of California cattle ranching, the missions carved up large rancheros. During the early and late summer, parties were held at the rancheros under the oak trees. Red oak is prevalent along the central coast of California.

In the early 1800s, the mainstay of the economy was cattle. Americas very first cowboys were not from Kansas or Texas -- they were the vaqueros from California. Following every cattle roundup, the vaqueros held large beef barbecues on the ranchos. Santa Maria barbecue features simplicity -- minimal seasonings, minimal preparations, minimal cooking. There are no sauces.  It is served with toasted French or sourdough bread to sop up the juices released during slicing.

3. Original Cut of Meat in Santa Maria Barbecue

The meat for Santa Maria barbecue was originally prime, boneless, top sirloin, but about 3" thick and weighing 3 to 4 pounds. (Note that all but the largest tri-tips weigh less than 2 pounds.) Cooked over a bed of red oak wood coals. The "Santa Maria style of California Barbecue" started around 1950 in Santa Maria. The meat is strung on flat steel rods and rubbed before cooking with a mixture of black pepper, salt and garlic. Although most sites report that the cooking time is about 45 minutes, by actual experience the cooking time should be not much more than half that -- about 25 minutes, over a very hot bed of wood coals. What is unique about this Santa Maria barbecue is that there is no preparation -- the rub is applied immediately before cooking, and the meat is not trimmed. Barbecues were held at which prime top sirloin.

tri-tip history

4. Origin of the Use of the Tri-tip Cut

explain the butcher in SM with too many tri-tips. Santa Maria barbecue does back centuries, but the discover and addition of tri-tip cut is recent. The history is retold by Larry Viegas [try to find his book, Source: Larry Viegas, On The Road ] The tri-tip cut is promoted as the central coast's "exclusive gastronomic delight".  In the late 1950s, a butcher in Santa Maria, Bob Schutz, was working on a Friday, grinding truckloads of tri-tip for hamburger. Schutz seasoned the end cut with salt, pepper and garlic, and cooked it on his rotisserie. Fellow workers and friends who tried the meat found it a perfect balance between taste and tenderness -- without the blandness of tenderloin or the toughness of sirloin. Shutz promoted the tri=tip cut to his customers in Santa Maria, and it quickly spread throughout Santa Maria and the cnetral coast as a delicious and low-cost cut, ideal for outdoor barbecues.

After strung onto flat steel rods, the steak is lowered over the red oak coals.


Larry Viegas' memory is fuzzy about the exact date of the discovery of tri tip--a barbecue favorite on the Central Coast. It was sometime in the late 1950s, he suspects.

But of one thing the Santa Maria man is certain--he was there when the first tri tip was prepared, ushering in a word-of-mouth success story for a cut of beef that was never held in much respect.

Viegas, a butcher, was a summer vacation replacement at the old Safeway store at the corner of Mill and Vine streets in Santa Maria (now the site of a high-rise housing unit for seniors). He was cutting large beef loins into sections of preferred top block sirloin and filet; the triangular shaped tips of the sirloin were set aside.

"We would cut it up in chunks for stew meat," he recalls, "and sometimes it would be used for hamburger."

But that day there was an overabundance of hamburger and stew meat, and the triangular cut was about to be wasted.

In the pinch, meat market manager Bob Shutz experimented. He bought a piece of the unwanted meat, seasoned it with salt, pepper and garlic salt, and placed it on a rack in his department's rotisserie.

"He just let it go around... for 45 minutes or an hour," Viegas says. "I told him he was going to chew that meat all day long, it was usually so tough. But I had never tried it in a whole piece."

He was in for a shock. "I couldn't believe it was going to be as tender as it was and as delicious as it was. The supervisor from the Santa Barbara office came into the store and tried it himself, and he wanted to know what it was."

It was a new cut "with a texture of its own and a flavor all its own," he says. And at the time its cost was significantly less than what was being charged for the traditional cuts of beef--about 90 cents a pound versus $1.90 - $1.95 a pound for top sirloin.

Shutz dubbed it "tri tip" and began giving samples to customers and occasionally selling a cooked piece. It was not an overnight success; Safeway didn't promote tri tip or sell it anywhere except at the Santa Maria store, Viegas says.

The breakthrough occured when Shutz opened his own meat market, known as the old Santa Maria Market, on North Broadway. He promoted the new cut and taught customers how to prepare it. Williams Brothers picked up the idea and began to market tri tip through its Central Coast chain.

For two decades tri tip remained a Central Coast -- and particularly Santa Maria -- delicacy. "I would ask a butcher in Santa Barbara for a tri tip," says Viegas, "and he wouldn't know what I was talking about."

Visitors and workers transferring from Vandenberg Air Force Base slowly spread the word. "People from the (San Joaquin) Valley were coming over here and buying it by the case and taking it back for barbecuing," Viegas recalls.

In 1986 tri tip can be found in many independent groceries in California, although it is still an unfamiliar word to barbecuers in most other states.

It is their loss, because when prepared properly tri tip is the ideal barbecue meat.

"It can be harder to work than other cuts," cautions Viegas, who learned to barbecue at the old Santa Maria Club (now the Landmark restaurant) and has worked at barbecues serving as many as 5,000 people.

"It can be a tough piece of meat if you make the mistake of taking all the fat off. If you put the fat side of the tri tip on the fire first, the moisture will come up through the meat and make it tender."

Viegas' procedure is to sear the lean part of the meat over the fire for 5-10 minutes to seal in the juices, then flip over to the fat side for 30-45 minutes, depending on degree of doneness expected. When juice appears at the top of the meat, it is time to flip for another 30-45 minutes.

The fat can easily be trimmed after cooking, he says.

Source: Larry Viegas, On The Road


5. Exactly what is the tri-tip cut?

The tri-tip is the "triangular cut from the corner cut of a top sirloin cut of beef". Some butchers call the tri-tip a "bottom sirloin" (part of the top sirloin and part of the sirloin tip). Other butchers call it the "bottom sirloin butt" or the "corner cut of the top sirloin cut of beef".

"In the old days," according to Mike Dykes, the owner of Santa Maria's Arroyo Grande Meat Company, "the butchers had a cut they called the 'standard cut' which had top sirloin on one side, the bone in the middle, then the filet, and the tail part was the tri-tip. Only nobody knew it."

Using the IMPS/NAMP designations, a tri-tip may be defined precisely. "A tri-tip part of the Beef Loin, Sirloin (181). The Sirloin is separated into the Top Sirloin (181A), Butt Tenderloin (191), and Bottom Sirloin Butt (185). The Bottom Sirloin Butt is further separated into The Flap (185A), Ball Tip (185B), and the Tri-Tip (185C). The Tri-Tip is separated from the Ball Tip and the Flap through the natural seam. Any cartilage or connective tissue is trimmed. This cut can also be de-fatted (185D)." - also see pictures of how a beef carcass is cut to yield the tri-tip.

An average beef of 600 to 700 pounds yields only two tri-tips, each about 2 pounds or so. Most packers across the US ship it to markets in California.

6. How to prepare and cook the authentic Santa Maria Tri-tip Barbecue

At our house, tri-tip is our favorite summer party fare. A couple of suggestions:

(1) Buy the biggest Choice Grade (or even Prime Grade) tri-tip that you can find. At least 3 pounds, and more if you can find it. And forget Select Grade -- it'll be too tough. Leave the fat on. [Historical note: the tri-tip cut was not the original cut for the Santa Maria barbecue. Instead, it was prime top sirloin, cut 3" thick.]

In the early days of the huge ranches, the rancheros, with their friends, gathered frequently under the oaks of this serene little valley for Spanish barbecues. The present Santa Maria Style Barbecue grew out of this tradition, and achieved its "style" some 50 years ago when local residents began to string their beef on skewers and cook it over the hot coals of a red oak fire.

Prime top sirloin, about three inches thick, is cooked over a fire of coals from the Santa Maria Valley red oak wood. Salt, pepper and garlic salt are the only seasonings used. The steaks are strung on flat steel rods, which are gradually lowered over a bed of red hot coals. Cooking time is usually about 45 minutes." Click here

(2) Cover the tri-tip with a THICK layer (a "rub") of garlic/salt/pepper. You can use "garlic salt" but purists prefer to use garlic powder and then salt, separately. If you have the time, leave it covered and refrigerate overnight. (If you don't have enough time, no problem: give it a thick covering and throw it on the grill.)

(3) One hour before starting to grill, take the tri-tip out of the refrigerator and let it sit, so that the temperature rises about to room temperature.

Reason -- the internal temperature difference between the refrigerated and room temperature tri-tip is at least 30F -- between 40F and 70F. The difference between a rare tri-tip and well-done tri-tip is only 20F -- 140F for rare, and 160F for well-done. [Note for novices -- these internal temperature differences are to be used only for BEEF - definitely not for poultry, pork or other meat.] The outside of the tri-tip will sear and attain the perfect flavor and texture in about 7 minutes per side (there are 5 sides on a tri-tip, so the total cooking time should be around 25 minutes [note that this will vary because of differences in the quality of the meat, the outside temperature, humidity and wind, the type and amount of wood or charcoal, the size of the fire, the distance from the meat to the fire, etc etc.] Back to the reason to let the meat's internal temperature rise to room temperature: In 7 minutes per side of cooking, the internal temperature -- about 3 inches into the meat -- will climb about 70F. If the internal temperature begins at 70F, then in 7 minutes it will be a perfect 140F for rare-meat lovers. But if the meat starts at only 40F internally, then its internal temperature will be only 110F after 7 minutes, so it won't be done. So the meat will have to stay longer on the fire -- perhaps another 3 minutes per side, or 15 minutes total -- in order for its internal temperature to reach 140F. But by then the outside 1" of the meat will be over-cooked and dry. That's the reason to let the meat come up to room temperature: in effect, you are pre-cooking the inside.

(4) When ready to grill, make sure that the coals from burned down wood -- red oak is the traditional choice in Santa Maria, because that's what's there -- or charcoal (lump is best) is VERY VERY hot and that the flames have died down. The charcoal should be covered with a light gray ash. To get a very hot grill, you'll need to use lots of charcoal -- for one good sized tri-tip, use about 5 pounds of lump. Here in environmentally aware California, to start our charcoal fire, we use a "chimney" rather than charcoal lighter fluid, and the chimney that I use holds about 5 pounds of lump. I use a Weber Kettle and put the lump in the charcoal holders so that the charcoal is about 4" deep. After the fire is perfect, put on the grill and let it get very hot. Just before putting on the meat, brush the grill with some olive oil.

(5) I start with the fat side up, but in truth it makes no difference. According to Larry Viegas (see the web site), "If you put the fat side of the tri tip on the fire first, the moisture will come up through the meat and make it tender." The problem I have with this is that, as the fat warms, it will drip down into the fire and will not evaporate until it's in the fire. But it doesn't make any real difference, because you have to turn the tri-tip after 1 or 2 minutes per side so that you sear it on all sides. Note that, in order to sear the thin edges, you have to figure out a way to balance the tri-tip on one end. If you're cooking several at once, it's easy to lean them against one another, but if you're cooking only one, you'll have to use a long wooden spatula or some other jerry-rigged device to balance the tri-tip on its thin edges.

(6) The BIG SECRET: when you first put the tri-tip on the grill, the fire might start flaming. This is GOOD to a point: the fire will totally blacken the meat (which is what you want). Let the flames blacken one side of the tri-tip for 30 or 45 seconds, and then rotate the tri-tip to do a different side. (There are a total of six sides.) But don't overdo the flames: the idea is to sear the juices in and to create a wonderfully delicious crust, but not to dry out the meat. After the flames have seared the meat so that it's black all around, then move the meat to the side or back of the grill, where it is still VERY HOT but not directly above the fire so that it will NOT FLAME.

(7) The total cooking time varies, and there is no absolute. Tri-tip is best when seared (blackened) on the outside, which is crunchy with the garlic and salt, and when it's red rare in the center. Cooking time depends on how big the tri-tip is, how rare you like it, the heat of the fire and the distance from the coals to the meat. For a 3 pound tri-tip, I'd plan for a total of about 30 minutes, with constant attention, but keep in mind that I like it very rare. Be careful with timing, though: the web site says that a tri-tip can take up to 90 minutes!!! It seems to me that, to take so long, the fire would have to be pretty cool (and/or the grill would have to be high above the coals), but this would dry out the meat. No recommended.

(8) About halfway through, put the bell peppers on. I learned that tri-tip is best accompanied by colorful bell peppers (the red, orange, and yellow are the sweetest, but some prefer the traditional green bell pepper, which has a stronger taste). Before hand, slice the bell peppers in half (plan for one-half of a bell pepper per person) and de-seed them. Cook them until you can see grill marks but not until they're soft or black. Then turn them over to cook on the inside. Finally, turn them back, so that the outside is down, and place thin strips of Monterey Jack cheese inside the bell peppers. Continue to cook until the cheese begins to melt a little bit. Don't overdo the cooking -- they are best when still fresh and crispy.

(9) When you think that the meat is done, remove it from the fire and cut it in half (to check that it's done). Remember that, even after you take the meat off the grill, it is continuing to cook. So, when you cut into the meat to check that it's done, it should be even rarer than you want. If it's done, leave it for 7 minutes (not 5, not 10) -- so that the juices settle into the meat (otherwise, when you slice it, you'll have a plate full of juice that should have stayed in the meat). If it's not done, put each half back on the grill for a few minutes -- but be sure not to overcook it.

(10) After the tri-tip has rested exactly 7 minutes, trim the fat and then slice it VERY thin -- not quite "paper thin" but as thin as you reasonably can with a sharp knife. Cut across the grain, which is across the triangle. An illustration: if you can imaging that the tri-tip is in the shape of a pyramid, then cut it starting at the top of the pyramid and slice horizontally. Thus, the slices will not all be the same size, but the meat will be the most tender.

7. Accompaniments

The most traditional Santa Maria Barbecue includes side dishes of (a) fresh salsa, (b) pinquito beans and (c) toasted French or sourdough bread. Some claim that it is accompanied by (d) Macaroni and Cheese, but this may have been added to placate children's preferences.  The best side dishes also include: (e) grilled colorful bell peppers filled with Monterey jack cheese, (f) cucumber salad.

(a) Salsa

My Salsa (or see the web site for a different version) (also called Pico de Gallo (Spanish for a rooster's beak), which is this season's "in" dish.

5 medium tomatoes -- chopped
1 medium yellow onion -- finely chopped
1 small Jalapeño chile -- finely chopped
5 Tablespoons cilantro -- fresh, chopped
1 lemon -- use the juice only

Combine all the ingredients except the lemon in a bowl, then add the lemon juice, cover and let stand 2 hours to blend flavors. Makes 5 cups.

Can be served with chips (that means corn chips or tortilla chips, not potato chips or French Fries) before serving the main course.


Santa Maria Style Salsa

3 medium tomatoes -- chopped
1/2 cup celery -- finely chopped
1/2 cup green onions -- finely chopped
1/2 cup mild green chiles -- finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro -- fresh
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 dash Worcestershire sauce
1 pinch garlic salt
1 pinch dried oregano -- crushed
a few drops hot pepper sauce

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, cover and let stand at least 1 hour to blend flavors. Makes 3 1/2 cups.

(b) Pinquinto Beans  Sold by S&W Foods

The Santa Maria Style Beans (from the web site) definitely shows its roots in the 1950's -- with the addition of the sugar and the MSG. But it's a great recipe if you eliminate the sugar and MSG. Here is the original, from the web site:

Santa Maria Style Beans

1 pound pinquito beans
1 strip bacon -- diced
1/2 cup ham -- diced
1 clove garlic
3/4 cup tomato puree
1/4 cup red chile sauce*
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch MSG or Accent (optional)

* Las Palmas brand, not to be confused with chili sauce, which is like hot catsup.

Pick through beans to remove any small stones. Place in pot, cover with water, and let soak overnight. Drain beans, cover with fresh water, and simmer for 2 hours, or until tender.

Sauté bacon and ham until lightly browned. Add garlic, sauté 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add tomato puree, chile sauce, sugar, mustard, salt, and MSG (if using it).

Drain most liquid from beans and save. Stir in the sauce and simmer for 1/2 hour. Add some of the saved liquid if they get too dry. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


Santa Maria Style Beans

1 pound pinquito beans
1 strip bacon -- diced
1/2 cup ham -- diced
1 clove garlic -- chopped
3/4 cup tomato puree
1/4 cup red chile sauce*
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch MSG or Accent (optional)

* Las Palmas brand, not to be confused with chili sauce, which is like hot catsup.

Pick through beans to remove any small stones. Place in pot, cover with water, and let soak overnight. Drain beans, cover with fresh water, and simmer for 2 hours, or until tender.

Sauté bacon and ham until lightly browned. Add garlic, sauté 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add tomato puree, chile sauce, sugar, mustard, salt, and MSG (if using it).

Drain most liquid from beans and save. Stir in the sauce and simmer for 1/2 hour. Add some of the saved liquid if they get too dry. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Are we talking about regular old pinto beans?

Definitely not -- see above and the web site about them. They're uniquely Californian.

I'm operating at a disadvantage here, I grew up in Boston.

(f) Cucumber Salad

Move this to another section and omit from Tri-tip

Joe's Authentic Cucumber Salad:

Must be made a day in advance.

Buy one large hot-house firm cucumber (about 12" long and not too fat). Wash it on the outside, and then peel "zebra" style. That is, using a potato peeler, peel in the long direction one long strip. Then skip a stip and peel again, so that the cucumber will have alternating green and white stripes, like a zebra. Then slice thinly across the round section (so that the slices are round and 1/8" thick). Put them loosely into a large glass bowl and add 1/4 cup of salt. Mix the salt into the cucumbers and leave it uncovered and unrefrigerated for 45 minutes. At the end of the time, the cucumbers will be covered in their juices. Rinse them very very thoroughly in cold water to remove all the salt. Then squeeze them hard like a sponge to remove all the water. Add 1/2 cup of sour cream, 2 Tablespoons of red-wine vinegar, and 3 scallions (green onions), finely chopped. Add black pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours before serving.




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