Santa Maria Barbecue

Rick Cooks Home Santa Maria Barbecue

Santa Maria is a lovely town on California's Central Coast which is famous for its barbecues. If you want to try these recipes, and you don't live near here, you'll have to use substitutes for the primary ingredients, because you won't find them where you live (except by mail order).

A traditional Santa Maria Barbecue consists of tri-tip roast, pinquito beans, salsa, macaroni & cheese, green salad, French bread, a local red wine, and a simple dessert. It traces its origins to the Californio days, but I suspect that the macaroni was a Yankee contribution.

We'll give the tri-tip and bean recipes here. For the salsa, try one of our pebres. For the macaroni & cheese recipe, go to the Santa Maria site, where you will also find mail-order sources for the meat and beans.

Pinquitos are the small pink beans grown in the Santa Maria Valley. You can mail-order them, or buy locally a similar bean, such as small red or pinto.

tritip.gif (36240 bytes)The tri-tip is the triangular-shaped boneless butt, or tip, of the bottom sirloin. Hence the name. Santa Marians make a big deal about it because it's without question the best beef for grilling. The larger and thicker the better - anything under 2" thick is really a steak, not a roast, and won't taste as good.

Why real tri-tips are hard to find. In the East, butchers cut most of the bottom sirloin butt into "culotte steaks", and sell it for a higher price per pound. (This cut is called "colita" (tail) in Argentina.) California shoppers demand the tri-tip roast, which is traditional here, and costs a lot less per pound than culotte. Midwestern meat packers may cut the tip and and ship it west to meet the California demand (and now Oregon), but don't make it available where shoppers don't demand it.

The tri-tip pictured here is the original Santa Maria tri-tip, a complete sub-primal cut bottom sirloin butt, and weighs about 5 pounds. However, meat markets can maximize their profits by cutting the wide end into cullotte steaks (called tri-tip steaks in the West), and sell the remaining narrow tip as "tri-tip roast", even though it's just a portion and weighs only 1 to 2 pounds. This is called a portion cut and is the size preferred by supermarkets who sell only tray beef. Since there is only one of these cuts per hind quarter, it doesn't make sense to wrap it, so most markets cut this remnant into stew bits or grind it. If you live near Santa Maria, you'll know where to find a 5-lb sub-primal tri-tip. Elsewhere in California and Oregon, the "tri-tip roasts" are under 3 pounds (but the more expensive "tri-tip steaks" are available - the "steak" label adds a dollar per pound). If you're really lucky, you'll find a meat market or butcher who'll sell you the full 5-lb tri-tip for around 10 bucks.

The tri-tip is not marbled, so is considered a lean cut, but has a thin layer of fat on one side (the underside if sold in a tray, see above). This fat automatically bastes the meat while roasting, and will be mostly rendered when the roast is done.

In Santa Maria, the tri-tip is simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic salt and placed on an open-pit barbecue (with red oak charcoal) and grilled until the center is medium rare (135-140 F). (Time depends on the size of the roast, but is approx. 15 minutes per lb - newbies keep a meat thermometer handy.) It's allowed to rest for 10-15 minutes (under a foil tent) and sliced across the grain. (If you slice it hot off the grill, you'll lose all the juices.)

You don't really need an open-pit barbecue (unless you live in Santa Maria). A kettle or gas grill will work fine (you can even use your oven). Our recipe employs the fool-proof indirect heat method.

Grilling tip: the tri-tip is a roast is not a steak, so you don't want to be flipping it like a burger. Place it fat side up on the grill (don't trim the fat until slicing) and leave it alone until it's done.

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Santa Maria Beans

*6 to 8 servings*

1 lb *pinquito* (or pink, red or pinto beans)
1 bacon slice, diced
c diced cooked ham
1 small garlic clove, minced
c tomato puree
c canned red chile sauce
1 T sugar
1 t dry mustard
1 t salt
1 d MSG (optional)

Cover beans with water and soak overnight. Drain and cover with fresh cold water and simmer 2 hours, or until tender.
Meanwhile, saute bacon and ham until lightly browned. Add garlic and saute 1 or 2 minutes, then add tomato puree, chile sauce, sugar, mustard, salt and MSG. Drain most of liquid off beans and stir in sauce. Keep warm over very low heat, or in low oven until ready to serve.

Tri-Tip Roast

2 - 5 lb beef tri-tip

salt, pepper, garlic powder

Season the untrimmed roast and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat grill to hot, around 500°F. Place roast on oiled grill away from hot coals, fat side up. Close cover. If using gas grill, reduce heat to 350°F after 15-20 minutes. Allow to roast undisturbed for a total of 15 minutes per pound (to internal temperature of 140°F). Remove from grill and allow to rest 10-15 minutes before slicing. Slice across the grain, trimming any remaining fat from the edges.