Every weekend, an all-ages crowd gathers at the Cold Spring Tavern, a stagecoach stop tucked into a scenic canyon just north of Santa Barbara.
Fragrant wood smoke rises from open pit barbecues, and Chef Tom Perez is behind one the grills. “We do a sandwich here,” he says. ‘It’s a tri-tip cut. We’ve been doing it since about 1972.”
Perez’s sandwich is a carnivore’s dream. Succulent tri-tip, grilled to a perfect medium-rare, piled high on a toasted French roll.
“The tri-tip aficionados do not like barbecue sauce anywhere near their tri-tip,” he says. “Chicken, ribs, yes. Tri-tip, you’re going to get some dirty looks.”
Perez says when it comes to tri-tip, there are rules. First, the seasonings. Keep ‘em simple: Salt, black pepper and garlic salt. Second, cook the meat over fire. But not just any fire — it should be fueled by local red oak. And finally, serve it with these sides: Salsa, grilled french bread, tossed green salad and locally grown pinquito beans, similar to pintos.
Tri-tip has been around since the 1950s. Before that, it was considered scrap, and usually ground into hamburger.
“Everyone tends to claim that it was their idea. I’ve heard that it started in a grocery store in Santa Maria,” Perez says.