Golden State Plate: Santa Maria Barbecue, It's Not Just Tri-Tip

5 min
Members of the Santa Maria Elks Lodge tend to their steaks during their weekly “Cook Your Own” night. (Diane Bock)

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.”

Barbecue chef Tom Perez proudly displays his tri-tip sandwich.
Barbecue chef Tom Perez proudly displays his tri-tip sandwich. (Diane Bock)

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.

According to local lore, it all began with a one-armed butcher named Bob Schutz, who worked at Safeway. Story goes, he was the first to throw this triangular cut on the grill, and christen it tri-tip.

But it’s called Santa Maria barbecue, so I head there for some answers. The town has a rich ranching history and the Chamber of Commerce has trademarked their namesake barbecue menu.

The Santa Maria Historical Society’s Barbecue Exhibit.
The Santa Maria Historical Society’s Barbecue Exhibit. (Diane Bock)

“If you’re talking about Santa Maria style barbecue, we’re not talking about tri-tip, specifically, we’re really talking about top block,” says Santa Maria Historical Society curator Cindy Ransick.

But hold up. I’ve lived around here for 30 years. I’ve never heard of top block. She walks me over to the museum’s barbecue exhibit, and points to a diagram of beef cuts.

“This part right here you can see is labeled top block, it’s on the top shoulder of the cow,” she says. “It’s a more expensive cut of meat.”

It’s also an enormous cut of meat. It turns out top block is another name for top sirloin.

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The oldest photos at the historical society date back more than a century. But docent Phil Lawyer says the true legacy goes back even further.

Volunteers barbecue at Santa Maria’s Fourth of July celebration in 1904. Photo courtesy Santa Maria Historical Society
Volunteers barbecue at Santa Maria’s Fourth of July celebration in 1904. (Photo courtesy: Santa Maria Historical Society)

“This type of cooking began in the Spanish tradition when we had the Spanish rancheros, and they had the huge cattle drives,” he says. “The rancheros were great hosts. They’d have everybody in the valley come, have a party all night, dancing and eating.”

More from our Golden State Plate series

Today, barbecue continues to bind this community together. Every Friday, hundreds gather at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge for "Cook Your Own" night.

“From fundraisers to just having people come over to your house and barbecuing for dinner. Every other neighbor here in this town will have a barbecue pit in their backyard, that’s just the way it is,” says manager John Moretti.

"We grew up with it, I should say, so that’s what we’re used to," he adds. "And you get a good beef, aged beef, good mix and good coals, comes out good every time. Pretty simple.”

So, whether you prefer tri-tip or top sirloin, it’s all Santa Maria barbecue. Just remember to hold the sauce.