The barbecue styles of Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas are well known around the U.S., but California’s Santa Maria Valley claims a method that has flown slightly under the radar. Dating back to the mid-1800s, ranchers in the Santa Maria Valley—an area about an hour north of Santa Barbara—created its own barbecue style, and local chefs have maintained and refined the tradition ever since.
Major media has taken note of the Santa Maria style; in recent years, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Food Network show BBQ with Bobby Flay have all featured the simple but flavorful cuisine.
“The Santa Maria–style barbecue tradition is seeing a bit of a renaissance as more and more people embrace the concept of authentic regional foods,” says Susan M. Righetti, founder of Susie Q’s Brand of artisan foods and seasonings and daughter of the owners of Far Western Tavern, one of the original restaurants to offer the style. “Santa Maria Valley is the only California locale that has its own unique regional cuisine.”
The style is defined by three elements: the cut of the beef, the cooking method, and the ingredients. Tri-tip, a triangular sirloin cut, is traditionally used, and is cooked slowly over an open flame—as opposed to a closed grill—from California red oak, indigenous to the region. The beef is minimally seasoned with a garlic, salt, and pepper rub, then served alongside grilled French bread, green salad, salsa, and locally grown pinquito beans.
“The beauty is in its authenticity, simplicity, and economy,” Righetti says.
To taste this California specialty, head to one of the family-run restaurants that have been serving the traditional cuisine—some for nearly a century—such as the Hitching Post in Casmalia (with a second location in Buellton), Far Western Tavern in Orcutt, and Jocko’s Steak House in Nipomo.
For your first sampling, definitely try the steak, advises Terri Ostini Stricklin, the general manager—and sister of the owners—of the original Hitching Post. (Her two brothers each own and operate one of the restaurants; you may recognize the Hitching Post II from the 2004 movie Sideways.) You can watch as one chef prepares every entrée—sometimes 50 to 60 at once, Stricklin says—from an open kitchen. “Our menu hasn’t changed since 1952,” she says. “We keep it simple so that we can do it right.”
Want to learn the style yourself? Sign up for a fully immersive experience at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort’s “BBQ Bootcamp” in Solvang. Guests learn the tricks of the trade—including hands-on grilling skills and blending workshops—from Executive Chef Pascal Godé and Hitching Post II chef and owner Frank Ostini. The boot camp, which is held twice a year, in the spring and the fall, also mixes in ranch activities like horseback riding and fishing, with a side order of golfing.