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Courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch Resort

Santa Maria Barbecue

Santa Maria Barbecue
Head to California’s Central Coast to try this distinctive regional cuisine at its source

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 flavourful 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.

Insider Tip: If you’re curious to sample the Santa Maria style but you’re not in the area, good news: More restaurants in California have taken notice of the flavourful cuisine and added it to their menus, including SeaSalt in Huntington Beach and ATwater Tavern in San Francisco.

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Alex Farnum

Discover the Central Coast

Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.

The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.

Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.

SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.

San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.

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