Making true Santa Maria style BBQ with Sunset's food editor

Throughout the U.S., barbecue styles vary greatly from region to region, and just about every location likes to lay claim to "the best."  In California, that would mean Santa Maria Style BBQ.

Red oak, tri-tip, and garlic powder are among the key ingredients to perfect this grill style made popular over the years on local ranches and-more recently-farmers' markets.

"This is one of my favorite things to eat," said Margo True, Food Editor at Sunset Magazine. "Part of what I love about it is the history. It has it's roots in Mexico-era California."

True knows the topic well because she has eaten a lot of Santa Maria Style BBQ over the past few years as part of her role with Sunset Savor the Central Coast. She will again be hosting a seminar on the dish at Savor's main event later this week.

The origins of Santa Maria Style Barbecue date back to the mid-1800s, when local rancheros would host Spanish-style barbecues each spring for their vaqueros, or cowboys, according to the official Santa Maria Style BBQ Booklet put out by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce & Visitor and Convention Bureau. "Under the trees of this serene coastal valley, they would enjoy feasts that included beef barbecued over earthen pits ?lled with red oak coals," the booklet states.


Santa Maria Style features a beef tri-tip cut, rubbed with black pepper, salt, and garlic salt. It's grilled over coals of native Coast Live Oak, often referred to as 'Red Oak' wood. The BBQ grill itself is made of iron and usually has a hand crank that positions the grill at just the right height over the coals.

True told us the wood element is very important and the best results come when using full logs of red oak. "We've used red oak chips and we've tried doing without using red oak at all," True said describing the differences.

It is also important that you serve Santa Maria Style BBQ with the appropriate side dishes. These include pinquito beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad, and grilled French bread.