How do you measure good barbecue? Does the meat have a smoke ring? Is there a pile of wood out back? Does the cook look anything like this guy? My favorite "rule" of barbecue is the parking lot test. Apparently, if you pull up to a smokehouse and notice a BMW parked next to a hooptie and a pickup truck, then the odds favor great barbecue.
If you pull up to a smokehouse and notice a hooptie parked next to a pickup and a minivan, the odds stumble just a bit—though they'll bounce back if you spot a pyramid display of white bread from the entrance. If you pull up to a smokehouse and notice a BMW next to two other BMWs, you may actually be at the local BMW dealership (note to self: look up definition of "slight left").
When I pulled up to the steakhouses of Santa Maria, California, I found pickup trucks next to pickup trucks. That's what you get for a farmtown near the central coast.
First, Some Santa Maria History
Santa Maria's claim to culinary fame is a type of open-flame grilling that dates back to the 19th century. Despite its association with colonial Spain's vaquero culture, this approach was not too different from most American barbecue of the time—a process with three general steps: "Dig hole. Light coals. Apply carcass."
Today, the iconic Santa Maria BBQ rig is not a smoke-filled enclosure of brick or tin. It's a cast-iron grate hoisted over a fire pit by two thickly laced chains. Red oak logs smolder below the grate, cooking the meat and vegetables lying above and bursting into an expressive flame whenever the cook adds a hefty splash of red wine.
The Hitching Post: Casmalia, CA
Since the origins of the word "barbecue" reflect this style of cooking, the "grilling vs. barbecue" debate wasn't on my mind when I took a seat at The Hitching Post in Casmalia. What did catch my attention was the sight of an open pit just feet from the dining room, an occasional wisp of smoke escaping from the hearth.
Watching the pit cook quickly pointed my thoughts to a more important question: rare or medium?
Three orders of "medium rare" at The Hitching Post returned three spot-on steaks, seared-to-black edges revealing a tender, rosy center. Each thick slice of grain-fed top sirloin, the original cut of choice for Santa Maria's outdoor pit barbecues during the 1800s, had been dry aged; rubbed with salt, garlic salt, and black pepper; and basted with butter and red wine on the grill. The deep flavors, complex textures and hint of wood smoke made this a steak to savor.
Grilled linguiça, with a wood-kissed natural casing and juicy filling, was just as memorable. The snappiest link to Santa Maria's Portuguese heritage, this spiced pork sausage is available for purchase (cooked or uncooked) all over town. It's a welcome addition to a local barbecue stable dominated by beef.
The Hitching Post is one of several steakhouse "taverns" that have been Santa Maria institutions since the 1950s (in fact, the Hitching Post is an official Santa Barbara landmark). Running the gradient between family-friendly restaurant and western saloon, each house boasts the same constants: red oak pits, awesome signage, and a thing for red meat.
While the ranching roots of the region have long since diminished (many steaks served here are imported from the Midwest), their dens and dining halls have grown into local legends and reliable roadside destinations.
Shaw's Restaurant: Santa Maria, CA
A stop at Shaw's Restaurant, one of the only steakhouses actually located in the town of Santa Maria, rewarded us with a fantastic heap of tri-tip. Like other signature specialties in regional 'cue, tri-tip didn't take center stage in Santa Maria until the 20th century. It's since become synonymous with the style, whether grilled and served rare or slow-smoked like a beef brisket.
A classic serving of Santa Maria tri-tip involves toasted garlic bread, a bowl of pinquito beans, and a side fresh red salsa. Shaw's tri-tip sandwich did well by all three (plus fries), but the meat alone would have been worth the $17 price tag.
It has just the slightest hint of a char but each thick slice retains that smoky flavor. The beef, cooked medium rare, was extremely tender and ripe with jus. Strands of almost-rendered fat—robust with the flavors of garlic and salt—made every bite pop.
Santa Maria barbecue, like Maryland Pit Beef, doesn't adhere to contemporary rules but after spending a day at the region's taverns and steakhouses, I could taste about a century of tradition distilled into the craft of seriously delicious wood-smoke grilling.
The Hitching Post
714 S Broadway, Santa Maria CA 93454 (map)
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.