Santa Maria is best known for tri-tip, which became the signature of Central California 'cue during the 1960s. Taken from the bottom of the sirloin, tri-tip is a versatile cut of beef that can be transformed into a roast, a burger, or a steak, depending on how it's prepared.
Fantastic grilled tri-tip is rare, juicy beef with a wood-kissed char. I sampled two of the area's eminent tri-tip sandwiches to see if "the Santa Maria steak" can ride with the best of barbecue.
Should Tri-Tip Be Smoked?
Tri-tip is at odds when faced with a career as barbecue. Being a relatively low-fat, low-collagen cut, it isn't well-suited to the long cooking times used to coax the juices out of a heftier cut like brisket.
This seemed to be the case at Skip Gibson's in Santa Maria. While the popular smokehouse turns out a decent, oak-smoked, thin-sliced tri-tip, the meat I sampled during my brief visit seemed like an unremarkable alternative to brisket—not particularly flavorful or juicy, but not particularly bland or dry. The sandwich mainly left me wondering: Is tri-tip is a cut of meat worth taking to the pit?
A whole tri-tip does start off with a generous fat cap, and the meat beneath is plenty rich. Tri-tip's transition in Santa Maria from toss-off to local specialty also tells a familiar story in barbecue foodways: cook matches unpopular meat with local wood and lots of patience. Cook adapts. Satisfaction ensues. As with a lot of great 'cue, perhaps the answer lies with the right cook in the right house.
Rancho Nipomo's Cal-Mex Tri-Tip
"Most people here wouldn't know what to do with a brisket," notes Richard Cowell, owner of Rancho Nipomo, a relatively new smoke joint that sits at the corner of US-101 and CA-166, just shy of Santa Maria.
Cowell's tri-tip is worthy of an extended pit stop. Well-marinaded and smoked just thoroughly enough to pick up a lick of oak and sandwiched in half-pound portions, it has a heartier texture and a meatier flavor than your typical lean brisket. Cowell praises the cut for its practicality in cooking, but when his tri-tip is matched with a mild Santa Maria salsa on a freshly baked Mexican telera (the standard bun for tortas), the conversation turns to flavor.
This is where Rancho Nipomo shines. Tugging on the Spanish, Mexican and Western strands of Californian history, Cowell's matches pulled pork with telera and leftover rib meat with chile colorado, incorporating family recipes and experimentation into a menu that offers nopales and pinquito beans alongside something called "The Dummy Burger."
"We call it California style," says Cowell, who built Rancho Nipomo with an express intent to bring people together over food, music, and relaxation. A lifelong Californian with multinational heritage, Cowell talks about his kitchen and his picnic tables with a soft Latino accent and an implied smile—like Edward James Olmos, if he had become a friendly tiki bar owner instead Admiral Adama.
"It's not authentic Mexican food," he warns, peppering his commentary on cooking with a historical facts on immigration into the Central Coast. "We're Californian. We're Hispanic. We're other cultures. We're multicultural."
However many flags they fly, the folks at Rancho Nipomo make a tasty tri-tip—and a fine contribution to the United States of Barbecue.
Skip Gibson's BBQ
241 Town Center West, Santa Maria, CA 93458 (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.