The Tri-Tip Torta from El Pollo Norteño in Santa Maria, CA
Santa Maria-style barbecue is not really barbecue in the traditional Southern sense of the word. There is meat that gets slow-cooked over fire—that much is the same—but the similarities end right there.
With traditional barbecue, large, tough cuts of meat like pork shoulder or a beef brisket are cooked until their fat renders and their connective tissue breaks down into gelatin, creating an end product that is well done, yet moist and juicy, much like braised meat. Santa Maria-style barbecue, on the other hand, consists of tri-tip—a lean and tender cut of beef—rubbed with salt, pepper, garlic, and other seasonings, cooked over red oak fires until it's medium-rare and juicy in the middle. Really, it's a lot more like cooking a large steak than true Southern-style barbecue.
From there, the meat is sliced thinly and served with the local pinquito beans, a pico de gallo-style salsa made with fresh tomatoes and celery, and toasted buttery French bread.
There are plenty of steakhouses and chop shops in the Santa Maria Valley, but if speed is the name of the game, you could do worse than make a pit-stop at El Pollo Norteño, a small fast-food-style diner in a strip mall in Santa Maria.
The specialty of the house is a tri-tip and roasted chicken combination platter ($8.85), and it's worth an order if you have time to sit down with a (plastic) fork and knife. The beans and salsa are well-seasoned and fresh, and while the tri-tip itself may look a overcooked (they cook their meat to medium, then slice it and grill the slices to well done when you order), good slicing technique and a tasty marinade make them plenty moist and juicy.
You can get them as a plate ($6.00), but an even better deal (and perhaps better way to eat it period) is in a torta ($5.75), which comes on a great crusty roll griddled in butter, slathered with mayo, and layered with sliced tri-tip, lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapeños.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.