What is Santa Maria BBQ
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.
Santa Maria-style barbecue originated in the mid-19th century when local ranchers would host Spanish-style feasts each spring for their vaqueros. They barbecued meat over earthen pits filled with hot coals of local coast live oak. The meal was served with pinquitos, small pink beans that are considered indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley.
According to local barbecue historian R.H. Tesene, “The Santa Maria Barbecue grew out of this tradition and achieved its ‘style’ when local residents began to string cuts of beef on skewers or rods and cook the meat over the hot coals of a red oak fire.”
In 1931, the Santa Maria Club started a “Stag Barbecue,” which was held on the second Wednesday of every month, with up to 700 patrons attending each event. By the late 1950s, three local restaurants—The Far Western Tavern, Hitching Post, and Jocko’s were on their way to becoming landmarks of this style of barbecue. The Elks Lodge #1538 has huge indoor BBQ pits, and host what is called 'Cook Your Own' (CYO) every Friday evening. The original cut was top sirloin. Then, as today, the meat was rolled in a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic salt before being barbecued over the red oak coals, which contribute a smoky, hearty flavor. In the 1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz (Santa Maria Market) perfected the tri-tip, a triangular bottom sirloin cut that quickly joined top sirloin as a staple of Santa Maria-style barbecue.
President Ronald Reagan was an avid fan of Santa Maria-style barbecue. Local barbecue chef Bob Herdman and his “Los Compadres Barbecue Crew” staged several barbecues for President Reagan, including five feasts on the South Lawn of the White House.