I was eleven when I experienced my first authentic Santa Maria barbecue. A former classmate of my dad’s had invited my family to his ranch outside of
San Luis Obispo to participate in the spring cattle gathering. Located about 30 miles outside of Santa Maria on the Central Coast, this region is the heart of California’s barbecue country (more on that in a minute).
After a cold, dirty, exhausting weekend gathering wayward cattle and calves to be vaccinated, castrated, and branded, it was fiesta time. A massive barbecue fashioned out of old oil drums was heaped with native red oak and per tradition, the calf “fries,” (also known as Rocky Mountain oysters, prairie oysters…testiculos) were grilled up as a snack.
The charred, crispy little morsels, tender and juicy on the inside, were tucked into a flour tortilla, slathered with salsa, and rolled up, taquito-style. As a child reknown for her picky eating habits, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to indulge in an hors d’oeuvre of greasy calf cojones.
But when my dad proudly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse? To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, himself a former wrangler. It was time to grow up, and grow a pair of my own. I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down….chewed…swallowed.
It was good! Smoky, salty, a little bit chewy, just a touch of heat and sweetness from the salsa, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices now dribbling down my chin.
Yep. Tastes just like chicken.
California’s indigenous barbecue
Way back before the Gold Rush, breast implants, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, California belonged to Mexico…until the the U.S. government took possession of the soon-to-be Golden State. Spanish and Mexican colonists and soldiers, called Californios, settled on ranchos along California’s rich, central coastal grasslands.
Spanish and Mexican heritage morphed into a true California cuisine, one that
incorporated the corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers of the New World with the beef, lamb, and olive oil of the Old World. The parilla, or grill, was the domain of the vaqueros, or cowboys, and the rancheros, or landowners. The mild, Mediterranean climate fostered a tradition of outdoor cooking still beloved by Californians today. Rancho barbecues were a way to mark special occasions, unite family and community, and enjoy the foods of the mother land.
A traditional Santa Maria Style Barbecue (the official term used by the Santa Maria Visitors & Convention Bureau), consists of top-sirloin or tri-tip beef steak strung on steel rods and grilled over Santa Maria Valley red oak. It’s served with tiny, savory pinquito beans, grown only in the Valley, salsa cruda, tossed green salad, and toasted, buttered sweet French bread. The meat is anointed only with salt, pepper and garlic salt, then served thinly sliced with all the fixings.
Where to find it
Whether you call it Santa Maria bbq/barbecue/-style barbecue, it’s easy to hunt down if you’re in the area. A handful of restaurants have gained national fame for their versions. The Hitching Post in Casmalia (there’s also a sister location in Buellton) has been a local favorite since 1952, when the Ostini family first fired up their indoor barbecue pit (866-879-4088).
The family-owned Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe (the restaurant is relocating to nearby Orcutt in Spring, 2012) is another true blue Western institution. Ask for the Cowboy Cut Sirloin, cooked over red oak. (reservations recommended, 805-343-2211).
If you want a more local experience, check out the takeaway tri-tip sandwiches from Old Town Market in Orcutt, or Dino’s Deli in Santa Maria. There are also
weekend barbecues in downtown Santa Maria, at the Filipino Community Center (1721 Broadway) and in the CVS/pharmacy parking lot (2116 S.
Broadway). To find other meaty goodness around town, contact the Santa Maria Convention & Visitors Bureau; 800-331-3779.
How to DIY
The famed Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in Solvang is debuting its hands-on BBQ Bootcamp this fall, from October 27-30th. Frank Ostini of The Hitching Post restaurants and Alisal chef Pascal Godé will let you in on the secrets to great grilling, including Santa Maria-style barbecue. To register, go to www.alisal.com.
If If a trip to the Central Coast isn’t on your itinerary, Susie Q’s Brand has all the fixin’s, from pinquito beans to wood chips, available online. Founder Susan Righetti is the daughter of Far Western Tavern’s Minetti family.