The Santa Maria Grill Takes Names In BBQ Brawl's Season 4 Premiere

Food Network's "BBQ Brawl" brings together some of the best pitmasters in America, but on the season 4 premiere, they were all subject to the unique challenge of the Santa Maria grill. After spending its first three seasons in Austin, "BBQ Brawl" moved the competition to California and put a spotlight on a regional style of barbecue that developed along the Golden State's coast. The Santa Maria grill is open-air with no cover and made with large iron grates whose distance from the fire can be adjusted with a crank. The heat comes from fresh oak hardwood, not briquettes, and the open-air exposure means it runs very hot.

After the three judges, Anne Burrell, Bobby Flay, and Sunny Anderson, each picked their teams from an opening taco challenge, all attention turned to the Santa Maria grill and its signature cut of meat: the tri-tip. Cut from the sirloin, the tri-tip is a lean piece of beef popular in California barbecue. Cooked over high heat on the Santa Maria grill, it's traditionally seasoned lightly with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and relies on the smokiness and char from the grill's oak wood fire for flavor. The big challenge with the Santa Maria grill, and the tri-tip, is managing the heat and the distance from the wood, striking a balance between a good sear and the risk of overcooking. And it's a challenge multiple teams on "BBQ Brawl" struggled with.

Managing the Santa Maria grill was a tough balancing act

Santa Maria barbecue evolved from the cooking styles of Spanish ranchers in the Santa Maria valley in the 19th century, and the big challenge on "BBQ Brawl," a California barbecue feast, embraced not just tri-tip but all that local Cali food has to offer. This mix and match of the steak with seafood and vegetables over the adjustable grill gave the chefs the most trouble, as Anderson's team had to cook their Red Snapper right on the wood, forcing the tri-tip too far away from the flame. Flay's team struggled even more, as their cooks' fear of overcooking the delicate shrimp and scallops kept them from getting the char they needed. In addition, the tri-tip caught them off guard with how quickly it cooked in the direct heat, jumping past medium rare and into an overly chewy medium.

In the end, Burrell's team, who managed the Santa Maria grill the best and delivered a perfectly cooked tri-tip, won the day. The combination of lean meat and an unfamiliar, sensitive grill was a lot to handle, with even judge and barbecue legend Rodney Scott admitting he doesn't normally cook this way. Still, as Burrell's team showed, the Santa Maria grill has an impressive ability to impart flavor through that smoky sear, and their simple dry-rubbed tri-tip stole the show, looking good enough to tempt any barbecue cook into giving California's native grill a try.