How Tri-Tip Steak Became The Center Of California Barbecue

When we think of the regional barbecue of the United States, most of us immediately think of states like Texas, North Carolina, or cities like Kansas City, Missouri since they're all known for specializing in certain meats from brisket to ribs. But there is one cut of meat that has really defined a barbecue style: tri-tip from California.

Tri-tip is a cut of beef in the shape of a triangle, hence the name. It's a smaller cut, weighing an average of 2 to 3 pounds, and is found in the bottom sirloin, which sits between the top sirloin and the flank. It's a relatively affordable cut that is full of the sought-after marbling fats that gives the cut its distinct, meaty flavor.

Now, the tri-tip isn't exactly your filet mignon or porterhouse steak. It used to be that this particular cut was tossed in with the other 38% of the beef carcass that would be processed down into ground beef. But, over in California, the cut found favor in a regional barbecue style that is something of a well-kept secret.

California's cut comes from tasty traditions

Often referred to as California's Cut or the Santa Maria Steak, the tri-tip began gaining in popularity during the '50s and soon became an indispensable part of the barbecue of California's Central Coast. Dry-rubbed with a combination of salt, black pepper, and garlic salt, the tri-tip is cooked over native red-oak coals and served alongside pinquito beans and white tortillas or even garlic bread and pasta. It is a staple of Elk Lodges and various other restaurants in and around Santa Maria.

This style of barbecue is often called the Santa Maria style, named after the eponymous town. It is heavily influenced by Mexican and Spanish traditions and showcases its simplicity by grilling a good piece of meat and serving it alongside some local staples. Local legend has it that Santa Maria Market owner, Bob Schutz, was the first to introduce tri-tip back in the '50s. The trend caught on and soon locals and visitors alike couldn't get enough of this wonderfully juicy steak. 

In your own kitchen, the tri-tip doesn't need to be reserved specifically for California style barbecue. You can make tri-tip tacos or grill it up nice with some blackberry mustard. Either way, you're in for a tender and flavorful cut of meat that has some wonderful history behind it.