Santa Maria-Style BBQ Is A California Tradition

With so many different styles of regional BBQ in the U.S. alone, barbecue can easily mean different things to different people. California is, admittedly, not necessarily synonymous with the concept of BBQ. Most people would likely associate the West Coast state with avocados and quinoa well before BBQ ever came to mind. With that said, there is a specific regional style of barbecue, hailing from Santa Maria, California, with origins reaching back to the mid-1800s. This BBQ style began with Spanish-style meals during springtime, which featured meat that had been cooked over hot coals of a red oak fire.

The early 1930s brought about the creation of "Stag Barbecue" events, a monthly event put on by the Santa Maria Club, which drew sizable crowds, steadily increasing the popularity of Santa Maria-style BBQ. In the 1950s, bottom sirloin joined alongside the already popular top-block sirloin to become a fixture of Santa Maria-style barbecue thanks to local butcher Bob Schutz and his fine-tuning of a triangular cut of meat, known as tri-tip. It is also sometimes referred to as "California's cut" or "Santa Maria steak". Tri-tip is the meat that sits at the center of Santa Maria-style BBQ, with specific seasonings and preparations rounding out what gives it such a unique style.

Santa Maria seasonings

A traditional Santa Maria-style BBQ spice rub is typically composed of a mixture of salt, garlic, and pepper with some variations and additions of other spices depending on the preparer. The no-frills simplicity of this seasoning recipe coupled with the fast-cooking method of putting the meat directly atop the coals of a red oak fire and cooking until medium-rare accounts for the specific taste and texture of this regional BBQ. Side accompaniments to a slab of freshly sliced Santa Maria-style BBQ tri-tip include toasted garlic French bread and a bowl of pinquito beans, which are indigenous to Santa Maria, which are indigenous to Santa Maria, and boast a mild, creamy flavor. And, as experts indicate, the right side dishes are key to a great barbecue experience.

The rich history of Santa Maria-style BBQ is steeped in communal experience and filled with flavorful foods. This regional style has only increased in popularity since coming to prominence in the late 20th century. In fact, in 2023, Santa Maria-style BBQ was named among the Los Angeles Times' best dishes. The Food Network's "BBQ Brawl" also challenged competitors to take on the Santa Maria grill in the premiere episode of its fourth season. In addition, in 2024, Santa Maria celebrated its sixth year of hosting an annual barbecue festival and competition. Although California isn't the number one pick for BBQ, Santa Maria-style is a delicious regional favorite that has taken foodies by storm.