What is Santa Maria Tri Tip?

santa maria tri tipAt “The Tri Tip Guy,” we preach that there are many ways to cook tri tip. Unfortunately, a few tri tip snobs have sent nasty emails to us that basically say, “The ONLY way to cook tri tip is in the Santa Maria style.” Uh…no. You actually CAN cook tri tip all kinds of ways (see our recipe pages!!!).

But with that said, it is important to recognize the history of tri tip. What is the Santa Maria style?

In the 1950’s, tri tip was made popular in the Santa Maria area, which is located on the central coast of California.  One of the ways that the “Santa Maria purists” defeat their own argument is that longtime Santa Maria BBQ legends define the style differently. However, here are a few common aspects held by these chefs:

santa maria tri tip1) The tri tip is cooked on a wood-burning grill which can be raised or lowered by a chain and pulley system. Also known as the “Santa Maria grill,” these grills can be purchased online and are easy to assemble.

2) Speaking of wood, the fuel of choice is red oak. Why? It is found in abundance in the Santa Maria area, and seasoned red oak gives the tri tip a nice mild smoke flavor. Although red oak is scarce in many parts of the country, you can purchase red oak chips online at a reasonable price.

3) The main side dish that is served with Santa Maria tri tip is pinquito beans. The Hispanic influence is very heavy in a number of Santa Maria area tri tip restaurants, and each cook has their own recipe on how to cook these delicious beans.

santa maria tri tipBeyond that, there is not a traditional Santa Maria rub that is common among these chefs. Some serve the meat sliced across the grain; others chop it up and serve it in a French roll. As previously mentioned, the Hispanic influence in Santa Maria brings some chefs to serve the tri tip with tortillas, salsa, and guacamole. Some chefs even rotisserie the tri tip over the wood fire.

It is important to recognize the history, and just as important to move into the future. Cooking is an evolutionary process – the preparation and presentation of the classics changes over time. But without the cooks who started the tri tip phenomenon, we would not be able to experience what we have now.

Today, thank the good lord of BBQ heaven for Santa Maria and those amazing tri tip pioneers!

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