As we were planning our road trip on California’s famed coastal highway, a friend recommended we try Santa Maria Barbecue. As I outlined our trip on a map, I tried googling it with the belief that this was the name of an establishment. I soon gave up my preliminary search when I came up empty handed.
I didn’t give it any further thought until we were just a few miles south of Santa Maria. I had begun to seek out options for dinner. When Patrick stated he wanted barbecue for dinner, I was reminded of my earlier failed quest.
I again struggled to find the restaurant, so I called our hotel to inquire. Only then did I realize my error – it was a style of barbecue.
Santa Maria-style barbecue is a regional culinary tradition rooted in and around the city of Santa Maria—which sprawls across the ranchlands and vineyards between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara—for 150 years. This traditional style barbecue menu was copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1978.
Records from the days of the ranchos, the giant cattle ranches that covered this territory when it was Mexico, describe almost bacchanalian scenes of whole bulls’ heads and other beef cuts roasted in pits dug in the ground. Tortillas, salsa, and beans were served along with a slew of other sides. These were all-day celebrations—for vaqueros relaxing at the end of a cattle roundup, or guests from the city invited for a ranch adventure.
By the early 1900s, a less daunting cooking style emerged—asado, which involved skewering hunks of beef on green willow rods and setting them across a pit of burning red oak. The Santa Maria Valley is often rather windy, so the style of cooking is over an oxidative fire as opposed to a reductive fire that many covered BBQs use.
Remarkably, that’s still pretty much how people here do it: over a fire of California coastal red oak and on a grill that raises and lowers the meat to the flame. The meat has no sauce, just a dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic salt. The traditional accompaniments are pinquito beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad, and grilled French bread dipped in sweet melted butter.
We settled upon Shaw’s Restaurant and were not disappointed. Upon entering, we were immediately drawn to the Asado-style bbq pit that was slowly roasting the meats. We also observed that the dining room was full of customers.
We ordered the trip tip and it was by far THE best tri tip we have had. The food portions are generous; the kids shared a rib eye steak and we had leftovers for lunch the next day.
We all loved the taste of the red oak smoke given to the meats while cooked on a wonderful open pit wood grill. Next time we’re in Santa Maria we will be coming back to Shaw’s for Santa Maria-style barbecue.
Tip :: If you are looking for a deal, lunch is cheaper than dinner and they also have early bird dinner specials on the menu from 4-6:30pm.