The Santa Maria Valley: A BBQ Lover's Heaven

In an age of culinary fads and next-big-thing mentality, Santa
Maria-style barbecue deliciously demonstrates that good taste never goes
out of style.

The roots of the Santa Maria barbecue
date back to the mid-1800s, when large ranches occupied the hills of
California’s Santa Maria Valley, north of today’s upscale oceanside
community of Santa Barbara.

Local ranchers would host
Spanish-style feasts each spring for their vaqueros, or cowboys, as well
as family and friends–barbecuing meat over earthen pits filled with
hot coals of native red oak. The meal would be served with a generous
helping of pinquitos, small pink beans that are thought to be indigenous
to the Santa Maria Valley.

“The Santa Maria barbecue
grew out of this tradition and achieved its ‘style’ when local residents
began to string cuts of beef on skewers or rods and cook the meat over
the hot coals of a red oak fire,” says local barbecue historian R.H.

In 1931, the Santa Maria Club instituted a
“Stag Barbecue,” which was held on the second Wednesday of each month.
As many as 700 people would turn out for the

In those early days, the favored cut was
top-block sirloin. Then, as today, the meat was rolled in a mixture of
salt, pepper and garlic salt before being barbecued over the red oak
coals, which contribute a smoky, hearty flavor.

In the
1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz perfected the tri-tip, a
triangular bottom sirloin cut that quickly joined top-block sirloin as a
staple of Santa Maria-style barbecue.

By the late
1950s, three local restaurants–the Far Western Tavern, the Hitching
Post and Jocko’s–were on their way to becoming landmarks of this
culinary treat. All three thrive to this day and have been joined by
Shaw’s Steakhouse, Historic Santa Maria Inn, F. McLintocks, A.J. Spurs
and others.

President Ronald Reagan was an avid fan of
Santa Maria-style barbecue. Local chef Bob Herdman and his “Los
Compadres Barbecue Crew” staged several barbecues for President Reagan,
including five feasts on the South Lawn of the White

Today, the classic barbecue menu in Santa
Maria, which was copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of
Commerce in 1978, includes fresh salsa, grilled French bread dipped in
sweet melted butter, tossed green salad and those slow-cooked pinquito

The relatively recent emergence of the Santa
Maria Valley wine country, jump-started by the locally-filmed movie
“Sideways,” has further shined the spotlight on Santa Maria’s culinary

In the words of the book

America’s Food Traditions
, published in 2008, Santa
Maria-style barbecue is nothing less than “a mainstay of California’s
culinary heritage.” In fact, as more and more people seek regional
authenticity in their food, its popularity continues to

One way to find a Santa Maria-style barbecue is
to pull off Highway 101 in Santa Maria, turn onto Broadway Street and
follow your nose. Several local service groups set up their grills in
parking lots on weekends, selling lunches to raise funds for their
charitable activities.

But if you’d prefer to sit at a
table and select your meal from a menu, we’d suggest heading to one of
the barbecue institutions…

  • The Far
    Western Tavern:
    The restaurant, housed in a century-old
    building, was founded in 1958, and today the Minetti family brings two
    generations and five decades of ownership to the table, serving
    legendary cuisine that is rooted in local tradition yet suited for
    contemporary tastes. Example: the Pinot filet, which is served over
    grilled polenta.

    It’s a great place for
    people-watching, too, as the clientele is a mix of foodies from the “big
    city” and local cowboys (complete with cowboy

    The Far Western Tavern

    899 Guadalupe

    Guadalupe, Calif.

  • The
    Hitching Post:
    If you saw “Sideways,” you saw The Hitching
    Post. The restaurant was established in 1944 in the town of Casmalia and
    has been owned by the Ostini family since 1952. The Ostinis opened
    their second Hitching Post in Buellton in 1986.

    indoor barbecue pit filled with red oak is the secret to the
    restaurant’s signature dining experience.

    Hitching Post

    Original Location:

    3325 Point Sal

    Casmalia, Calif.


    406 East Highway 246


  • Jocko’s
    Steak House:
    The Gayot Restaurant Guide calls Jocko’s “a
    raucous, high-energy haven for lovers of good steak, especially those
    cooked Santa Maria-style over a roaring, fragrant oak

    Established in 1956, Jocko’s is a true
    American roadhouse specializing in steak, ribs and oak pit pork chops,
    as well as traditional salsa and pinquito beans. It also serves the most
    flavorful plate of hamburger meat you’ve ever had.

    No ambience; just great

    Jocko’s Steak House

    125 N. Thompson




the most authentic Santa Maria-style barbecue experience, enjoy your
meal with a glass of Pinot Noir or Syrah (preferably from the Santa
Maria Valley), then finish it off with strawberry shortcake, made from
fresh, locally grown berries.

Not all of the barbecue
restaurants have great wine lists or strawberry shortcake, so you may
need to make a second stop after dinner. But, hey, you’re on vacation,

*** Tomorrow, Grilling Week continues with a
look at two more barbecue destinations.

Posted in Our Wine Travel Log
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