Santa Maria-Style Barbecue Draws Foodies From Around the World
PHOTO CREDIT: Brian McCord
You haven’t eaten barbecue until you’ve been to Santa Maria – at least, that’s what the locals will tell you. And one savory bite of a juicy top sirloin or tri-tip steak is enough to prove them right.
Santa Maria is known for several foods – authentic Mexican fare, for one – but barbecue is the star. If you’re envisioning slow-cooked pulled pork or brisket drizzled with sweet and tangy barbecue sauces, however, hold your horses. Santa Maria-style barbecue is unlike barbecue in the South and other regions of the country.
For starters, there’s no sauce.
“We only use salt, pepper and garlic powder, and we cook the steaks over an open grill with red oak wood grown in this part of the country. The Spanish rancheros began cooking with red oak a hundred years ago and found it had a great flavor,” says
Terri Stricklin, general manager at The Hitching Post restaurant, which specializes in barbecued top sirloin. “We also baste the meat with vinegar and oil while it’s cooking. People go crazy when they taste it.”
A 55-year-old landmark in Casmalia, The Hitching Post is housed in a nostalgic century-old building. Stricklin’s family has owned the restaurant since 1952, and they operate a second location in Buellton.
“We’re in the third generation of our family now, and one of our cooks has been here 25 years,” Stricklin says proudly. “The two waitresses who trained me when I was 16 were sisters who worked here for 37 and 38 years.”
Top sirloin is the most popular item on The Hitching Post’s menu, though they also barbecue filet mignon, New York strips and a hearty 22-ounce T-bone.
“We pay top dollar for our meat. It’s raised by small packers in the Midwest,” Stricklin says. “The meat is aged, and when we cook it, the fire seals in all the juices. I’ve had people who travel the world tell me it’s the best steak they’ve ever eaten.”
Santa Maria residents agree. Readers of the Santa Maria Sun voted The Hitching Post “Best Steak” in the newspaper’s 2007 Readers Poll. Another place to sample Santa Maria-style barbecue is Shaw’s Famous Steak House, which opened in 1953. Shaw’s barbecuing style is the same as The Hitching Post’s, but they specialize in tri-tip, a beef cut that was typically used for ground beef until Santa Maria made it a local specialty in the 1950s.
“We grill tri-tips whole and slice the meat to order,” says Eric Spies, general manager at Shaw’s Famous Steak House. “We get customers from all over the world. Tourists love to stand in front of our window and see the big tri-tips cooking.”
In typical Santa Maria fashion, Shaw’s serves the steak sans barbecue sauce.
“We’re able to raise and lower the grill, and the direct fire traps in all the juices, so you get a real juicy piece of meat,” Spies says. “You don’t need sauces to put moisture back in.”
For a taste of Santa Maria outside the barbecue realm, try Casa Manana or Chef Rick’s. A popular Mexican eatery for more than 40 years, Casa Manana has gained a loyal following for its made-from-scratch enchiladas and spicy salsa. Chef Rick’s, named for owner Rick Manson, opened in 1989 and never fails to turn heads with its unusual offerings, such as artichoke and goat cheese fritters or coconut beer shrimp.
In a community that appreciates great food and friendly service, it’s no surprise so many of Santa Maria’s restaurants stand the test of time.
“None of us thought we’d do this as a career – I wanted to be a professional bowler,” Stricklin admits. “But I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It’s like having people in your home for dinner every night. Once it’s in your blood, it’s here to stay.”