Does barbecue travel well? Or, like a fragile wildflower, does it wither when you separate it from its roots?
For more than a century, the ranchers around Santa Maria Valley have been grilling big chunks of top-block sirloin over a fire of coastal red oak (which burns more steadily than white oak), then serving the beef -- rubbed only with salt, pepper, and garlic -- with small, round pinquito beans, toasted French bread, and salsa.
It's now considered California's only native barbecue tradition. Like every other style of barbecue, its proponents think it's the best in the nation and argue over which cut of meat is most authentic -- some say the tri-tip is the quintessential cut; others swear the only real version is made with spit-roasted "top block" sirloin (on the cow, the two cuts are next-door neighbors).
Unlike other styles of barbecue, though, Santa Maria residents claim that the meal is more than the meat. It's the experience: the beans, the bread, and the salsa. And most importantly, the location -- in a few approved steakhouses or at the weekend-night roadside pits that line Santa Maria's main drag, each one benefiting a different local charity.
Two weeks ago, I finally made a detour en route to Los Angeles to eat Santa Maria barbecue at Jocko's. A roadhouse founded in 1889, Jocko's has earned a statewide reputation for some of the best 'cue in California. But it wears its legendary status lightly -- so lightly that this down-home restaurant is still a local hangout. If it weren't for the bar in the middle, you'd swear you were eating in a Shriner lodge, complete with cinderblock walls, tatty lace curtains on the windows, and healthy-sized families, if you know what I mean.
After appetizers of plastic-wrapped cracker breadsticks, a pickle platter, and the classic iceberg salad, the real meal arrived: a good ten-ounce pyramid of grilled top block -- the small size, in other words -- with a bowl of tomato salsa, slightly soggy fries, and pinquito beans. The beans, a locally grown variety that resembles pintos, were simply cooked with just a bit of bacon to fill out their flavors.
What a hunk of meat. Because a medium-rare steak doesn't need to be cooked as long as ribs or brisket, the smell of the smoke didn't permeate to the core of the cut. The red oak clung just to the salty, savory crust, and the insides, flush with juice, tasted only of beef.
In the East Bay, the sole restaurant claiming to specialize in Santa Maria-style barbecue is Red Smoke Grill, a popular two-year-old operation in Pleasanton that serves tri-tip grilled over red oak, with a choice of sides that includes pinquitos, fries, and mixed-green salad.
It's strange that the Bay Area food community, with its love for all things native Californian, hasn't made more of Santa Maria barbecue. Perhaps it's because the tomato-sauce Southern pit masters settled here first. Or perhaps it's because the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce claims to have copyrighted the formula.
According to April Tunnell, manager, the chamber "copyrighted" Santa Maria-style barbecue in 1978 in order to protect the purity of the region's heritage. "A lot of people claim to be serving Santa Maria-style barbecue, but they don't serve the right accessories -- the pinquitos, the salad, the bread, the salsa ... We don't charge for permission, but if they're going to do it, it needs to be done right." She had never heard of Red Smoke Grill.
Honorable intentions. But there's one problem. You can't copyright a style of food preparation -- as WhatIsCopyright.org summarizes, "Copyright is a protection that covers published and unpublished literary, scientific, and artistic works, whatever the form of expression, provided such works are fixed in a tangible or material form." You could copyright a recipe, for example, but as any cook knows, a good recipe is only a small part of what makes a dish succeed. I spoke to a couple of trademark lawyers, neither of whom would go on the record because they didn't know the full details of the claim, and they suggested that the chamber thought it was trademarking the term "Santa Maria-style barbecue." But nothing shows up in state or federal trademark databases. Besides, the chamber hasn't gone after any violators during her tenure, Tunnell says.
So Red Smoke's owners, Jim Painter and Ken Hinshaw, are off the hook as far as legality goes. But what about taste?
The duo, who worked together for many years at both the Hungry Hunter restaurant chain and at the Oakville Grocery, envisioned Red Smoke Grill as a fast-casual restaurant, a tastefully woody joint where you order at the counter as with fast food but the cooks use higher-quality ingredients and pay attention to what happens to them.
Red Smoke Grill's showcase entree, the Santa Maria-style tri-tip, is grilled over a variety of oaks and sliced thinly to cut short the cut's chewier tendencies. The cooks top a heap of the beef with a drizzle of cilantro cream sauce and a fresh -- not cooked -- salsa. I was suspicious of the decidedly new-school condiments. However, by the second bite it became clear that their bright, acidic flavors set off the beef nicely. Hints of garlic, black pepper, and wood smoke showed through, filling out the aromas of roasted meat, and clicking with my memories of Jocko's steak. There was some real barbecue in there.
Painter and Hinshaw fill out the rest of the menu with barbecued ribs, chipotle grilled prawns, and rotisserie chicken, served by themselves or as combo platters or sandwiches. They also carry a couple of soups, such as a big-hearted tortilla soup, kicky and filled with chunks of chicken, and a creamy-crisp Caesar salad crunched up with pumpkin seeds and tortilla strips.
The owners seem fond of chipotle peppers, which show up in everything from the sauce on the ribs to the Tabasco sauce on the table. Brushed on skewered prawns, the smoked jalapeños deepened the flavors of the marinade, blackening and crisping around the edges of the plump shellfish. They also damped down the sweetness in the sauce brushed thickly across the ribs so it didn't taste like a candy coating. The marinade didn't permeate to the core of either the ribs (slow-roasted) or chicken (brined and spit-roasted), but both meats tasted as tender as if they had been braised for a couple of days.
The platters and combos include a choice of two sides. Painter and Hinshaw use pinquitos for their "Santa Maria beans," but they cook them in chipotle-doused tomato sauce. After a little research, it turns out that the recipe isn't apocryphal, but rather another accepted variation. All the other sides kicked ass: The crisp fries dusted with seasoned salt; the crunchy, not-too-sweet cole slaw; the mixed greens with balsalmic vinaigrette; the peppery, onion-spiked fresh corn salad.
Without the pure red-oak smoke and the accoutrements -- the toast, the scenery -- Red Smoke Grill's barbecued beef wouldn't pass muster with the purists down in Santa Barbara County. But as far as heresies go, it's pretty damn good.