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What is Santa Maria Style Barbecue?

Santa Maria Style Barbecue

If you find yourself in the Santa Maria Valley, in the lovely county of Santa Barbara, located in the state of California, you will find a treasure trove of amazing barbecue dating back over 150 years. Born on the California ranches, Santa Maria-style barbecue is simple, delicious, and utilizes a cut of meat that isn’t nearly as popular outside of the Golden State. A recent article of ours gave a quick overview of some popular American styles of barbecue, but we only gave a very brief statement about this California style. Let’s explore it just a bit further.

A brief history of Santa Maria-style barbecue

This style of barbecue was invented around the middle part of the 19th century by local Spanish Vaqueros to feed large groups. They would fill large open pits with red oak coals and grill huge amounts of beef over them. They would typically serve the beef with native pinquito beans (similar to pinto beans). The style didn’t really take off until the 1930s, when a local club started holding huge “Stag Barbecues” on a monthly basis. In 1978 the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce copyrighted the style, and today this style of barbecue is considered a “mainstay of California’s culinary heritage.”


Santa Maria-style barbecue utilizes local coastal red oak to wood-fire grill meats, fish, and vegetables. Red oak is perfect for this style of quick and hot cooking since it does not burn quickly or produce much smoke (which is important as the Santa Maria Valley is rather windy).


A traditional Santa Maria barbecue pit features an iron grill that can be lifted or lowered via a hand crank to keep the meat at the perfect distance from the red oak coals.


This style of barbecue relies on a simple yet delicious spice rub that consists of salt, pepper, and garlic.

The main meat

The centerpiece of Santa Maria-style barbecue is the meat! Specifically, beef tri-tip which is a triangular cut piece of meat from the bottom of the sirloin roast. When cooked right tri-tip is the perfect combination of tender and chewy.


As mentioned above, the main traditional side dish served with Santa Maria-style barbecue is native pinquito beans; however, today you can also expect your beans to be accompanied by a helping of fresh salsa, a tossed green salad, and a slab of grilled French bread smothered in sweet melted butter.

Have you had the opportunity to try this California barbeque style? Have you ever had tri-tip? What is your favorite style of barbecue? Let us know in the comments!

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