Santa Maria Style Barbecue

The Story of the Santa Maria Style Barbecue

by Merle Ellis

There are places in this country where barbecue means more than just a way to cook a piece of meat over coals. It is Tradition with a capital "T."

Such is the case in the city of Santa Maria on California's central coast. The history of Santa Maria Barbecue dates back to the early 1800s, when the mainstay of the Early California economy was cattle and America's first cowboys, the colorful vaqueros, held large beef barbecues at the rancho following every cattle roundup.

Throughout the years, the tradition has been kept alive by groups and organizations in the Santa Maria Valley who have made the barbecue a specialty of all major events. Traditionalists will tell you that it cannot be done for fewer than 100 people, but that's not true. You can do it in your back yard.

The only secret of the Santa Maria Barbecue is its simplicity -- no special sauces or magic ingredients. It consists of thick cuts of beef, seasoned with nothing but salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and cooked over Santa Maria Valley red oak coals. It's all served with toasted sweet French bread to sop up the natural juices from the serving pan.

The cut of meat called for in an authentic Santa Maria Barbecue is a 3-inch thick cut of boneless top sirloin weighing 3 to 4 pounds. If that is a bit more meat than you need, there is another cut of sirloin that works well, the tri-tip. The tri-tip has become the most popular cut for family barbecues in the region. It weighs only about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, a far better size for a small family. See also: History of the tri-tip. Cuts of beef diagram.

The traditional combination of side dishes consists of pinquito beans, macaroni and cheese, tossed green salad, toasted sweet French bread, salsa, coffee, and a simple dessert. The pinquito bean, a small pink bean that retains its firm texture even after long slow cooking, is unique to the Santa Maria Valley, as is the red oak.

This is excerpted from an article in the April 22, 1988 Los Angeles Times.

The Traditional Menu

The Chamber of Commerce now has the Official SM Style BBQ Page.

Santa Maria Style Beef

  1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  1 top sirloin steak (3" thick), or tri-tip
    red oak logs, or charcoal and oak chips (soaked in water)
Combine salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and rub mixture over the meat. Place the meat on grill and adjust so meat is 2 or 3 inches from the coals. Sear each side of meat over hot coals 5 to 8 minutes to seal in juices, turning once.

Move meat to 6 to 8 inches from coals. Cook 20 to 30 more minutes, turning every 7 or 8 minutes until beef is cooked to desired degree of doneness, 130 degrees for rare. Slice and serve.

Santa Maria Style Salsa

  3 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup green onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup mild green chiles, finely chopped
  2 tablespoons cilantro, fresh
  1 tablespoon vinegar
  1 dash Worcestershire sauce
  1 pinch garlic salt
  1 pinch dried oregano, crushed
  a few drops hot pepper sauce
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, cover and let stand at least 1 hour to blend flavors. Makes 3 1/2 cups.

Santa Maria Style Beans

  1 pound pinquito beans
  1 strip bacon, diced
1/2 cup ham, diced
  1 clove garlic
3/4 cup tomato puree
1/4 cup red chile sauce*
  1 teaspoon dry mustard
  1 tablespoon sugar
  1 teaspoon salt
  1 pinch MSG or Accent (optional)
* Las Palmas brand, not to be confused with chili sauce, which is like hot catsup. Similar to enchilada sauce.

Pick through beans to remove any small stones. Place in pot, cover with water, and let soak overnight. Drain beans, cover with fresh water, and simmer for 2 hours, or until tender.

Saute bacon and ham until lightly browned. Add garlic, saute 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add tomato puree, chile sauce, sugar, mustard, salt, and MSG (if using it).

Drain most liquid from beans and save. Stir in the sauce and simmer for 1/2 hour. Add some of the saved liquid if they get too dry. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Santa Maria Style Macaroni and Cheese

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
    2 tablespoons butter (or margarine)
    2 tablespoons flour
  3/4 teaspoon salt
    1 pinch pepper
    2 cups hot milk
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Cook macaroni according to directions on the package. Make a roux of the butter, flour, and salt. Add the pepper and hot milk in which 1 cup of the cheese has been melted. Cook in a double boiler until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Combine the macaroni and cheese sauce, and place in a 1 1/2 quart casserole. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese on top. Bake at 350 degrees F for 35 to 40 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

(Although part of the official menu at the Santa Maria Club's Stag BBQs, not many people actually do the macaroni and cheese these days.)


A very popular item at SM Style BBQs (though not "official") is a Portuguese sausage called Linguica. Many people will throw it on the grill, slice it into pieces, and pass it out as an appetizer to the crowd who always seem to congregate around the grill. Again, simple, but good.

Sources of pinquito beans, SM Style seasoning, etc.

These links provided as a public service. I get no financial gain by their being here.
These recipes have appeared in numerous cookbooks, brochures, and newspaper articles. To quote an article in the Santa Maria Times: "A copyright, held by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, protects the name, the concept, and the menu. This action came to stop commercial ventures from advertising their barbecue when it wasn't `the real thing.'" The Chamber/Visitor and Convention Bureau also has the official SM Style BBQ page.

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Last modified: 16 MAR 2018