Thursday, August 4, 2011

Santa Maria Style Grilled Tri-tip

Slicing up the finished and rested Tri-tip
So here on the Central Coast of California, they take their BBQ seriously.  Way back in the 1800s, cattlemen and cowboys started grilling up cuts of steaks over oak wood fires with simple seasonings.  A whole style of grilling, called Santa Maria style after a town just north of Santa Barbara, was born and is the pride and joy of the folks around here.  I remember hearing about the famous Santa Maria tri-tip from a girlfriend of mine who grew up in California and loved it so much she served it at her wedding.  Little did I know I would fall in love with it too.

I moved down here to California and found tri-tip on menus everywhere.  Remembering my friends fabulous descriptions, I gave it a try.  Now I'm hooked, like seriously addicted.  My favorite happens to be the sandwich served up Wednesdays and Saturdays at the local airport cafe.  Sounds like a strange place to find good BBQ, I know.  But as my husband, an aviator, will tell you, sometimes the small airport restaurants have the best food and this place is no exception.  You can sit at a table outside and watch the airplanes taking off and landing while the cook stands grilling several tri-tips over a wood-fired grill right in front of you.  It's a cool way to spend an afternoon.  And the place is always packed on tri-tip days.  I learned the secret is simple seasoning- garlic, salt and pepper- and the smoke of some oak wood as the meat grills.  The end result is truly something special.

Santa Maria Style Grilled Tri-tip
a 2 1/2 to 3 lb trip-tip steak
1 large head garlic
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 cups hardwood chips- preferably oak (you can get these in bags in the grill section of your local hardware store, Target, or WalMart)

The marinade ingredients

In a food processor, place the peeled garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Blend until you have a thick paste.  Alternately, you can chop the garlic by hand, use a mortar and pestle, or even grate the garlic with a fine grater if you don't have a food processor.  Your goal is to get the garlic as fine as possible so that you can spread it over the meat.  Poke the meat all over with a fork, then rub your garlic paste all over the tri-tip.  Wrap it in plastic wrap, or place in a zip top bag and refrigerate for 6-8 hours.

The tri-tip is ready to relax in the fridge and soak up all that garlic
When you're ready to grill, take the meat from the fridge so it can come to room temperature.  Place the wood chips in a bowl of water to soak.  I fire up all the burners on my grill so that it's nice and hot to start off with.  When the grill is ready, wipe most of the garlic paste off with a paper towel (if there's a lot of garlic, it will burn and that will not taste good), then place the tri-tip off to one side of the grill.  Sear the meat for about 5 minutes on both sides, then turn the burners underneath the meat to low.  Remove the wood chips from the water and put them in a foil baking pan.  Place the pan on the other half of the grill.  If the burners under the pan are high, you should get some smoke out of those chips.

The tri-tip is searing on the grill
The resting tri-tip

Grill the tri-tip for about another 20 minutes.  The meat will be medium-rare to medium (130 degrees if you're using a thermometer).  Remove it from the grill and let it rest for 15 minutes.  If you cut into it too soon, all the juices will run out of the meat and it will be dry.  Once it's rested, slice the meat into very thin slices and serve.  If you'd like, you can turn it into a tasty sandwich with some toasted bread and the secret sauce from my favorite airport cafe- mix 1/4 cup mayo with about 2 tbs of the darkest, zestiest BBQ sauce you can kind.  That's my kind of sandwich.

Tri-tip sandwich a la Waypoint Cafe


  1. Hi there, love this place. Any particular idea what the sauce actually is? I've been trying to replicate it forever.

  2. I asked once and the waitress gave me the two simple ingredients- Best Foods/Hellmans mayonnaise and Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce. I've fiddled with them and found what my husband thinks is the correct proportions of them. You'll find that written in the last paragraph above. Enjoy!

  3. Myself and my coworkers love tri tip especially from this airport café Living on the east coast we rarely get to have it. So tried this and it was a hit. Thank you for sharing.