The scent of red oak hangs thick and spicy-sweet in the air like good pipe tobacco, seasoned with the traces of decades of barbecue. Even early in the morning, before the fires are lit, it fills this cavernous room at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge, flavoring every breath I take. At the back stands a massive pit, a brick rectangle about 20 feet long and waist-high. Soon, as it has so many times before, it will sizzle and drip with America’s least-known best barbecue.
“This is the true Santa Maria–style barbecue,” says Ike Simas, leader of the pit crew. He’s 86, impish and friendly, and has been barbecuing with the Elks for 60 years. His crew are six men in their 70s and 80s, with weathered faces and strong arms, in fire-engine-red shirts saying SANTA MARIA ELKS BAR-B-QUE TEAM on the back. They’re busily rolling hefty chunks of top sirloin—each about 6 pounds and aged for a month in the Lodge’s refrigerators—in a mix of salt, pepper, and garlic salt. The seasoned meat lies piled all over the table like spicy footballs. Within a few hours, it will be served to hundreds of people in the Lodge dining hall.
Barbecue has defined social life in and around the city of Santa Maria—which sprawls across a swath of ranchlands and vineyards between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara—for 150 years, probably more. Records from the days of the ranchos, the giant cattle ranches that covered this territory when it was Mexico, describe almost bacchanalian scenes of whole bulls’ heads and other beef cuts roasted in pits dug in the ground. Tortillas, salsa, and beans were served along with a slew of other sides. These were all-day celebrations—for vaqueros relaxing at the end of a cattle roundup, or guests from the city invited for a ranch adventure. By the early 1900s, a less daunting cooking style had emerged—asado, which involved skewering hunks of beef on green willow rods and setting them across a pit of burning red oak.
Remarkably, that’s still pretty much how people here do it: over a fire of California coastal red oak, which grows thickly along the Central Coast; and on a grill that raises and lowers the meat to the flame—asado, but improved. The meat has no sauce, just a dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and is usually eaten with tiny, plump local beans called pinquitos. Garlic bread and pasta (either cold as macaroni salad or hot as mac ’n’ cheese) replaced tortillas somewhere along the way, as Swiss-Italian immigrants arrived to work on dairy farms—and the salsa lost its heat and acquired celery and Worcestershire sauce. Green salad came into the picture too.
A men’s club called the Santa Maria Club started serving this menu once a month, from 1931 until the group folded in the ’70s, and the Elks Lodge took it up too, in the ’30s. Over the years it’s become a kind of set piece, as hallowed and familiar as Thanksgiving turkey dinner. The menu is rooted so deeply, and stirs such pride in the area, that the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce copyrighted it in 1978.
Today, it could be the Fourth of July, or Labor Day, or Christmas; it could be a wedding or a church social or a birthday, or, when you come right down to it, an ordinary weekend; it could be in a restaurant or park or backyard. At any of these times, in any of these places, you’ll find people hanging out around a Santa Maria grill with their families and friends.