Dining at old-timey Shaw’s.
Santa Maria’s main drag, Broadway, used to be one long corridor of white smoke every Friday and Saturday. Fund-raising groups would set up Santa Maria grills and sell plates to passersby. “You could barely see to drive,” says Cindy Ransick, curator at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society museum (where, incidentally, there’s a barbecue exhibit). Finally the streetside barbecue got too big. In 2009, the city imposed limits on frequency and hours, and the county came in with health regulations. Now just a few wisps of smoke go up on weekends.
That hasn’t dimmed the local ardor for oak-grilled meat, though. The Far Western Tavern, started by two ranching families in 1958, moved from the remote little town of Guadalupe last fall to a new location off the 101 freeway just south of Santa Maria. Its business doubled. Other bastions of barbecue are likewise packed.
One of the toughest places to get into is Jocko’s, in Nipomo, 8 miles north of Santa Maria. “You go there to eat, you don’t go to swank,” Ike Simas’s son, Gary, told me. It hasn’t changed since it opened in 1962, a snug den presided over by Sandy Knotts, Ike’s niece, a tiny, buxom lady with chunky gold jewelry and a purr of a voice. By around 4, when the pit fires up, there’s a line out the door.
When I was there last, I walked out back to the pit and watched my Spencer steak—a center-cut boneless rib-eye—being cooked by Daniel Knotts, Sandy’s 26-year-old grandson. The meat was grilled not on rods but on a thick metal screen, the standard practice at restaurants and for home cooks. The fire was ferocious, stopping me several feet away. Daniel danced in and out of the wall of heat to flip the meat, holding one arm up against his body like a boxer. “It’s my insulation,” he explained, unconvincingly. It’s a wonder his hair didn’t ignite.
Like most places in Santa Maria barbecue country, Jocko’s follows the traditional seasoning mantra of salt, pepper, and garlic salt. The Hitching Post restaurants stand on tradition too, but embellish it a little. At the original Hitching Post in the way-out-in-the-country town of Casmalia and at the better-known Hitching Post II in Buellton, the basic blend adds white pepper, plus cayenne and onion powder, and the meat is basted with garlicky oil and vinegar.
“We think of Santa Maria barbecue as a flavor on its own,” says Frank Ostini, the exuberant owner of The Hitching Post II. At a glassed-in pit in the dining room, he grills all kinds of things over red oak: beef steaks and chops, but also quail, duck, pork, shrimp, lobster, and artichokes. “We wood-smoke red peppers and tomatoes and mix them with mayonnaise for our grilled artichokes,” he says. “We’ve wood-smoked hops for beer.”
I order the bone-in rib-eye because I can’t stop coveting the one at the neighboring table. It’s the biggest steak I’ve ever seen—at 26 ounces, practically architectural—and it is utterly luscious. To go with it, I choose Ostini’s own Highliner Pinot Noir, one of several wines he makes with partner Gray Hartley; they’re famous for their Pinots, especially after the restaurant appeared in the movie Sideways. “During all the hoopla, 20 to 50 cars a day would stop just to take a picture,” Ostini says. “But it was important to maintain who we were, so we’ve kept it all the same.”
It probably doesn’t matter how many times Santa Maria barbecue is served at the White House or shows up in a movie. It will never conquer San Francisco or Seattle. Red oak grows best here, and pinquito beans grow nowhere else. The grills are ingenious but, for some reason, mostly made locally. The food is so simple, so straightforward, that its deliciousness and depth of flavor depend on having exactly the right ingredients, wood and grill included, cooked by people who are grilling because it’s part of how and where they live. You can make a good approximation of Santa Maria barbecue outside the Central Coast, but for the real thing, you have to come here.
Joe Caicco, owner of Santa Maria Barbecue Outfitters, and his bubbly daughter, Vincenza, invite me to a barbecue up at their family retreat—they call it “the saloon”—in the foothills near Santa Maria. It’s built into the side of a canyon, and Joe, a man of seemingly limitless energy, overhauled a rustic shack to make it spacious and elegant, with porches all around. Not surprisingly, they have the Tesla of home grills outside, a 10-foot-long creation with an artful turning wheel.
It looks slightly intimidating, but Joe shows me how simple it is to cook on. Whenever the flames erupt, he cranks the screen loaded with tri-tips, ribs, and sausage up a couple of notches so nothing will scorch. “On a regular grill, you have to cover the food or it’ll burn,” he says. No fiddling with vents or indirect heat: This is easy, immediate control over fire.
Even before Joe manufactured grills, he built them on his own with his father, for fun, and they’d cook on them together for the family. “Barbecue is kind of bred into us,” says Vincenza. Pretty much every weekend, the Caiccos are up here, dancing, drinking beer, and eating barbecue. Vincenza was married on the slopes above, and you can guess what was on the wedding menu.
A few months later, while walking through a Santa Maria park, I stop and introduce myself to a family having a picnic, intrigued by the smells coming from their grill. Stephanie Correa, who’s cooking, explains that it’s carne asada—Mexican-style flap steak marinated in spices and orange juice. Their Santa Maria grill is unusually pretty, with a decorative swirl on the top bar. A stack of tortillas warms in a corner; beans sit on a table ready for spooning out, along with a toasted-chile salsa that her mother made. This barbecue doesn’t conform to the copyrighted Santa Maria menu, but it looks a little like lunch on a rancho long ago. “This is our form of hospitality,” says Correa. “It’s allowing people you don’t know to come into the family.” And she hands me a taco.