Santa Maria Sun / Cuisine
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 12
A cut aboveOn the Elks Rodeo weekend, learn the ropes from a local grilling legend, who shares his rules for barbecuing Santa Maria style
BY WENDY THIES SELL
It’s pretty safe to say that almost everyone in Santa Maria has sunk his or her teeth into Santa Maria-style barbecue. Tens of thousands—if not millions—of out-of-towners know about it, too. National magazines have touted it as “the best barbecue in the world,” and “a great American regional food you should taste in 2012.”
No matter how you slice it, the juicy, smoky, simply seasoned, Santa Maria-style barbecue helped put the city on the map.
According to R. H. Tesene’s comprehensive local barbecue history book, Santa Maria Style Barbecue, the tradition was born in the mid-1800s when rancheros held large, Spanish-style cookouts under the oaks in the Santa Maria Valley, for cowboys, neighbors, and visiting dignitaries.
The same Santa Maria Elks Lodge that presents the annual rodeo is also credited with refining the local barbecue tradition and keeping it alive by serving up barbecue every week.
Few Elks have barbecued as many years and as often as Ike Simas. The third-generation Santa Marian has been an Elk for 59 years, and he started barbecuing for the lodge the year he joined.
Now 85 years old, Simas still runs a volunteer Elks barbecue crew twice a month.
“I don’t have enough sense to say no,” Simas admitted. “It keeps me going, you know.”
Over the years, Simas and the Elks have barbecued for politicians, celebrities, and the masses.
Simas fondly recalls grilling for President Ronald Reagan and his entourage of famous friends at the Reagan Ranch during election years.
“Down there in Santa Ynez, he was very familiar with barbecue,” Simas said. “Honestly, he was such a great guy, just a regular Joe.”
Simas told me about the time his Elks crew and he prepared Santa Maria-style barbecue for 9,500 people attending an international electrical workers gathering at the Cow Palace near San Francisco.
“We had 14 of our portable barbecue pits. It took us three weeks to get ready for it—getting the equipment ready and everything. … I don’t think there’s anybody, anyplace that can do as big a barbecue as we can.”
The Elks have perfected their technique over the decades: the type of wood, the dry rub, the cut of meat, the equipment, and the side dishes. And there’s no compromising for this expert griller.
“The wood is red oak. We use nothing but red oak. You gotta have red oak. Not white oak,” he said. “White oak has a funny taste; it gives the meat a kind of bitter flavor.”
They burn the wood for about an hour if the Elks are serving a large group.
Next up is the high quality beef. The Elks get weekly shipments from Harris Ranch Beef Company.
“Tri-tip is not Santa Maria-style barbecue! It was pushed by certain people in Santa Maria,” Simas said. “By pushing it the way it’s been pushed, it’s made it more expensive.”
According to Simas, butchers years ago actually threw out tri-tip or made it into hamburger. Now, it’s popular with many backyard barbecuers—but not with Simas: “I’ll tell you the truth, I won’t even eat tri-tip, personally. When it’s cold, you can taste the grease in it.”
Simas said that decades ago, true Santa Maria-style barbecue was rib eye, but then prices went through the roof.
“We went to top sirloin,” he said. “We used to be able to get 9-pounders, which was ideal, but ideally now is 10- to 13-pound hunks of top sirloin. We call it top block.”
The seasoning is critical, too: salt, pepper, and garlic salt.
“I like to put the mix on an hour ahead of time, because that soaks into the meat,” he explained.
There’s no sauce on Santa Maria’s famous barbecue.
“Texas, and the south, and back east put on a lot of sauce. Well, our contention is, if you’ve got good meat, you don’t need all that sauce to cover it up,” Simas exclaimed. “You want to taste the meat, not the sauce!”
Once the coals are ready, the Elks put the seasoned slabs “on the rods.” The thick cuts of meat are pushed onto long, flat, steel skewers, which are lowered down to the fire. One man can turn 40 pounds with the flip of a wrist.
“You put the fatty side of the meat one way, the other one the other way—crisscross them—six pieces, depending on the size of your barbecue,” Simas said.
That’s to keep the juices flowing to the meat.
“Meat on rods is a lot juicier than when you barbecue on the screens, which I’ve done both,” he said. “But to me, the excellence is on the rods.”
Two hours later, the rare cuts of meat are ready, which is how most people like it. The Elks raise the rods up to keep the meat warm, and then bring them down when the meal is served. One man pulls the meat off the rods. It slides right off. Someone else delivers the barbecue to the cutters, who have sharp knives for slicing the meat the requested width.
“Usually it’s about five-eighths of an inch,” Simas said.
Santa Maria-style barbecue is traditionally served with pinquito beans, hot macaroni and cheese, grilled French bread, green salad, and salsa.
“Very important. My wife used to make wonderful salsa, and I have her recipe,” Simas said about his late wife, Irene. “A lot of people don’t do it the old-style way. They put jalapenos in it, or put cilantro, but the true Santa Maria-style salsa is very important.”
Sun food and wine writer Wendy Thies Sell pairs Santa Maria-style barbecue with Santa Barbara County Syrah, Pinot Noir, or Sangiovese. Contact her at wthies@santamariasun.