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November 23, 2003 » 12:03 pm

The Quest for Santa Maria Barbecue, Part II

Yesterday, I journeyed south to what is now known as “the O.C.,” or what my friend Christine refers to as “behind the Orange Curtain.” I think of it merely as my new home away from home. The trip gave me an excuse to revisit an earlier quest: to sample some authentic Santa Maria barbecue.    (BR)

To recap: Last July, I took a detour from my normal route south to visit The Hitching Post, a steakhouse in Casmalia, one of Santa Maria‘s neighboring towns. While the food was good, there were two flaws in the experience: The restaurant served steak, not barbecue, and it did not serve pinquitos, a bean native to the Santa Maria Valley and an integral part of the Santa Maria barbecue experience.    (BS)

Going Grassroots    (BT)

Having been disappointed by the restaurant experience, I decided to go grassroots. I had read that the natives often congregated downtown on weekends to smoke tri-tip and cook beans. I called the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce to confirm the story. The woman who answered the phone did just that, waxing poetic about how various community groups camped out on Broadway Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, every Friday and Saturday and hosted barbecues. She recommended visiting the Valley Christian barbecue just south of Stowell Road.    (BU)

As she spoke, I envisioned a small country road, surrounded by storefronts straight out of an old Western, and lined with smokey grills as far as the eye could see. A barbecue nirvana, if you will.    (BV)

Duly inspired, my younger sister Jessica and I woke up early yesterday morning and headed south on the 101. The drive was unusually beautiful. Not only was the sky a crisp, clear blue, but the vineyards that line the highway through the Santa Maria and Santa Barbara valleys had acquired fall colors — beautiful hues of red, yellow, and orange. Four hours into the drive, I spotted the Broadway (Highway 135) exit, and we turned off, excited and hungry.    (BW)

Not Barbecue Nirvana    (BX)

Immediately, I had to scrap my vision of barbecue nirvana. Santa Maria is no small country town. About 80,000 people live there. Broadway Street is a wide, busy street lined with strip malls and fast food joints. Nevertheless, my spirits remained high. I told Jessica to look out for Stowell Road, while I opened my window to sniff for smoke.    (BY)

Five minutes into our drive, we had our first sighting. A Mexican family had set up shop in the parking lot of the Holiday Motel, and a small group of hungry citizens lined up behind a metal grill covered with hunks of meat and half chickens. I fought off the impulse to pull over immediately, and we continued down the street to see what else was out there. A minute later, we spotted the Valley Christian barbecue. A large white bus was parked in front of a strip mall, and smoke rising from two barbecue trailers engulfed the entire street with a sweet, oaky aroma.    (BZ)

There were only two other barbecues along Broadway, but my disappointment was outweighed by the earlier sight of the Valley Christian barbecue. We turned the car around and made a beeline for the white bus.    (C0)

Where Are the Pinquitos?    (C1)

Jessica and I each had a tri-tip dinner, which consisted of several slices of tri-tip, salsa, beans, cole slaw, and buttered bread, all for six dollars. “Eat the meat with the salsa,” I urged Jessica, as I prepared to take my first bite of the meat.    (C2)

One of my favorite sayings is, “Everything tastes good barbecued,” and it’s usually true. It is very hard to go wrong with smoked meat. The barbecued tri-tip was no exception, but it was not exceptional either. The meat was smokey and moist enough, although it probably would have benefitted from some additional salt in the rub. Nevertheless, I had no problem with the meat.    (C3)

The sides were another matter. First, the salsa was inferior and obviously store-bought. This was disappointing, but understandable. These folks served many people, and couldn’t reasonably be expected to make buckets of fresh salsa along with the meat every weekend.    (C4)

The beans, however, were inexcusable. Everything I had read about Santa Maria barbecue made special mention of the pinquitos, and one of the main reasons for my disappointment at The Hitching Post was that they didn’t serve these beans. When we opened our cartons of food, Jessica glanced at the beans and said, “They look like plain old baked pinto beans to me.” Then she took a bite, and said, “Taste like pintos too. Not very impressive ones, either.”    (C5)

I finished my food quickly and walked back to the bus to grill the man manning the grill. “Are these pinquito beans?” I asked.    (C6)

The man shook his head. “Baked beans from Smart & Final,” he responded.    (C7)

The Search for Red Oak    (C8)

I was disappointed by the sides, but in retrospect, I wasn’t too surprised. Again, these folks served a lot of people, and they didn’t charge much money. Corners would inevitably be cut. I resolved to visit one of the smaller barbecues in search of a more authentic experience, but before I left, I asked the man where he got the wood. My thinking was, if I could bring home some red oak and pinquito beans, I could hold my own Santa Maria-style barbecue.    (C9)

“What kind of wood are you using?” I asked.    (CA)

“Oak,” he answered. “But we went through a year where we had to use eucalyptus.”    (CB)

“Why?”    (CC)

“Folks around here are a bit sensitive about their red oak. We couldn’t get any for about a year. But, we have a new supplier now.”    (CD)

His explanation was a bit fuzzy, but it had something to do with the trees being located on the vineyards and with local rules preventing these trees from being chopped down. He couldn’t tell me where his supplier got the wood, but he did share some useful tips on smoking meat.    (CE)

I returned to the table, where Jessica was still eating, and told her about the beans and the wood. She narrowed her eyes, and shook her head disapprovingly. As if on cue, the wind picked up, and a gust actually flipped her carton over, dumping the beans on her sweater and the rest of the food on the table. Jessica stared at her stained sleeve in utter shock. Meanwhile, I looked mournfully at the remaining slice of meat on the table, now wasted. It was clearly a sign to move on.    (CF)

The Man From Nipomo    (CG)

We decided to visit the first barbecue we had seen, on the off-chance that they might serve pinquitos. As we pulled our car into the lot, a short, friendly woman waved us over. “Do you have pinquito beans?” I asked.    (CH)

“Mexican beans? Yes, right here.”    (CI)

“No,” Jessica interjected. “Pinquito beans.”    (CJ)

“Pinto beans, yes,” the woman repeated. No one seemed to know what pinquito beans were. However, her beans did look homemade, and their meat looked awfully good as well. True, I had just finished eating fifteen minutes ago, but….    (CK)

“Where did you get your wood?” I asked, fighting off feelings of gluttony. The woman didn’t know, so she asked a man sitting at the table. The man started speaking volubly in Spanish. I helplessly turned to Jessica — who had taken years of Spanish in high school and had even won some awards — for help. However, the recent food intake and sweater trauma had resulted in a brain cramp, rendering her temporarily useless.    (CL)

Fortunately, another man came to our rescue. “Nipomo,” he explained. Nipomo was a town about five miles north of Santa Maria. The man couldn’t tell us exactly where to buy the wood, but I felt confident that we would find a place. Jessica was less confident. The idea of tooling around a strange town, searching for firewood, did not seem to appeal to her, especially since we had another four hours of driving ahead. Being a sensitive guy, I knew I had to treat her gently. The threat to leave her behind worked, and we headed north to Nipomo.    (CM)

We spent about fifteen minutes driving around Nipomo, which truly was a small town, but to no avail. We did, however, spot a small, old restaurant called The Mayor’s Place advertising barbecue. It had a false storefront that gave it a cozy, homey feel. We pulled up next to the restaurant, and recognizing the now familiar smell of burning oak, we decided to go inside.    (CN)

I approached a waitress, and asked if they served pinquito beans. Once again, we were denied. I then asked her where they got their wood, and she explained that there was a man in town who delivered the wood every few weeks. She very kindly gave me his name and phone number, which I promptly called. The man explained that he had some property with lots of red oak, and when he visited it on weekends with his family, he would bring wood back and sell it to various places, including The Mayor’s Place. He said that he could bring some back for me in about five weeks, and although I was sorely tempted, I thanked him and hung up.    (CO)

Jessica and I arrived in Irvine later that evening, and upon hearing our tale, my dad suggested that Santa Maria barbecue was an overhyped myth. Perhaps it is. My vision of the country road lined with people gathered around smokey grills has been replaced by one of a long, wide suburban thoroughfare, lined with strip malls and the occasional grill serving Smart & Final beans. Nevertheless, I find something strangely compelling about this little town of 80,000 people, so proud of their local barbecue that they’ve trademarked the brand, so protective of their local wood that it’s almost impossible to buy. There may not be grills on every corner of Broadway Street, but there are more than a few grills over a two-mile stretch, and they’re there every weekend.    (CP)

I remain convinced that somewhere in the Santa Maria Valley, there is a place that makes meat so sweet and smokey, it practically dissolves in your mouth, a place that serves pinquito beans that are so good, you sigh in resignation every time you see a plate of pintos. And so the search continues….    (CQ)

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One Response to “The Quest for Santa Maria Barbecue, Part II”

  1. I’ve never heard of pinquito beans, but I accidently happened to have lunch at “the mayors Place” a couple weeks ago.
    While their’ tri tip was average, their’ BBQ beans, which they referred to as “Nipomo Beans” were absolutely the best I have ever had. Couldn’t talk them out of the recipe though.
    If you didn’t try their’ beans, you really missed out.

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