Santa Maria Style Barbecue is a culinary tradition that originated in the nineteenth century on the Central Coat of California by local ranchers. It is said that at the end of a long workday ranchers would dig large earthen pits to cook meals for their help. Whole slabs of top block, a cut of beef from the top of the shoulder that weighs about 10-15 lbs would be skewered onto thick rods and placed over a hot bed of coals. The wood used was scavenged from the local landscape, and is called red oak, or formally, Coast Live Oak. This was served alongside local pinquito beans, French bread, and tomato salsa, and formed the beginnings of a style of wood fired cooking totally unique to the Central Coast of California. It’s now commonly heard referred to by non-locals as West Coast BBQ and by locals, Santa Maria Style Barbecue.
According to local historians, the earliest known barbecues were hosted in the ranchero and pastoral age by ranchers who received Mexican land grants along the California Coast. In 1841 the Estrada family, Joaquin and Julian, were granted a 17,735-acre land grant known as Rancho Santa Margarita, located within the Santa Lucia Mountain Range in San Luis Obispo county. The land grant was just South of soon to be Hearst Castle, near San Simeon, and continued towards modern day Santa Margarita. Estrada was known for hosting grand events including fiestas, rodeos, and even a circus. He would invite guest over to his Casa de Estrada for these events that were always followed by a barbecue around large pits, roasting entire steers over wood coals.
A mercantile sea Captain named William G. Dana also received a land grant that became Rancho Nipomo in 1837. Dana built a large adobe home on his rancho for his wife and their 21 children. The home was used to host a lavish feast for John Charles Fremont, a military officer and soon to be US senator, and his battalion on their march from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara during the Mexican-American war. Dana ordered forty head of cattle to be slaughtered to feed the entire battalion a barbecue feast, and gave them horses to continue their journey. Throughout his 60 year life, Dana worked as an appraiser at La Purisima Mission, captain of the port of Santa Barbara and a judge. Today, his historic home, ‘Casa de Dana’ is a historical landmark and cultural center called Dana Adobe Cultural Center. It’s a popular wedding venue with beautiful views of the Temettate Ridge in the background.
During the mid to late 1800’s, it was not uncommon to see larger ranchos and rancheros gathering under Coastal Live Oaks in Santa Maria Valley enjoying traditional style barbecues where large cuts of beef were grilled on a thick skewer. This traditional method of grilling is still used at Santa Maria Elks Lodge. Today, the majority of locals don’t have access or space to dig earthen pits, and now rely on portable deep steel pits with height adjustable grill grates. Many locals incorporate built in Santa Maria grills into their outdoor kitchen spaces.
At the turn of the 19th century, a group of local businessmen purchased a house in Santa Maria to be used as a gathering place where men would congregate after a long workday to fraternize. The informal, but popular men’s club prompted the introduction of the 117 member Santa Maria Club in 1920. One of the founders, Ed Craig, built a large barbecue pit for the club’s opening. On April 1st, 1931, Santa Maria Club started “Stag Night Barbecue.” For $1.25 men could enjoy a prime rib steak, macaroni and cheese, pinquito beans, green salad, salsa, and a side of French bread, and coffee. After that Stag Barbecue was held on the second Wednesday of every month. These Wednesday night barbecues became so popular that visitors from all over the state came to eat at the Santa Maria Club. They commonly served 500-700 guests in a night. Today, an invitation only men’s group by the same name still gathers for Santa Maria faire and camaraderie on the second Wednesday of the month at various locations throughout the Central Coast.
Santa Maria Elks Lodge No. 1538, now known nationally for their Elks Rodeo and Parade which occurs the first weekend in June is another big participant in the Santa Maria Barbecue lifestyle. The Elk’s purpose is to generate funds for youth recreation in Santa Maria and surrounding areas. The Elk’s Lodge held their first rodeo in 1943 where a colt was offered as the grand prize. The next year, officials of the lodge decided to make the rodeo an annual event, and added a rodeo parade starting at the Veteran’s Memorial Building and ending at the Santa Maria Fairgrounds. In 1947, non-profit organizations joined the effort, entering their sponsored Queens. A few months prior to the rodeo the Queens, families, and non-profits sell tickets and put on large fundraiser barbecues, bingos games, auctions, and so on. After the events, locals gathered around large barbecue pits where all participants are served Santa Maria Style barbecue.
From 1935-1968 the Elks Lodge would host Santa Maria Style Barbecues at its original facility that could hold 200 guests. In 1950 they partnered with Beacon Outpost who had added on a large tent to feed 500 Santa Maria Barbecue meals following the rodeo. In 1968 the Elks Lodge began construction of its new lodge where they could accommodate 850 guests. In addition to the massive rodeo barbecues they added an event on Friday’s called “Friday Night Cook-Your-Own” where members and their guest can gather around the 3 large Santa Maria Style grills and cook their own aged prime rib or other another cut if requested. This is still going on today for Elks and their invited guests.
1949 R.H. Tesene reopened the Beacon Outpost after remodeling the building Tesene almost went bankrupt. After attending a few stag nights, he came up with the idea of starting his own Santa Maria Style BBQ. In 1951 he added a room next to the cocktail longue and had LIoyld Elder build a large barbecue pit. In 1952 Beacon Outpost started hosting Sunday night barbecue. Each Sunday night he would have two experienced barbecue businessmen cook up a Santa Maria Style Barbecue buffet for guest for $3 guest could proceed through the line 21 day old aged prime rib, beans, green salad, salsa, potato salad, fresh garlic French bread. This dinner was so popular that the Beacon Outpost was attracting guest as far away as Los Angeles.
Today, Santa Maria Style Barbecue still surrounds just about every big event or fundraiser on the Central Coast. It’s a favorite meal at local outdoor weddings, birthday parties, and fiestas. Ranchers still serve the local faire up for friends and family after long days of branding their calves in the spring and summer. You’ll still smell oak wood fires if you drive through neighborhoods on summer weekends, or non-profits selling BBQ plates up and down Broadway. If you’re from out of town and want to experience the beloved faire, it’s also served daily in many local restaurants, most notably The Hitching Post in Casmalia or Buellton, Jacko’s in Nipomo, Shaw’s Steakhouse in Santa Maria, Far Western Tavern in Orcutt.