When folks from other regional American barbecue strongholds get their first glimpse of Santa Maria Stye Barbecue in action, they’ve been known to say, “Hey, that’s not barbecue, that’s grilling!”
What perplexes them is the fact that Santa Maria BBQ is prepared over hot open coals of local red oak, whereas traditional barbecue favors “slow cooking over a smoldering fire for a long period of time.”
But that doesn’t mean that Santa Maria barbecue isn’t barbecue, it’s just a different approach. Here’s how an article in the Wine Enthusiast puts it: “Let’s pause to acknowledge that definitions of BBQ for all but the purists are fluid and forgiving. Grilling vs. barbecue, direct heat vs. indirect, slow vs. fast, smoke vs. fire. All I will say is, the Santa Maria tradition is long and well respected: it’s a form of grill cooking that has been called (in Sunset Magazine) “the best barbecue in the world.” Even the web site, TexasBarbecue.com (and needless to say, Texas prides itself on its BBQ), hails it as “legendary…There really is no argument anywhere that Santa Maria Barbecue is Tri-Tip Beef Barbecue at its best.”
Chef John of the popular Food Wishes blog adds this perspective in response to a skeptic: This style’s been called barbecue in California’s Central Coast since the early Spanish settlers. The common denominator being a wood fire… if they were cooking the legs or head it would be long and slow (like your precious definition), however if they were cooking a slab of top sirloin or rib steak (the original Santa Maria BBQ), they did it more quickly over the hottest part of the fire…because it was better that way. Regardless of which cut, or how long it took, this was all just called BBQ…Besides, “barbacoa” from which you get your barbecue term is technically steaming anyway. The animal was wrapped in wet leaves and steamed over the fire. So, if wet leaves aren’t used is it still BBQ? For these reasons, my personal definition (and that’s all it is, and to each his own), is “anything cooked over or near a wood fire is barbecue.”
In other words, there’s no upside to arguing about it. Let’s just all get along and simply enjoy Santa Maria Style Barbecue for its unique heritage and wondrous flavors!