The climate and the coastline aren’t the only things that separate California from the rest of the country. California’s BBQ style is also emerging as something different and not to be missed. And the different offerings are something worth trying in the increasingly competitive BBQ scene.

So what distinguishes the West Coast taste from what you see served in St. Louis, the Carolinas or Texas?

It’s the tri-tip! California pitmasters still cook all of the same meats as traditional BBQ outfits around the country. Most are cranking out beef brisket, pork butt, pork ribs, chicken and rib tips all day, every day. But it’s the addition of the tri-tip that sets it apart.

“Tri-tip is a portion of the bottom sirloin butt,” says Cali Comfort BBQ pitmaster, Gene Goycochea. “It used to be ground into hamburger as it was considered a useless piece of meat.”

Cali Comfort BBQ
A tri-tip sandwich at Cali Comfort BBQ near Santa Barbara, California.

The modern day application for it was born out of Santa Maria, California. Goycochea says a local butcher had nothing else to cook, so he seasoned up some of this meat that was destined to be ground beef, placed it on a grill and sold it to a customer, who felt it was the best thing since sliced bread.

“This meat became a staple and put Santa Maria on the map,” Goycochea says.

“Traditionally it’s a grilling meat. We smoke it, then grill it for the caramelization,” added his partner, Shawn Walchef.

The lean tri-tip cut, when sliced properly is very tender, has great flavor, works well with a simple seasoning of salt, pepper and garlic (Santa Maria seasoning).


How to Smoke Tri-Tip like They Do in Santa Maria

Comparatively speaking, tri-tip is more expensive than beef brisket, and it has a lot of fat cap that needs to be trimmed. Goycochea says it’s best to trim to 1/4 inch on the top. It can cost $5-$8 per pound, but it has a good yield of about 75% after trimming, they say.

During a recent trip to Southern California, I stopped in to Brazen BBQ to have my first taste of true California style tri trip, and it delivered a nice smokey flavor with an even more tender texture than brisket.

“We at Cali Comfort BBQ have our own run for our tri-tip that imparts an amazing flavor,” Walchef says. “We also slice our tri-tip very thin to assure our customers that it will be very tender.”

Brazen BBQ
Brazen BBQ in downtown San Diego.

In terms of seasoning, most West Coast smokehouses favor the Santa Maria seasoning, which plays well with the tri-tip. It’s as simple as salt, pepper and garlic. Goycochea says this is what they use exclusively in the restaurant.

As is traditional with other styles, places like Brazen and Cali Comfort serve their array of sauces on the side. Their mild jalapeño based sauce provides a much different flavor that many of their customers love.

For fire, Brazen and Cali Comfort are each using two base woods that are native to the area.

“We use pecan that produces a mild Hickory flavor. We also use almond, which produces a flavor that our customers seem to love,” Walchef says.

“Tri-tip has become a California thing. Many other parts of America wish that this cut was available in their region,” Goycochea added.

Amen to that.