Along the Central Coast of California, that loosely defined stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles, tri-tip is king. The leaner low sirloin cut often takes a backseat to brisket in other parts of the country, but owing to California’s long-standing ranchero culture tri-tip cooked over red oak has become something of a tradition. Though its true origins are a bit hazy, most agree that, much like barbecue in the rest of the world, tri-tip ultimately earned its place at the table because for years it was considered a cheap, tough cut without much fat or collagen — but given the right treatment it could shine.
Today, tri-tip is a large cog in an even larger barbecue machine that’s gaining its own West Coast reputation: Santa Maria style, cooked over proprietary pit grills using widely abundant red oak. You’ll find those boxy cookers at classic stops like The Hitching Post II in Buellton, and throughout Santa Maria proper at weekend park parties and Sunday grill sessions. And they’re not just for tri-tip: pitmasters along the coast routinely use Santa Maria grills for everything from steaks to ribs, giving the largely rural wine country its signature barbecue style. Here are some of the best options for a barbecue pit stop the next time you’re traveling through.