For the past several years, it was a goal of mine to sample barbecued beef in the Santa Maria Valley along California’s Central Coast. But, the opportunity never came for one reason or another during the long drives between Seattle and Los Angeles. Either the timing was not right or we were in a hurry to get somewhere else. That would change today as we were headed out of L.A. en route to Monterey and we would be in the valley around lunchtime.
Why Santa Maria-style barbecue isn’t as well known as its Midwestern or Southern cousins is not clear. Maybe a lot has to do with what Americans envision as being quintessential barbecue—meats slow-cooked or smoked and slathered with sauce. The valley did not start out its tradition with pork, by far the preferred meat for American grills. Instead, it was and still is beef, these days typically top sirloin and tri-tip, rubbed with salt, pepper and garlic powder, then cooked over flaming red oak, which is abundant along California’s Central Coast. There is no barbecue sauce. Because of its beginnings in the old days of California’s rancheros and vaqueros, essential parts of the barbecue tradition are beans and salsa that evolved with their distinct regional styles. Salsas are more mild, tempered by the Europeans who moved into the area, and the beans are made with pinquitos that are native to the Santa Maria Valley.
I began to wonder early on if some unseen force was trying to prevent me from completing my mission. My choice was Roundup Market in Santa Ynez (in the middle of the Chumash Indian reservation), a short drive north of Santa Barbara. We drove up to shuttered doors and a “for sale” sign. It must’ve closed for good sometime in 2014. Not to worry because Hitching Post II was not far away in Buellton. We pulled up, only to find out from an employee that it opens only for dinner. Next, we headed for Far Western Tavern in Santa Maria in the heart of where the first barbecue restaurants opened in the 1950s. We were flustered when all we saw were a Jack in the Box and car wash on the corner where our GPS took us. Fortunately, a local told us where it was actually located in Old Town Orcutt, just blocks west. Another rare time that our Garmin failed us. All of this rigmarole took a good hour.
Far Western Tavern is one of three, legendary restaurants (Hitching Post and Jocko’s being the others) that started serving Santa Maria-style barbecued meats in the late 1950s, to commercialize the long tradition of what before was cooked only at social gatherings and fund raisers, much like huli huli chicken in Hawaii. The Santa Maria Elks were the primary practitioners of this mobile form of cooking (fire pits on wheels). Far Western Tavern moved a few years ago to Santa Maria from Guadalupe, a small town about 10 miles west of Santa Maria, and home to La Simpatia that our waiter Emmanuel claimed serves the best, most authentic Mexican food in the valley. What a coincidence, for we ate there in 2009, at which time the tavern must’ve still been located there.
The restaurant is very large. At the front is the bar. Toward the back is the more formal dining area, though it has a distinct western decor, including mounted steer horns, dark wood paneling and furnishings covered in cowhide. The menu is pricey, what one expects at a good steakhouse nowadays. This is a far cry from the informality of neighborhood cookouts and Elks fund-raisers where I suspect the prices are more down-to-earth. At lunchtime at least, a steak sandwich lets you try the Santa Maria-style in more affordable fashion.
As it was, our Rancher (☆☆☆), an 8-oz. ‘cowboy cut’ top sirloin sandwich, which we split with a nice, classic Caesar salad, was still $20. A basket of complimentary house-made potato chips was served. I made the mistake of ordering the steak ‘medium,’ when I should’ve asked for medium-rare. The steak was nicely seasoned and tasty but a bit dry with no pink in the center. There was none of the succulence that made these steaks famous. A rib-eye sandwich was also on the lunch menu, but I was determined to sample the ‘classic’ cut. The bread was the traditional slice of grilled garlic French bread, dipped in butter.
No Santa Maria barbecue would be complete without pinquito beans. Small and flavorful in their own right, they have the remarkable ability to maintain firmness and plumpness through long cooking times. FWT’s beans are simply prepared with water, bacon and ‘pinquito seasoning,’ which means a propriety blend. The beans might seem bland when compared to traditional barbecued beans, but their straightforwardness complemented the steak nicely.
In the future, we’d like to pass through the area on a weekend when the cookouts happen and enjoy the barbecue as it was meant to be experienced, in the outdoors and a community setting.
Far Western Tavern
300 E Clark Ave
Old Town Orcutt (Santa Maria), CA