The Famous Santa Maria Tri Tip Recipe!

Looking for a great trip tip recipe? Like most regional specialties there are many family recipes and variations, but a few truths seem to hold with tri tip recipes. The classic is grilled or smoked with red oak wood.  It should be served with beans, salsa and garlic bread. This all in mind, we have a couple of recipes for you on our site, but first the classic Santa Maria Style Tri Tip. 

Tri Tips are the preferred BBQ from California beautiful central coast region. The famed Santa Maria Style Tri Tip grilled over red oak is a fantastic meal.  It is the original California style BBQ albeit a different style and a bit more grill like that some of the other styles. 

The tri tip is not always easy to find in all areas of the country being a regional specialty. It is not a particularly tender cut, but is flavorful.  In Europe the cut is called aiguillette baronne  and in Spain rabilla de cadera. It is used fairly often in Brazilian churrasco as well. There is discussion whether or not the tri tip was the original cut used in Santa Maria style BBQ, the top sirloin is used in many cases and is excellent served this way as well.

The grilling of tri tips is “indigenous” to the area from Ventura county to Monterey, and now the fame of this great dish has spread all over the state and beyond. It started on the ranches in the Santa Maria area north of Santa Barbara and south of Monterey and Paso Robles.  The recipe reflects the bounty of the area and the Mexican influence on the ranches in the 1800’s.  Traditionally served with Pinquito beans, which are only grown commercially in the Santa Maria Valley and a salsa with the Santa Maria twist. Restaurants on the central coast have become famous for their tri tip such as the Hitching Post seen in the movie Sideways, the Far West Tavern and Jockos.  Who really serves the most authentic tri tip; a fun road trip to the area is recommended and let your taste buds decide!

Santa Maria tri tip is not just a dish it is a whole meal. For the history of Santa Maria Style Tri Tip check the Wikipedia Page on Tri Tip.



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Santa Maria Tri Tip Recipe - Complete

Serves 4-5 persons

1 Whole Tri Tip 5 to 6 lbs We like USDA Choice or Prime

Rub your cleaned tri tips with the Santa Maria Style Rub.


Santa Maria Tri Tip Rub

1 ½ Tablespoons fresh coarsely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

½ tablespoon onion powder

½ tablespoon dried rosemary

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ tablespoon granulated garlic

combine all and store in an airtight container.


Wet Mop

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard (I like to use the coarse wholegrain version)

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

6 cloves garlic crushed and chopped fine

1/3 olive oil

combine all 



Santa Maria Style Salsa

This salsa is distinctive of the central coast region of California from Santa Barbara to Monterey and the epicenter the Santa Maria Valley.

3 tomatoes diced

½ cup celery diced fine

½ cup green onions

½ cup mild green chiles such as Anaheim or mild green New Mexico chile. Fire roasted, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons cilantro chopped fine

1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley chopped fine

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon garlic chopped fine

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano crushed

Combine all and allow to sit in the fridge for 3-4 hours prior to serving.



Santa Maria Style Pinquito Beans

1 pound Pinquito beans cooked (follow directions for cooking on package) If unavailable substitute pinto beans

4 strips of bacon diced

½ cup ham diced small 

3 cloves garlic chopped fine

¾ cup tomato puree

¼ cup red chile sauce or enchilada sauce. 

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon marjoram

1 teaspoon salt

Sauté bacon in the bottom of a large pot.  When golden brown add the ham.  Lower the heat and add the garlic. Sauté until garlic is soft, add the tomato puree and all other ingredients except the beans. Simmer for 10 minutes and add the cooked beans. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.



I have used three different methods of cooking tri tips. Which you choose is really dependent on how much time that you have available. There is the direct grilling over red oak, which on the central coast is the most frequently seen at the BBQ’s in the parks, on the ranches or beaches. The second is using charcoal and wood chips or chunks and is the second most common. The third utilizing a smoker and grill, which is how some of the more famous central coast restaurants handle their tri tip BBQ.

Both start off  the same with seasoning the tri tips with the rub, allow to marinate for four hours or preferably overnight. Make your wet mop, and cook up your beans and get your garlic bread ready to go.


Direct grilling on oak

Prepare your fire and allow to burn down to nice embers with gray ash.  Oil your tri tips lightly and grill over medium high heat until golden brown.  Brush your tri tips with the mop. Raise your grill or move to a cooler zone to complete the cooking to desired temperature. During this process mop several times.  When the meat is cooked remove from grill and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Slice the meat across the grain, or it will be stringy and tough. 


Grilling on charcoal with wood chips or blocks

Prepare your coals for a two zone fire, one medium high heat and the other for indirect. Soak your wood pieces or blocks in water. You will need around 3 to 4 cups of chips. Grill your trip tip on the direct side until you get a nice golden brown, do not walk away for too long as you don’t want the flare ups to burn the tips during this time.  Move your tri tip to the indirect side and place your chips or blocks on the coals. Mop the tri tip and cover or close your grill and allow to smoke. Periodically open, mop the tri tips and check your wood to maintain the smoke, cook to your desired temperature. When done remove from the grill and allow to rest for twenty minutes.


Using a smoker

This is what some of the more famous restaurants do for their great tri tips and is really more akin to true BBQ since it incorporates “low and slow”.  Prepare your tri tips and place into your smoker. The temperature should be around 200 to 225 degrees. Smoke for four hours, this is somewhat variable by the size and trim of your tri tips. Mop your tri tips during this process and keep replenishing the smoker wood as needed. If there are small or trimmed heavily reduce your smoking time. You will be shooting for an internal temperature of 135 degrees or rare.  Finish your tri tips briefly with a visit to the grill to cook the exterior golden brown, but take care not to overcook your tri tips. Allow to rest for 20 minutes and slice!

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