The Secrets of Santa Maria (and The World’s Best Sandwich)

This is all I got, folks. My greatest sandwich. And I give it to you. I give and I give and I give…

But to get there we must first take a side trip on a long country road. Midwesterners and Southerners may boast of having the best barbecue. But we in California have our own claim to grilling fame. I’m talking about Santa Maria-style, and in particular the tri-tip. We’re not tiptoeing our way around a dainty rack of candied baby back ribs, people. The tri-tip is a wonderful cut that gives you rare and well-done in the same piece of meat. (If you don’t have anyone who wants well-done, you can save the tip and chop it up for tacos the next day!) Akin to Texas barbecue, this is meat at its most elemental. A beefy tri-tip, our own fragrant coastal oak and fire.

Santa Maria is an unassuming little town on Highway 101 just before you get to Pismo. On your way, if you’d like, you can cut over inland from Santa Barbara on the Cachuma Pass, making a left just over the summit to the fabled Cold Springs Tavern. Here, on a Sunday afternoon, you can try their grilled tri-tip served on a roll au jus with salsa, listen to live blues and share a beer with a few hundred of your rowdiest biker buddies. Continue on, down past the lake, past the turn-off for Solvang — where, my wife and I are convinced, the chatchkis come alive at night and rule the town, and all those happy people in Danish outfits are actually animatronics. Anyway… soon you’ll come to Foxen Canyon Road. Turn right.

Now you’re on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail — the best wine tasting in the Central Coast, for my money. (And not nearly as far as Paso Robles.) Stop at some great wineries along the road — Andrew Murray for stellar Rhone varietals, and for some of the best pinots on earth and great roadside ambiance, Foxen Winery. Join their wine club if they’ll let you, and they may pull out some special bottles from just behind the counter. At the end of the trail where you meet up again with the 101 is Santa Maria, and a few more wineries worth visiting — Cottonwood Canyon, Byron, Cambria… Follow the smoke into town and you might find descendants of the original vaqueros grilling a tri-tip over an open wood fire. If no one’s grilling curbside, pop into a restaurant like Shaw’s Steakhouse & Tavern or A.J. Spurs for a good Santa Maria barbecue meal.

Or come to my house. Which brings me back home to the greatest sandwich in the world. I perfected this one over the years, and it shines in its simplicity. I’ve departed a bit from the austerity of the Santa Maria tri-tip by adapting an Adam Perry Lang treatment of tri-tip with spices and glaze… and so I call it the Topanga Tri-tip. Nothing will bring success to your next outdoor grilling party like this sandwich and a big chewy zinfandel. Enjoy!

*   *   *

Topanga Tri-tip Sandwich
(note: the marinade and glaze for the meat are highly receptive to improvisation. If you don’t have apple juice, use orange juice. If you don’t have honey, use brown sugar, etc. Or experiment. Or skip all that stuff and grill the tri-tip with nothing more than olive oil, salt and pepper, Santa Maria style. Once you slather it with aoili and a handful of arugula, It’ll all be good.)

1 2-3 lb tri-tip (for six people)
2 tbsp. mild chili powder (ex. California chili powder)
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. dijon mustard
2 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup apple juice
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 stick butter
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
6 focaccia-type rolls
1/2 lb. arugula, cleaned
1/2 cup mayonnaise
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt & pepper

Make aioli. Grate two garlic cloves on a microplane grater (or chop very fine). Place in a bowl with mayonnaise and 1/4 cup olive oil, and mix vigorously until combined.

Combine chili powder, Worcestershire, soy sauce and mustard. Rub all over tri-tip one hour before cooking. Meanwhile, grate the remaining garlic cloves on a microplane (or chop finely), and combine with the vinegar, apple juice, honey and crushed red pepper. Melt the butter, add to glaze mixture, and set aside. Sprinkle garlic powder and ground pepper over meat. Heat grill to high and place tri-tip on grill with lid open. Cook for 3 minutes, flip, and cook for another 3 minutes. Lower heat to medium, then brush on some of the vinegar/butter/honey glaze. Cook for 8 minutes, brushing on glaze regularly, then turn over and cook for another 8 minutes, brushing with glaze. Remove when tri-tip feels firm but still yields. (Medium-rare over most of the cut.)

Place tri-tip on a cutting board that has been drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with your best sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Let sit for 10 minutes, then slice against the grain with a very sharp knife in 1/2-inch slices until all meat is sliced. Dredge in oil and sitting juices. Slice each half-inch slice on the diagonal into three or so more slices. Dredge again in oil and juices.

Cut focaccia rolls in half, and brush each half liberally with aioli. Place tri-tip slices on bottom half of roll, top with a hand full of arugula, and place top half of roll on top.

Beverage suggestion: serve with a Central Coast syrah, a Sonoma zinfandel or a hoppy beer such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bruce Patch
    Feb 25, 2011 @ 00:28:37

    Yum! I request this sandwich on our next visit.


  2. mom
    Feb 25, 2011 @ 00:54:37

    Me too.


  3. monica
    Feb 25, 2011 @ 18:27:58

    That looks bloody good Sean!! The tequila too 🙂


  4. Trackback: World’s Best Sandwiches — the Reuben « skinny girls & mayonnaise
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