"Have you had Santa Maria-style barbecue before?" our waiter asked the newcomers who were seated at the table next to us at SeaSalt in Huntington Beach. The group of four shook their heads no.
It wasn't the first time he encountered newbies. Despite Santa Maria being a mere three-hour drive from where we were, no group he asked that night had any idea what it was. So, just as he did for the previous three parties who said they weren't familiar with the style, he started to tell this new group all about it. It originated in the Santa Maria Valley on California's Central Coast, he said. And the one thing that's special about it, its all-important tenet, is the firewood. Every slab of meat is cooked over an open-pit fire fueled by logs from native California red oak—the same wood that ranchers in cattle country used to cook feasts for vaqueros more than a hundred years ago.
Earlier, when he asked us the same question, my reply was "Yes, we went to Hitching Post II last year." I didn't tell him that its Santa Maria barbecue wasn't the main reason we went. As with a lot of out-of-towners, it was because the film Sideways was filmed there, and I'm a sucker for stuff like that. It did, however, allow our waiter to move on from the basics and talk more specifically about SeaSalt itself, which is former Weekling Alicia Whitney's follow-up to her highly successful SeaLegs Wine Bar across the same parking lot.
For starters, he revealed that the two guys tending the grills were hired away from Jocko's and Shaw's, two of the more highly regarded barbecues in Santa Maria Valley. I saw them work behind the haze-covered window to the left of the doorway as I entered the fashionably rustic restaurant. I also saw the leaping fires of the oak logs. The hot, orange flames licked the ribs, sausages and thick slabs of beef that dripped, hissed and charred themselves black on lattice-patterned grates. Above that, two metal hand-cranks that resembled Model T steering wheels were used to maneuver the cooking platform either closer to or away from the fire. It was the same kind of set-up I noticed at Hitching Post II.
But unlike the steak I had at Hitching Post, which didn't exactly endear me to the style when I tasted it, SeaSalt's food finally made me a believer that the Santa Maria school is in the same pantheon as the barbecue traditions of Memphis, Kansas City, Texas and the Carolinas. In fact, I would argue that since it uses a particularly fickle heat source and the bare minimum of spices (only salt, pepper and granulated garlic), Santa Maria-style barbecue requires a firmer grasp of the fundamentals. And SeaSalt's chefs make it look easy.
The tri-tip, sliced in thick wedges, offered an intense flavor-packed charred outer crust, but a tender chew everywhere else. The linguisa sausage, which came as part of a combo with the tri-tip, was sliced into bevels and had casing turned crisp in the heat. A well-brined pork chop with a crispy, golden-brown exterior was also freckled with bits of sweet char and so moist it wept juices when I cut into it.
Per Santa Maria tradition, every meat plate SeaSalt served came with ranch-style pinquitos, beans of Lilliputian proportions indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley that tasted as though they came straight from a campfire cookout. And though the meats didn't necessarily require anything extra, the house-made salsa and the eight different choices of finishing salts sprinkled by tiny spoons only added to my enjoyment.
I also loved any vegetable the cooks passed through that oaky fire. The grilled cauliflower was literally that: the outer heads were singed black after being roasted over the flames, its smokiness permeating down to the stem. I dipped each piece I hacked from the whole into a manchego fondue until I discovered a shower of the big crunchy grains of the Black Diamond volcanic salt worked even better with them. Also excellent: the grilled broccolini, which absorbed so much of the smoke I smelled it coming out of my nostrils.
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For dessert, an over-the-top banana pudding that looks like E.T.'s spaceship required at least four people to finish. But a true devotee of Santa Maria-style barbecue should always end a meal with strawberry shortcake, which is to Santa Maria what cupcakes are to LA. And to drink: a Pinot Noir, of course. SeaSalt's wine list leans heavily to Central Coast vintners, with not a single Merlot in sight. If Miles from Sideways were an actual person, he'd approve.
SeaSalt Woodfire Grill, 21214 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 804-5545; www.seasaltwoodfiregrill.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 5 p.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $40-$70, food only. Full bar.