Find A Barbecue Place Near Me – The Santa Maria Elks Lodge’s “Cook Your Own” full grill has become the place in California to find Santa Maria-style barbecue done right. Photo by Andrew Pridgen
California has its own style of home barbecue, but outside of the Central Coast, few know about it. It’s called Santa Maria, and it’s California through and through: no nonsense, seemingly effortless and impossible to replicate.
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The secret behind the eponymous barbecue, charred on the outside, pink in the middle, is its simplicity. No dry rub. You must not wake up at four in the morning to light the smoker. No sticky and sweet brown sugar sauces. No burnt edges. It’s as simple as “turn around and burn, baby,” at least according to one of its longest-serving pit managers, Mark Sousa.
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This way of cooking, this delicate dance of fire, meat and humanity, originates – not surprisingly – in Santa Maria, a city an hour north of Santa Barbara. In its current iteration, it can be traced back to a single institution, one that is both purveyor and gatekeeper of a style that is nearly impossible to imitate today: the Santa Maria Elks Lodge.
I’ve been to barbecues that claim to know the Santa Maria style in the past – up and down the coast, in homes, restaurants and on the streets. Almost everyone fell out of my experience at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge.
But where does the magic come from? Is this the time spent on it? location of the event? The climate? The cooks themselves? Or some magic that only the Santa Maria Elks Lodge knows?
Founded in 1927, the Santa Maria Elks Lodge 1538 is a sprawling one-story stone and wood building that seems as if it appeared from outer space in the early 1970s. It’s low and easily visible from US 101, thanks to a three-story marquee that frames the entire city skyline.
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1980 Ronald Reagan with his wife Nancy at their Santa Barbara ranch called Rancho del cielo Paul Harris/Getty Images
Guy Fieri prepares food during the 12th annual Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit Grand Tasting at Caesars Palace on May 11, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit) Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Vegas Uncork’d
Santa Maria barbecue champions range from President Reagan, who stays with his wife Nancy, to celebrity chef Guy Fieri. (Photos via Getty Images) Santa Maria barbecue champions range from President Reagan, who stays with his wife Nancy, to celebrity chef Guy Fieri. (Images via Getty Images)
I’m not the first to be drawn here. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay visited for a segment on CBS. Bay Area resident Guy Fieri is the patron saint of the kitchen. Sunset magazine, food critics and celebrities all came to sample the goods. Their reviews seem to provide a similar explanation for why you don’t see the style out of the region. (One exception was Ronald Reagan, who brought Santa Maria-style barbecue to the South Lawn of the White House for what his social secretary called “the best meal ever served outside the White House”).
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“It’s called Santa Maria for a reason — because it’s the only place in the world that exists,” said Holden Rice, who was born and raised in the city, smiling. “Everyone else is pretending.”
The first thing to know about Fridays – which is Santa Maria’s “Cook Your Own” barbecue day at the lodge – is that you have to be a moose or know a moose to participate.
The second thing is that there is a dress code. In my winter apple, I didn’t pass muster. Moose Reverend Marty Dorrett led me to a closet of abandoned coats, where I selected a green collared shirt two sizes too big to go with a blue blazer two sizes too small. Dort explained to me that while the stags have softened over the years – it used to be blazers and trousers only for men, dresses and heels for women – today, it’s more about what you can’t wear.
Cook-Your-Own Friday nights at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge pack them, and for good reason. This is the place to taste the original Santa Maria style barbecue. Photo by Andrew Pridgen
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For men, it’s no tank tops, no sleeveless shirts and especially no hats in the dining room. For women, short skirts and bare feet (or any part of the foot that shows) are a must.
Now properly dressed, I paid the cashier for my slice of meat and all the fixings. Prices vary, with guests paying about $5 more per item than members. That night, my entire meal set me back only $23.
Inside a huge event hall, with a bar and orchestra stand, was the first part of the main event. The place fills up fast on Friday nights. Hundreds of members line up one by one, then choose from a variety of raw meats: a cut of rib-eye or New York steak, halibut or salmon, and chicken breast or pork-style ribs.
Those who join the “Cook Your Own” Fridays at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge can choose rib or New York steak, chicken, pork chops or fish to throw on the Santa Maria-style barbecue. Photo by Andrew Pridgen
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I chose New York. I was given a white Dixie plate and led to the line for the slightly smaller (read: thinner) slices of meat. A volunteer in a blue apron and latex gloves, brandishing tongs, motioned to a few more larger cuts and asked me if I was sure.
I nodded yes, a little fatter was all I could take. (When pressed, I usually tell people that I stopped eating meat because of ethical concerns. Although, ideologically, that may be mostly true, the real reason is cost. This story was born out of equal parts curiosity and lack of iron.)
The volunteer gave me back the styrofoam “sanitary plate” with a plate of raw beef the size of Rhode Island on it. Dort again led me by the sleeve of a dead man’s jacket out into a fairground-sized backyard area with a building belching sweet and salty-smelling smoke.
As soon as I entered the cooking area, I was overwhelmed. Here it was: barbeque hits. The centerpiece of the room is a 50-foot Santa Maria-style grill: a fire pit, lined with hot coals from long-burning local red oak, with a flat grill hanging in the air above. It features a complex system of levers and pulleys that adjust the grate to the ideal height for maximum cooking and smoke, a tradition that dates back to the Chumash tribes of the area, who used coastal winds to keep the embers glowing. It is especially suitable for outdoor cooking in the variable storms of the Central Coast.
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A couple prepares their meat before throwing it on the Santa Maria-style barbecue on “Cook Your Own” Fridays at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge. Photo by Andrew Pridgen
“Get ready to cook,” Becky Del Rio, another elk raised in Santa Maria, told me. “Oh, and grab yourself a drink at the bar while you’re there. It’ll set you free.”
First, there was the preparation. Each customer seasons their own meat. I found myself at the station with shakes full of salt, pepper and garlic salt. I watched Del Rio and her friends tend to their plates, but I managed to throw a stream of spices on my cut.
Then it was time for the real action in the pit. As soon as there’s an opening, you have to rush in, grab a pair of oversized two-pronged forks from a shelf next to the grill, and toss your dinner inside.
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It was no place for the amateur or the uncertain. “There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” said Boren Souza. “From preparation, to keeping it sanitary, to keeping the fire and air flowing just right. But that’s my job. All you have to do is get in there and cook.” When we spoke, he had one eye on the grill the entire time.
Knowing when to turn and remove the meat is the true art of Santa Maria style barbecue. Photo by Andrew Pridgen
At his request, I quickly moved to my chosen spot, quickly raised my meat and retreated, not even bumping into anyone on the way down.
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For Sousa, the history of Santa Maria barbecue depends on who tells it. But there are markers in time that are mostly agreed upon. The most common version dates back to the early 1800s, when local vaqueros who worked on teams raising and driving cattle around California would meet and host a big cookout. They threaded a sirloin on a willow reed, supported by two fork-shaped branches at either end, and cooked over a pit filled with native red oak.
The modern version of barbecue began with the opening of the Santa Maria Club. In 1931, the club began hosting monthly “moose barbecues”. There the menu was set: beef, salsa, mac and cheese, pinkito beans, salad and french bread with butter and toasted with garlic. All this can be had for $1.25.
The style spread from the Santa Maria Club (which closed in 1989) to
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