Another balmy evening enveloped the coastal hamlet of Cambria, California, with a preternaturally beautiful sunset unfolding — magenta ribbons across the sky, a pink glow on the Pacific and cattle grazing in golden hour’s soft light. Heady aromas of oak smoke and seared beef wafted by our picnic table, and my stomach growled. I had spent the day riding Clydesdales at nearby Covell Ranch, and my appetite was approaching a fever pitch. Doug McCoy, a rancher from Central California and my host, tossed me another beer.
“Trust me, bud, Santa Maria barbecue is worth the wait,” he assured me.
Sporting a black Stetson and smoldering cigar, Doug looked every inch the seasoned pitmaster, and I took him at his word.
Finally, Doug snatched the meat off the grate, sliced it on a cutting board, and handed me a plate of French bread, pinquito beans and juicy tri-tip. We already had beers, but he cracked a bottle of Paso Robles Zinfandel anyway.
“Robust, big red wines complement the flavor of the red-oak smoke,” he explained, as I tucked in. Hunger is indeed the best condiment, but this barbecue was undeniably superb. The food momentarily silenced conversation, and Doug grinned, knowing he was right about the wait.
If it weren’t for the Pacific, I could have mistaken this scene for a ranch in Texas. Cattle, cowboys, beef barbecue — this idyllic setting looked more like the Hill Country or Fort Worth than California. But we were just north of Santa Barbara, only an hour or two from the rush and roar of Los Angeles.
While I had chomped my way through many of the nation’s barbecue epicenters — Kansas City, North Carolina, Memphis, Texas — I had never sampled Santa Maria barbecue before visiting Central California. The name comes from the small city of Santa Maria, but the style is popular throughout Central California, the stretch roughly between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Tri-tip, the grainy but flavorful end of the sirloin, is the main attraction, but chorizo, lamb and chicken are also favorites. Whereas Texans smoke with post oak or mesquite, Californians favor red oak, a shrub growing abundantly on the Central Coast.
With a touch of regional pride, Doug added, “Don’t let anyone tell you only Texas does great beef barbecue. I’ll take Santa Maria tri-tip over brisket any day.”
Santa Maria barbecue is one of the many legacies of California’s hoary ranching history. Today, California evokes surfers, hippies, and tech bros, but cowboys and ranchers arrived centuries before the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, or Jack Dorsey. And, if you know where to look, the state’s distinctive cowboy spirit remains alive and well. From Santa Maria barbecue to raucous rodeos and country-western troubadours, ranching has left an indelible mark on the soul of the Golden State.
Ranching began here with the region’s first European settlers, 18th-century Spanish adventurers and missionaries. Throughout California, the fringe of Spain’s vast global empire, early colonists constructed missions. Dotting the coast from modern-day San Diego to as far north as Sonoma County, these fortified churches sought to convert Native Americans to Catholicism but also secured Spain’s territorial claims in what was then a remote frontier. California’s lush hills and valleys proved ideal for cattle, and Andalusian longhorns soon became a vital food source for mission communities. As missions grew into villages, Spanish ranches, in turn, expanded to keep pace with demand. By the late 1800s, the vaquero—Spanish, Portuguese, or mestizo cowboys — was a symbol of Alta California.
Vaquero cooking laid the foundation of Santa Maria barbecue. Bringing meat-smoking traditions from Spain and Portugal, Californios roasted hunks of meat on long skewers over open flames. As with brisket in Texas, ranch cooks figured out that smoke, low temperatures, and patience could transform the tough, grainy tri-tip cut into a succulent, flavor-packed delicacy. The chorizo and linguica on Santa Maria grills today are reminders of the cuisine’s roots in the Iberian Peninsula — likewise with the pico de gallo and pinquito beans typically served as sides.
Ranching accelerated in California after 1850 when the territory became America’s 31st state. Especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the discovery of gold, masses of Anglo-American fortune-seekers rushed to the Golden Coast. While few struck it rich in gold prospecting, many of these 19th-century migrants, often hailing from Texas or Oklahoma, did find success in raising cattle. New breeds like the Hereford and Shorthorn, renowned for excellent beef and dairy, became staples of California ranching and interbred with older Andalusian breeds. By the early 1900s, California was one of the largest beef-producing states in America.
Anglo-American transplants adopted Santa Maria barbecue with gusto, adding their own ingredients and flair. Swapping out tortillas, French-style baguettes became the carb of choice to soak up the savory juices from red-oak smoked meat. More expensive cuts like ribeye, porterhouses, and tomahawks joined tri-tip and chorizo as Santa Maria mainstays. Innovative cooks began serving sliced tri-tip on sandwiches, usually doused with horseradish and a hit of salsa (this author’s favorite riff on Santa Maria barbecue). Also around this time, viticulture began to flourish across California, with sun-loving grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel thriving in the region’s calcareous soil. As Doug noted, robust red wines remain the go-to libation to pair with red-oak smoked meats.
The communal, outdoor banquets associated with Santa Maria barbecue likewise harken back to Central Californian ranch culture. At the end of each cattle season, ranchers hosted al fresco feasts, communal parties graced with copious cups of wine, guitar-strumming cowpokes, and, of course, Flintstonian portions of roasted meat. Over the decades, the open fire and spit of early Santa Maria evolved into the distinctive Santa Maria grill, a retractable grate attached to a pulley for adjusting the meat’s distance above the open flame.
While backyard grillmeisters in Central California guard recipes and smoking secrets passed down through generations, plenty of restaurants craft detour-worthy Santa Maria. Cold Springs Tavern, originally a carriage house high in the Santa Ynez Mountains, has been a holy shrine to Santa Maria for decades. The winding mountain drive to Cold Springs Tavern is stunning, and you’ll smell the smoldering red oak before you see the tucked-away cabin. Jocko’s, in the sleepy farming community of Nipomo, slings classic tri-tip but also smokes swankier cuts like ribeye and New York strips. And if you make it to the quirky college town of San Luis Obispo, Old San Luis BBQ, tucked away in a strip mall, elevates tri-tip sandwiches to heights of poetry.
California’s cowboy roots manifest in ways beyond delicious barbecue. After Doug and I polished off the last of the beers and tri-tip, we headed to nearby Jedlicka’s Western Wear and Saddlery, a Central Californian institution for cowboy gear and apparel, keeping customers stylish from “the tack room to the board room” since 1932. In addition to the beautiful, hand-tooled saddles, I admired the shop’s selection of intricately wrought silver and turquoise jewerly. On a wild hair, I almost purchased a bolo tie inlaid with polished jasper, but I remembered that, alas, I was a preppy New Englander, not a buckaroo.
On the way back to his ranch from Jedlicka’s, Doug explained how he honed cowboy skills in high school. Like many western states, California boasts a large membership of high school students competing in the National High School Rodeo Association.
California’s professional rodeos attract top riders from around the world and often boast prizes exceeding $1 million. In the state’s far northern reaches, the tiny city of Redding draws thousands of visitors each year for the Redding Rodeo, the 25th largest rodeo in America. In 1981, legendary cowboy Lane Frost made history in Redding when he successfully rode Red Rock, a bull previously considered unrideable — a feat immortalized in the film 8 Seconds.
While not as large as the Salinas Rodeo in Central California, the Redding Rodeo exudes outsized verve and attracts an eclectic audience.
“I’ve traveled to major rodeos all across the West — Omaha, Fort Worth, Calgary, you name it — but there’s this crazy enthusiasm at the Redding Rodeo,” says Bennet Gooch, a cowboy from northern California. “The audience gets loud; they go nuts.”
And the Redding Rodeo reveals a different side of San Francisco.
“Funny enough, the rodeo draws a large crowd from the Bay Area,” Bennet says. “They aren’t cowboys, but they want to live that Western fantasy for a few days.”
Redding is also the final resting place of Merle Haggard, the outlaw country-western legend who rhapsodized the rough-n-ready spirit of the American cowboy. Haggard, after a lengthy and storied career in music, retired to Redding, where he lived out his golden years fly-fishing and hunting. You can still patronize Merle’s favorite restaurants in Redding: Lulu’s, a mainstay for biscuits, fried chicken, and downhome Southern fare; and Jack’s Steakhouse, once a famous brothel but now catering only to the carnal pleasures of the palette.
Speaking of ‘Ole Merle, no deep dive into Californian cowboy culture would be complete without mention of his hometown, Bakersfield. Long known as “The Salad Bowl of the World,” the agricultural hub of Central California feels like a piece of West Texas plopped down in California. Depression-era dust bowls compelled hundreds of families in the Great Plains to pull up stakes and migrate west, and many Bakersfield natives — Marilyn Monroe and Merle, for example — trace their roots to the prairies of Texas and Oklahoma. Stroll through downtown Bakersfield today to still see honkey-tonks and swaggering cowboys who wouldn’t be out of place in Lubbock or San Angelo.
From countless ballads, films, and pop culture references, everyone everywhere has an image of California. But most looking in from the outside only glimpse a narrow sliver of California’s complex, layered culture. The media glamorize locales like Malibu, Silicon Valley, or Beverly Hills but rarely depict California’s vast interior, less populous but, far and away, geographically dominant.
As Bennet, the cowboy from Redding, puts it, “San Diego, LA, San Francisco overshadow California’s true spirit. Tech and Hollywood get all the credit, but outside the major cities, this state is primarily ranching and agriculture.”
Long before The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Katy Perry, and Snoop Dogg repped Cali, even eras before Marilyn Monroe or W. R. Hearst, the world knew California as the land of the vaquero, the cowboy, and the rancher. Their influence lives on.
About the Author: Johnny Motley is a travel writer based in Brooklyn. After graduating from Harvard College in 2012, Motley taught world religions and English. Research and curiosity have taken him through locales as far-flung as Papua New Guinea, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Silk Road. Motley enjoys writing about road trips, wine and music history.