The Meatwave

Santa Maria Tri-tip

Santa Maria Tri-tip View Recipe

One thing I'll miss about about New York is you can get just about anything here, although not always without effort. Case in point, tri-tip. I've been aware of this staple of central coastal California "barbecue" for a long time, but it's not a cut the common butcher or supermarket will carry in New York. Due to the inconvenience of searching for, and then traveling to get tri-tip in this city, I never tried making it myself, but last summer I decided it was high time I get off my lazy ass and took on this complex cut with a couple different recipes, the first being done in the vein of traditional Santa Maria-style.

Santa Maria Tritip

First thing was first though, actually procuring this hard to locate meat within the vast city. I found only one butcher that consistently had it, and of course the hours were such that it would have been hard for me to get there on my schedule. So I looked for another back-up option and read that Trader Joe's was known to stock tri-tip fairly regularly, and since they were open in the evening when I could actually do my shopping, they won out the butcher by default. I got lucky that fateful day—Trader Joe's had a few tri-tips laying in wait for me, so I picked up two to take advantage of my easy find.

Santa Maria Tritip

Tri-tip is cut from the bottom sirloin from the hip area, making it a muscle group that works the hind legs. Untrimmed tri-tips come with a layer of fat covering one side of the cut, but most that you'll find on shelves are fully trimmed, leaving this lean cut somewhat devoid of fat. Without a ton of the intramuscular fat that drives a lot of flavor in beef, tri-tip is a mild cut that benefits from extra seasoning and only being cooked to medium rare, otherwise you risk both loss in flavor and tenderness.

Santa Maria Tritip

The traditional Santa Maria-style has the tri-tip cooking over red oak on an open grill with an adjustable grate so the meat can be raised higher above the coals to cook it more slowly, and then lowered to get a nice sear. Without having one of these excellent rigs in my backyard, I had to improvise with my kettle to get a close approximation. This began with building a two-zone fire, with all the coals nestled on to one side of the charcoal grate and adding a chunk of oak on top.

Santa Maria Tritip

I then placed the tri-tip, which I had seasoned earlier with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, on the cool side of the grill and covered it. For the most even doneness, I wanted to roast the cut first, then sear it. So I let the tri-tip sit until it was 10°F shy of my target temperature of 125°F.

Santa Maria Tritip

At this point, the outside moisture was gone and the beef had already developed a nice mahogany color. Next I slide the tri-tip over to the hot side the grill and let it cook it until that sear intensified to a deeply browned crust.

Santa Maria Tritip

I then let the sucker rest on a cutting board for ten minutes before slicing in. As you would with most cuts, you want to slice the tri-tip against the grain to create shorter strands of muscle, which results maximum tenderness. With a tri-tip, this is a little trickier since the grain shifts in different areas of the cut, so more attention is needed to know when to adjust the knife to keep the slices against the grain.

As I sliced in, I was greeted by a beautiful rosy red interior with a pretty consistent doneness from one edge to the other. The meat was incredibly juicy and super tender, although it was lacking in the flavor department for someone like me who's so fond of beefier cuts like brisket and skirt steak.

Santa Maria Tritip

Luckily I had put together a salsa to go with the tri-tip that added the perfect compliment. The salsa was also Santa Maria-style, which mixed in celery, scallions, green chili, balsamic vinegar, and red wine vinegar with the standard players of tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and garlic. It added freshness and tang that didn't overpower the slightly smoky tri-tip, but made it feel more complete. Taken as a whole, it had a lightness and freshness I'd equate with west coast cooking, which made it easier to keep eating piece after piece of this delicious combo. In the end that probably negated the idea that I was eating something not as bad for me as my usual heavy barbecued items like brisket, pork shoulder, or ribs, but it was a nice change of pace that made searching out tri-tip well worth the effort.

Print Recipe

Santa Maria Tri-tip

  • Yield 6 servings
  • Prep 20 Minutes
  • Inactive 1 Hour
  • Cook 35 Minutes
  • Total 1 Hour 55 Minutes


  • For the Salsa
  • 2 1/2 cups finely diced tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup finely diced celery (about 1 stalk)
  • 1/2 cup finely sliced scallions (about 4 scallions)
  • 1 roasted poblano, diced
  • 1/2 cup finely diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt
  • For the Tri-tip
  • 1 whole tri-tip roast, (about 2 1/2 pounds)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1 medium chunk of oak wood


  1. To make the salsa: Place tomatoes, celery, scallions, poblano, cilantro, garlic, vinegar, and Worcestershire in a medium bowl and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour or refrigerate in an airtight container up to 5 days before serving.
  2. To make the tri-tip: Combine salt, garlic powder, and black pepper in a small bowl. Season beef all over with seasoning mixture and let sit for 30 minutes while preparing the grill.
  3. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Place wood chunk directly on coals and set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Placebeef on cool side of grill, cover, and cook, turning and flipping occasionally until an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the steak registers between 115 to 120°F on an instant read thermometer, 20 to 30 minutes
  4. Move steak to hot side of grill. Cook, flipping regularly until well seared on exterior and center of steak registers 120 to 125°F on an instant read thermometer, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly and serve with salsa.

Adapted from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt on Serious Eats.

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  1. Benjie I really wish it was easier to get a hold of tri-tip out here! I ate a lot of the stuff while in school at UC Santa Barbara.

    I have seen it sold at Paisano's on Smith Street, and I believe at the Gowanus Whole Foods as well.

    I highly recommend grilling some garlic bread along with the tri-tip and use it soak up all the juices from the beef.

  2. Sams Butcher Shop Oh my goodness, this tri-tip recipe looks incredible! I need to give this a try.

    Sam Vitiello
    Owner of Sam's Butcher Shop

  3. Chad Thompson It's incredible how hard it is to find a tri tip! I used to be able to get them at Costco but my local Costco has stopped ordering them.

    Another great cook, Josh!

  4. Clark Thanks for sharing your recipe%u2026 I have heard about Santa Barbara Chicken Ranch- a lunch restaurant in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Ventura. I think its best option to enjoy tri tip in our busy schedule. You can get more information from visit here