One of the most interesting sites in Santa Barbara County is Jocko’s BBQ Pit. The pit is a true Santa Maria style BBQ rig with a raised grate hanging over an open fire of live red oak charcoal. We once, foolishly, didn’t think of Jocko’s as a taste of Santa Maria BBQ, because they don’t serve tri-tip. We changed our minds when a local told us “Yeah, Jocko’s doesn’t serve tri-tip, but they do serve rib-eye, so what’s the problem?”
The specialty at Jocko’s is “Spencer steak,” which is a boneless rib eye, another favorite cut for Central coast ranch-style BBQ. They are on the opposite end of the spectrum from a petite fillet at genteel urban steakhouses. The beef comes salty, completely charred from the oak. It tastes of an unapologetic gaminess that speaks to true beef lovers. These are macho cowboy steaks. The steaks run a bit on the done side here, so we’d recommend ordering medium-rare if you like medium. Anyway, our steaks were still plenty tender.
You should come to Jocko’s for a steak and stay for the accouterments. Dinners start with a cracker basket, mostly saltines, and salsa that tastes more Italian than Mexican. Soon a relish plate that looks straight from a 1950’s hors d’oeuvres cocktail party arrives. Carrot and celery sticks, canned black olives, sweet pickles, and pickled peppers can jazz up that simple dinner salad. This early course of snacks is more hospitality than flavor. Save yourself for the main event.
Steaks are served with your choice of potato. The fries are good, but the baked potato is more of an experience. It comes with an ice cream scoop of sour cream and salted butter that melts into it as you eat. Alongside the meat and potatoes is a basket of garlic toast so drenched in butter that it’s hard to imagine how it stays crisp, but it does. Most important are the beans. The beans are in the style of classic Santa Maria BBQ, small, pink “pinquito beans” simmered long with bacon and onions. They are flavorful without being too fatty. The broth they sit in runs mostly clear, not oily. The flavor is subtly smoky but mostly a clean taste of beans. This combination of the steak, beans, and salsa is what you came for. This trio is what the region does best.
We attempted to order a simpler steak sandwich, but the server convinced us to get the “Large Steak Sandwich” which, unlike the cheaper options, comes hot from the BBQ pit. We laughed, noticing upon delivery, that it was just a longer flatter Spencer steak served over a mat of flattened bread, completely uncut. Meals here end with a huge scoop of ice cream and coffee, all included in the modest price of the dinner. We imagined a time when this dessert course was had over cigarettes. Unlike other old steakhouses we’ve been to, the smell of cigarettes is undetectable. All you smell is the burning of red oak coals.
Jocko’s offers a full menu of other beef cuts, like filet and strip. You can get chops, ribs, sweet breads, and seafood too. We’ve heard the fried chicken and burgers are good. Some opt for the gloppy nostalgia of spaghetti or enchiladas made with recipes preserved from the 1950s. We can’t imagine coming here and not ordering a Spencer steak. Maybe if we lived in Nipomo we’d mix it up occasionally.