In most of America’s significant BBQ regions, there are a good number of places, old and new, that pay homage to traditional ways. However, California’s unique kind of BBQ — known as Santa Maria style and featuring tri-tip cooked over live oak (not slow-smoke-cooked) — has fewer remaining devoted practitioners. Old San Luis does it right.
We’re not saying that Old San Luis necessarily serves the best tri-tip in California. But we will say that the meat you eat at Old San Luis belongs on any short list of contenders for best in the state. It achieves tenderness and smokey character without too much of the salty brine that many places use to cheat their way to these qualities. This allows the flavor of the beef to come through. The meat also has that rare perfect pink doneness throughout — difficult to achieve in a thick cut such as tri-tip
Side dishes are an important part of any BBQ experience; the essential accompaniment to Santa Maria BBQ: pinquito beans. Old San Luis stews them a bit past some of the very best versions, but they still are good, and tri-tip’s right companion. The bacon and onions that season them come through as a subtle accent on the earthy pink beans.
Cowboy corn pie is the restaurant’s unique contribution to the California BBQ recipe book. It’s a Southwestern inspired jalapeño cornmeal pie with an extra thick layer of cheddar in the middle. A slice of it is much more moist than most corn bread, corn cakes, or tamale pie. It’s more like a savory corn pudding with lots of cheese. Delicious!
Sourdough rolls for tri-tip sandwiches are soft, tangy and make for great sandwich bread. We found them almost too flavorful as a backdrop for BBQ. While classic California BBQ and classic California sourdough might seem like the perfect regional match, BBQ really is best with bland bread that steps aside and lets the meat shine. Because of the quality of meat and sides, we’d return for BBQ plates rather than BBQ sandwiches, which come with the traditional garlic bread accompaniment, and allow you to taste the meat for what it is.
The dining room is casual and it’s free of the congestion and confusion that you find at the popular Firestone Grill a block away. Beer is served from a pour-your own draft system which allows you to taste several things or simply refill your pint when necessary. Why not get a refill? Old San Luis is best for a slow meal.