Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip

Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip |

It’s barbecue season and instead of grilling the usual chicken, ribs or sausages, why not try one of the more under appreciated yet delicious cuts of meats, tri-tip! When Jason and I attended college at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, we quickly learned that one of the culinary delights on the Central Coast of California was the famous beef tri-tip cut. Downtown San Luis Obispo has numerous restaurants that offer the seasoned hunks of meat on their menus, often thinly sliced and served on a soft french roll and drenched in BBQ sauce.

I particularly enjoyed to get my tri-tip sandwiches from Firestone Grill or during thursday night’s farmer’s market from restaurants grilling on their huge BBQ pits in the heart of downtown SLO. Since graduating and migrating South over 7 years ago, we haven’t had much opportunity to get some authentic Santa Maria style tri-tip in quite a while, with many BBQ restaurants falling short of the ones we had in San Luis Obispo, I decided to make some right at home.

Trip Tip Cooking on the Grill |

Barbecued tri-tip is said to have originated from the Central Coast, where the workers on the ranches were given these less tender cuts of meat which were thought to be flavorless. However with the proper seasoning and cooking time, cooks realized that tri-tip could be prepared just as flavorful as the more expensive and desired cuts of meat. The area of Santa Maria, California has now become known for this kind of barbecue and visitors to this beautiful coastline make sure to grab some tri-tip during their visits.

Sometimes it helps to have friends in the right places, Jason’s friend Mike just happens to live in Santa Maria and he helped recommend a few cooking tips. I wanted to infuse extra flavor in the crust of the tri-tip meat, so I created a smoky, sweet and slightly spicy spice rub for my Santa Maria style tri-tip recipe. I used a blend of paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, sugar, garlic, onion, salt and pepper to create a nice balance of flavors for the rub. I actually seasoned the tri-tip two the three days before grilling to allow the flavors to better penetrate the meat. The high heat from the grill and sugars in the rub created a nice crust when seared on both sides, then roasted, sealing in the yummy juices from the meat. This recipe makes lots of extra dry rub so you can use it for your next tri-tip or for adding more flavor to other grilled meats. If you haven’t had tri-tip before, this is a flavorful recipe that doesn’t require a long cooking time and can be prepared days ahead, so you can enjoy within an hour or less of grilling!

Drizzling BBQ Sauce Over Tri-Tip Slices | jessicagavin.comTri-tip is a cut from the very bottom of the sirloin section of the cow, between the ribs and rump, shaped similarly to a long triangle. Due to this shape, you will get some thinner sections of the cut that will cook more quickly than the thicker sections. This is great if you have eaters who like more well done pieces, or like me, who prefer medium-rare, you get the best of both worlds! I usually stop cooking the meat when it is closer to medium rare in the thickest part, but you can also pull the meat away from the heat even sooner is you have more rare meat fans. This Santa Maria style tri-tip is fantastic with a rich BBQ sauce, I served mine with my easy homemade sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. I also like to serve my barbecued meats with a fresh summer succotash salad, it’s a nice and light option to compliment the heavier savory slices of tri-tip.

TIP: Why is it important to “rest” meat before slicing? Isn’t it so tempting to cut into those mouth-watering pieces of meat taken right off the grill? Well, if you can have a few minutes of torturing patience, it will pay off! Raw beef consists of mostly water (around 75%), protein and fat. Water is stored in multiple individual muscle myofibril structures, which make up each muscle fiber of the meat. As the meat cooks, the protein chemically bonds together and some even dissolve, compressing and contracting during the exposure to heat. The contractions forces the water out of the myofibrils into the adjacent spaces of the muscle fiber, and the meat visually shrinks. You can physically see the water quickly run out of the meat when you slice right away. When the meat is allowed to rest before cutting, the proteins can relax, allowing some of the expelled water to be reabsorbed by the myofribrils and fill in the spaces of the dissolved protein. The result is a less dry, juicer and more tender piece of meat! For a 2 to 3 pound tri-tip roast, 15 minutes is a good resting time. (Reference: The Science of Good Cooking)
Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip
Prep time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6 servings
A quick and delicious Santa Maria style tri-tip recipe perfect for barbecue season! A smoky, sweet and spicy spice rub makes this tri-tip even more flavorful.
  • 3 pounds trip-tip, silver skin and fat removed
Dry Rub- (1/2 cup)
  • ⅛ cup paprika
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  1. Combine all dry rub ingredients in a small container and set aside.
  2. Trim the silver skin and fat layer from the trip tip. Place the tri tip on a sheet of plastic wrap.
  3. Generously coat the tri-tip with 4 tablespoons of dry rub, 2 tablespoons on each side. Store extra dry rub in an airtight container for later use.
  4. Tightly wrap the seasoned tri-tip and refrigerate until ready to use. Allow the rub to settle into the meat for at least 3 hours up to 3 days.
  5. When ready to grill, remove the seasoned tri-tip from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature, about 1 hour.
  6. Heat the grill to medium high if using a gas grill. Place the meat on the grill, searing one side for 10 minutes with the lid open. Turn tri-tip over and sear for another 10 minutes. Turn heat down to medium and close the lid. Allow the meat to cook for about 15-25 minutes, checking temperature until the thickest part of the meat reaches 135°F for medium rare to medium doneness. The meat will continue to cook after being removed from the heat, so stop cooking at a temperature a few degrees lower than the desired doneness.
  7. Remove the tri-tip from the grill and allow to rest wrapped loosely in foil for at least 15 minutes before slicing. The foil will catch any juices from the meat, which can be added back to the meat after slicing for more flavor.
  8. Thinly slice the tri-tip against the grain. Serve with your favorite BBQ sauce or on a French roll. Enjoy!


  1. Paula says

    Have you considered drizzling some olive Oil over it after you rubbed the spice in? I have come to enjoy doing this with my meats, sometimes trading out for WORCESTERSHIRE sauce (or even blending both). Helps tenderize the meat more and adds more flavor. Just remember to watch it on the grill for the first few minutes — stepdad would burn the meat the first few times until he finally remembered the oil. But we love tri tip even more with that drizzle.

    Definitely think Ill enjoy this rub tonight though (and of course, added that drizzle). Just made and threw in fridge to settle for a bit.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Paula-
      That’s a great idea! Infuse some of those spices into the meat even more with the oil. I hope you enjoyed the recipe!

  2. Jen Darling says

    Jessica, Thank you so much for posting your recipe for Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip. Your recipe looked the best by far. I am grilling it tonight for our anniversary :)

  3. Tim says

    Fellow Cal Poly alum…my rub to attempt to replicate the delicious Firestone tri-tip sandwich is probably about the same as yours based on your ingredient list, and like you, I dry brine mine for at least 24 hours prior. However, I cook it low and slow (205 for just under 2 hours) and then do a reverse sear. Serve on Franciscan french rolls toasted and then basted with garlic butter and lots of your favorite BBQ sauce (we have found Lucille’s to be the closest to the original) and you’ll be transported back to college…now if I could only figure out how they season their fries…

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Tim- You are making me hungry! I wish I lived a little closer to SLO so I could get my fix of firestone and all of the other yummy restaurants. My husband is a big tri tip fan, and I would often order the ABC burger with those yummy fries of course! The seasoning taste a little like Tony Chachere creole seasoning, how you ever tried it? Super good on meat too. I really like your method, super tender with the slow roast and that sear to add flavor and texture at the end sounds amazing!

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