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Santa Maria's Cut of Meat

Long-term Santa Maria Elk Larry Viegas' memory is unclear on the exact date for the discovery of tri tip -- a barbecue favorite on the Central Coast. It happened some time in the late 1950s, he suspects.

The one thing the Santa Maria man is certain of, though -- he was there when the first tri tip was prepared, ushering in a word-of-mouth success story for a cut of beef that was never held in much respect.

Viegas, a butcher, was a summer vacation replacement at the old Safeway store at the corner of Mill and Vine streets in Santa Maria (now the site of a high-rise housing unit for seniors). He was cutting large beef loins into sections of preferred top block sirloin and filet; the triangular shaped tips of the sirloin were set aside.

"We would cut it up in chunks for stew meat," he recalls, "and sometimes it would be used for hamburger."

But that day there was an overabundance of hamburger and stew meat, and the triangular cut was about to be wasted.

In the pinch, meat market manager Bob Shutz experimented. He bought a piece of the unwanted meat, seasoned it with salt, pepper and garlic salt, and placed it on a rack in his department's rotissiere.

"He just let it go around... for 45 minutes or an hour," Viegas says. "I told him he was going to chew that meat all day long, it was usually so tough. But I had never tried it in a whole piece."

He was in for a shock. "I couldn't believe it was going to be as tender as it was and as delicious as it was. The supervisor from the Santa Barbara office came into the store and tried it himself, and he wanted to know what it was."

It was a new cut "with a texture of its own and a flavor all its own," he says. And at the time its cost was significantly less than what was being charged for the traditional cuts of beef--about 90 cents a pound versus $1.90 - $1.95 a pound for top sirloin.

Shutz dubbed it "tri tip" and began giving samples to customers and occasionally selling a cooked piece. It was not an overnight success; Safeway didn't promote tri tip or sell it anywhere except at the Santa Maria store, Viegas says.

The breakthrough occured when Shutz opened his own meat market, known as the old Santa Maria Market, on North Broadway. He promoted the new cut and taught customers how to prepare it. Williams Brothers picked up the idea and began to market tri tip through its Central Coast chain.

For two decades tri tip remained a Central Coast -- and particularly Santa Maria -- delicacy. "I would ask a butcher in Santa Barbara for a tri tip," says Viegas, "and he wouldn't know what I was talking about."

Visitors and workers transferring from Vandenberg Air Force Base slowly spread the word. "People from the (San Joaquin) Valley were coming over here and buying it by the case and taking it back for barbecuing," Viegas recalls.

In 1986 tri tip can be found in many independent groceries in California, although it is still an unfamiliar word to barbecuers in most other states.

It is their loss, because when prepared properly tri tip is the ideal barbecue meat.

"It can be harder to work than other cuts," cautions Viegas, who learned to barbecue at the old Santa Maria Club (now the Landmark restaurant) and has worked at barbecues serving as many as 5,000 people.

"It can be a tough piece of meat if you make the mistake of taking all the fat off. If you put the fat side of the tri tip on the fire first, the moisture will come up through the meat and make it tender."

Viegas' procedure is to sear the lean part of the meat over the fire for 5-10 minutes to seal in the juices, then flip over to the fat side for 30-45 minutes, depending on degree of doneness expected. When juice appears at the top of the meat, it is time to flip for another 30-45 minutes.

The fat can easily be trimmed after cooking, he says.

Source: Larry Viegas, On The Road