It’s six-thirty in the evening at the Hitching Post II, in Buellton, California, up the road from Santa Barbara, in the middle of the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. The dining rooms—which are corny-looking in a pleasant way, with assembly line captain’s chairs at the nicely set tables and sepia photos of old ranch scenes on the walls—are packed, full of families, couples, locals, travelers off nearby Highway 101. Loud people, happy people, wine drinkers, carnivores. The sign outside says “World’s Best BBQ Steaks,” and though some diners are addressing steamed mussels, smoked duck, or skewered jumbo shrimp, steak is clearly the star here. The quality of that steak is one reason—but not the only one—that the Hitching Post II (406 E. Hwy. 246; 805-688-0676) has become the best-known exponent of the unique Santa Barbara County culinary idiom known as Santa Maria–style barbecue.
If you drive around the central coast city of Santa Maria on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, sooner or later you will be seduced by the come-and-get-it aromas of oak smoke and of meat juices dripping onto glowing embers. Those aromas will be emanating from oversize black cast-iron grills set up in supermarket parking lots and along roadsides all over town, under the aegis of the Knights of Columbus, the Elks Lodge, Valley Christian Academy, and other local organizations, who use these weekend public events to raise funds—and who, in so doing, perpetuate the grassroots version of the Santa Maria–style barbecue tradition.
It is important to establish two things about Santa Maria barbecue right away: First, it isn’t really barbecue at all, at least not in the Texas, Deep South, and Kansas City sense of long smoking over indirect heat; it’s grilling over red-oak fires. Second, it is by no means limited to the city of Santa Maria or to itinerant outdoor grills; examples may be found all along the south-central California coastline and in the adjacent coastal valleys, and it is the defining theme of a number of modest but quite good restaurants in the area—chief among them two siblings, both called the Hitching Post.
Local boosters tend to mythologize the origins of Santa Maria barbecue. Yes, the indigenous Chumash tribe probably cooked in pits of burning wood from the red-oak trees scattered amply around the landscape, and, yes, the colonial Spanish brought grills to the ranchos of California, where rancheros doubtless hosted large-scale feeds based around beef from their own cattle roasted over hot oak fires. Santa Maria–style barbecue as it is defined today, though, seems to date only from the years just after World War II, when charity cookouts became popular in the region and locals reached a consensus about what should be served at such events.
The phenomenon is taken very seriously around here. In 1978, the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce copyrighted what they call the “traditional Santa Maria Style Barbecue menu,” and the particulars are specific: barbecued sirloin, though the most popular cut today is tri-tip, a triangular piece of bottom sirloin apparently first sold at a local Safeway supermarket ; salsa (the recipe calls for tomatoes, celery, scallions, green chiles, cilantro, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, dried oregano, and hot-pepper sauce); grilled French bread dipped in melted butter; tossed green salad; and pinquito beans (a variety reminiscent of pinto beans but smaller). And when the Santa Barbara County health department began enforcing safety codes at streetside barbecues in 2005, threatening to close them down, a representative of the Knights of Columbus appeared before the city council to support a plea for compromise, calling the barbecues the lifeblood of the community and opining that they helped make Santa Maria an “all-American city.” (A compromise was reached.)
The original Hitching Post, in the little agricultural town of Casmalia, about 30 miles northwest of Buellton, was probably the first restaurant to bring Santa Maria–style barbecue indoors. A onetime hotel whose dining room served Italian food, the place became a steak house in 1944, just as the charity barbecues were starting to become popular. In 1952, Frank Ostini, a carpenter and cabinetmaker with no restaurant experience, took it over. “Dad worked with the old owner for three months,” explains one of his sons, also named Frank, now the proprietor of the Hitching Post II. “He learned the business, learned how to cut meat and use the grill. He cooked over oak charcoal then, not oak wood, as we do now. We used to drive up to caves in Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles, where people made charcoal, and bring it back. Dad liked charcoal because he thought that wood was too smoky and that it gave too much flavor to the meat. But we eventually figured out that if you know how to dry the wood right and how to ventilate the grill, you get what we call clean smoke, and the flavor is pretty subtle.”
There used to be a big army base, Camp Cooke, next door to Casmalia—reborn in the late 1950s as Vandenberg Air Force Base, which soon became one of the country’s most important space and ballistic-missile test facilities. “The restaurant’s fortunes rose and fell with those of the base,” says Ostini, “and at times it was pretty rough. My dad always thought that once you got people to come in and taste the food, they’d come back—but the problem was getting them there in the first place.” (Casmalia isn’t near anything but the base. It’s out in the country, more than an hour’s drive from Santa Barbara, and about half an hour even from Santa Maria.)
The younger Ostini—who wears blue denim chef’s togs and sports a pith helmet and a serious mustache that, together with his expressive eyebrows, give him the air of a younger, straighter-standing Captain Spaulding—had no interest in the family business. “I saw my dad work too hard,” he says. “He didn’t have any fun.” Nonetheless, after graduating from the University of California, Davis, with a degree in environmental planning, in 1976, he went to work for his father temporarily. “The idea,” he says, “was that I would take two years off and work at the restaurant to pay off my college loans, then go back to grad school. I was interested in wine, and at that point there were a lot of independent contractors for Vandenberg who came from somewhere else and wanted to drink good wine with their dinner—so I became the wine buyer and bar manager. That was thirty-plus years ago, and I’m still here.”