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Tri-tip: California's cut is gaining fans from coast to coast

Tri-tip is a cut of meat  that originated in the Santa Maria Valley in the 1950s.  Though  it  is getting some national exposure, it still is very much the California Cut. For instance, most tri-tip produced nationally is shipped to California. July 13, 2010
Tri-tip is a cut of meat that originated in the Santa Maria Valley in the 1950s. Though it is getting some national exposure, it still is very much the California Cut. For instance, most tri-tip produced nationally is shipped to California. July 13, 2010 (Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com)

When it comes to beef, tri-tip rules as the king of the California grill. Now, this humble, easy-to-cook cut is gaining a toehold in other parts of the nation and is even wowing diners in the Big Apple.

Sporadic consumer demand outside California has spurred Costco, other national chains and regional grocers, to supply what the California Beef Council has officially dubbed "California's cut." The council has fielded so many requests from people in other states longing for tri-tip that it posted a meat-cutting chart on its Web site (www.calbeef.org).

"These are people who moved out of California or who tasted tri-tip during a visit here, and they can't find it where they live," said Laura Norman, marketing director for the Sacramento-based council. "Now they can take our chart to their butchers and have a tri-tip cut especially for them."

While these grass-roots appeals caught some grocers' attention, they hadn't caused a ripple in any dining meccas. Then, earlier this year, Northern California tri-tip czar John Pickerel introduced New York City to California's cut at his Tri Tip Grill. Ever since, New Yorkers have lined up there for a taste.

"I asked myself, 'What do we (in California) have that New York doesn't?' The answer was tri-tip," he said.

Pickerel moves more than 400,000 pounds of aged black Angus tri-tip annually through the Buckhorn steakhouse in Winters and the seven Buckhorn Grills he co-owns with his wife, Melanie Bajakian Pickerel.

The couple branched out with their first franchise restaurant in January, the Tri Tip Grill at Rockefeller Center. A phone call to the restaurant turned up manager Aaron Rogoff, who said, "(New Yorkers) are amazed by the tri-tip. It's hard to come by out here."

The cut's history

Before discovering the California cut at the Tri Tip Grill, the roast was a mystery meat to most of its New York customers, as it is to the nation at large. But certainly its story is known to the many readers who contacted The Bee with their recipes and cooking suggestions.

The tale began in the mid-1800s in the cattle-ranching country of the Santa Maria Valley along the Central Coast. There, ranchers hosted springtime barbecue feasts for their hired hands — mostly Mexican cowboys, or vaqueros, and their families — along with the neighbors. Hundreds of people attended.

Pits were dug and filled with local red oak, which burned down to glowing embers. Beef was seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic salt and other spices, and cooked over the hardwood coals. The main side dish was pinquito beans, a small pinkish variety native to the area. The condiment of choice was salsa.

Fast-forward to the late 1950s, when Santa Maria butcher Bob Schutz experimented with the cut, which is one of the three muscles in the bottom sirloin of the steer. Meat cutters routinely diced it into stew meat or ground it into hamburger, but not Schutz on that day.

Instead, he seasoned it Santa Maria-style and cooked it on a rotisserie. His "creation" was surprisingly delicious. He named it "tri-tip" because of its shape and promoted it locally. Its popularity spread statewide.

One Central Valley restaurant long known for its Santa Maria-style barbecue is the Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe, near Santa Maria.

"I can remember my father (Clarence Minetti) bringing home some of the first tri-tips to the ranch and experimenting with them," said Susan Righetti, who co-owns the restaurant and maintains the Web site www.susieqbrand.com. There, she sells all things Santa Maria-style barbecue, from pinquito beans and seasonings to red oak chips.

Easy and economical, too

Tri-tip quickly became a favorite for several reasons. Pickerel and other epicures attest to its satisfying texture, distinct flavor and natural ability to get along well with others — specifically, marinades and spices.

"The sirloin has been overlooked for years, but it's very flavorful," Pickerel said. "When you get a tri-tip that has a lot of marbling in it, you get that great sirloin flavor profile."

It's also economical. One tri-tip is far less costly than cooking four steaks, for instance. An untrimmed, unmarinated tri-tip can be found for less than $3 a pound at supermarkets, though trimming it at home can be tricky. The average price of a trimmed, unmarinated tri-tip is $6 to $8 a pound. A marinated, hand-trimmed tri-tip at a butcher's counter can cost up to $11 a pound.

As more non-Californians discover tri-tip, they're also finding another reason it's so popular in our state: It's easy to cook.

"It's unique because it's a cross between a steak and a roast," said award-winning grilling expert and cookbook author Jamie Purviance of El Dorado Hills. "Because of its size, you can get a brown, caramelized crust on the outside and still leave the inside nice and rosy, but without the time commitment you would need for a big roast."

Because of its shape — thicker in the middle and less so at the tips — the cooked meat will range from medium to done at the tips and medium-rare at the center, when properly cooked. That means a range of tastes can be satisfied.

East Coast treasure hunt

Although just 8 percent of tri-tip sales occur outside California — largely in the Midwest and Northeast — those buyers are a devoted band. That's epitomized by this story from Sacramento reader Matt Proietti, a real-estate agent in Penn Valley.

"A tri-tip fan for 20 years," he traveled to his former hometown of Leominster, Mass., in May with his wife, Varina, for his mother's birthday. He was planning a tri-tip barbecue to celebrate, but his mother couldn't find the cut at the Hannaford supermarket where she had shopped for years.

"My sister-in-law helps run an Italian restaurant and asked its meat supplier about tri-tip. No go," said Proietti. "So she called a friend who's a salesman for a meat company, but he couldn't help her, either. We resigned ourselves to having steaks."

After their plane landed in Manchester, N.H., and the Proiettis were en route to Leominster, they stopped at a Hannaford store in a neighboring town "and my wife shrieked, 'Matt, they have tri-tip!' "

There was only one, which they bought. Matt then called the Hannaford in Leominster and talked with the butcher, "who confirmed that, yes, they had some tri-tips on sale right then. We got there and saw some steak tips and thought, 'Oh, man, this is what the butcher thought I meant.' "

Matt found the butcher and reminded her of their phone conversation. To his shock, "she pulled out one tri-tip that was hidden from view. Then she asked the magic question: 'Do you want more?'

"A few minutes later, I was standing there — 40 miles outside of Boston — with as much tri-tip as I had hoped for," Matt said. "I grilled them and we washed them down with a few six-packs of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to make it a real California night. There were no leftovers."

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