Tri-tip, a taste of the West Coast

We all know that the South claims bragging rights to smoked pulled pork, and Texas holds the brisket as its holy barbecue grail. But were you aware that California crowns the tri-tip roast as its king of the grill? It does. And, rightfully so.

Locals know it as Santa Maria tri-tip, named after the small town on California’s Central Coast, where this cut first came to light in the 1950s, and is still among the area’s greatest claim to barbecue fame – and glory. It’s that good.

If you’re not quite sure what a tri-tip is, don’t feel out of the loop. Until recently, this chameleon-like cut of beef, which you can treat as a steak or a roast with equal success, was absent from local meat cases, and considered primarily a West Coast hunk, although it’s found on dinner tables around the world. You’ve probably gotten up close and personal with this cut without even knowing it if you’ve ever dined at any of the popular and flamboyant Brazilian steak houses. No doubt, fragrant hunks of grilled tri-tip speared onto massive skewers have passed right under your nose.

Elusive? Maybe. But hardly exotic. Tri-tip, sometimes called bottom sirloin roast and triangle roast, is a hindquarter cut from the bottom sirloin that’s blessed with a rich flavor and not too much, nor too little marbling. In fact, it qualifies as lean according to government guidelines, meaning a 3.5-ounce serving boasts less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Each steer yields only two tri-tip roasts. On looks alone, this boneless slab brings to mind a baby brisket.

Part of the tri-tip’s appeal is its elongated triangular shape. It starts out fairly thick and wide at one end, gradually gaining girth toward the middle, which can be several inches thick, then the roast tapers down to an obvious point. When the meat is grilled, the oddball shape allows you to offer rare slices from the plump section, and more well-done from the tip, thus pleasing everyone. But, note that the tri-tip is better when grilled not past medium-rare or medium. The longer you let a tri-tip linger over the flames, the tougher and drier this lean cut gets.

On the other hand, the tri-tip isn’t called a roast for nothing. It lends itself beautifully to braising or roasting, and shines brilliantly when prepared in a slow cooker.

Tri-tips come in slightly different sizes, but they don’t top out at much more than three pounds or so. But pay attention when you spot a tri-tip. Unless you find one labeled “hand trimmed,” you’re also buying a thick layer of flab called a fat cap that covers one side. And that’s the side you won’t see facing up in the package. So, pick it up, then try to peek to see how thick that fat is because you don’t want to pay around $9 per pound for excess flab. Some folks like to keep all of the fat on the meat while grilling so that it bastes the tri-tip. Sounds great in theory, but the reality is not so hot when you consider that all of that melted fat easily causes five-alarm flare-ups.

Tri-tip is a fantastic hunk of beef, but I’m not going to kid you. It’s no hoity-toity filet mignon (it’s more flavorful). It’s not even an uppity rib-eye (far less marbling and fat). It’s a little chewy when grilled, but not to imply tough — unless you cook it to death. When making sandwiches or simply serving sliced grilled or roasted tri-tip, be sure to thinly slice the meat against the grain so that you end up with more tender pieces. The goal is a fragrant pile of rosy tri-tip, not a fat slab.

There’s probably not much chance of a West Coast interloper toppling the crown of the mighty pork, but if you give the tri-tip a go, and treat it with care, there’s no doubt that you’ll be glad that this robust hunk finally found its way down south.


These stores carry tri-tip roasts, but call ahead to make sure they’re in stock.

Buford Highway Farmer’s Market

5600 Buford Highway Northeast

Doraville, 770-455-0770

New York Butcher Shoppe

985 Monroe Drive

Atlanta, 404-343-3614

New York Butcher Shoppe

4969 Roswell Road

Atlanta, 404-303-0704

Harry’s Whole Foods Market

70 Powers Ferry Road

Marietta, 770-578-4400


Perfectly Grilled Tri-Tip Roast

Serves 6

1 2- to 3-pound tri-tip roast


1/2 cup olive oil

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 shallot, finely minced

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Combine the ingredients in a heat-proof container and microwave for 45 seconds on high.

When the marinade has cooled slightly, add:

Juice and zest from 1 whole lime

Set marinade aside to cool completely.

Meanwhile, trim the layer of fat from the tri-tip.

Place the tri-tip in a large plastic zip lock bag and add the cooled marinade. Press or massage the bag to coat the meat with the marinade, which looks like a cross between a rub and a marinade. Refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.

About 45 minutes before you’re ready to grill, take the tri-tip from the refrigerator to bring it almost to room temperature so that it’ll cook evenly.

Remove the meat from the bag and leave as much of the marinade on the meat as you can. Sprinkle the tri-tip with salt to taste.


I use a gas grill, which I heat to 500 degrees to get a good crusty sear on the meat. Cook the tri-tip for about 4 or 5 minutes on both sides until you get a good sear on each side.

Lower the heat to about 400 degrees, and cook each side an additional 8-10 minutes. Depending on the size, the tri-tip should be medium rare.

When done, remove the meat from the grill and let it rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.

Slice thinly against the grain.

Nutritional information:

Per serving: 313 calories (percent of calories from fat, 59), 30 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 20 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 98 milligrams cholesterol, 87 milligrams sodium.

South of the Border Shredded Tri-tip

Serves 8-10

1 tri-tip roast about 3 pounds, trimmed


Garlic oil, recipe below:

1/4 cup olive oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

Combine oil and garlic in a heat-proof cup and heat in microwave for about 45 seconds on high. Set aside until cool.

2 tablespoons dried oregano

1 finely chopped chipotle pepper in adobo sauce

Juice from one Mexican or key lime, about 1 tablespoon

Combine garlic oil and the rest of the ingredients. Place in a large zip lock bag and add the tri-tip. Massage the bag so that the roast is completely coated with the marinade paste.

Refrigerate overnight or for at least 6 hours.

Note: Remove the marinated tri-tip from the refrigerator about 45 minutes prior to cooking.


1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

4 bay leaves

2 poblano chilies, roasted over an open flame until charred all over, then diced

5 garlic cloves, crushed and lightly browned in 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Be careful not to burn garlic.

1 can 14.5-ounce fire roasted diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Place the onion slices and bay leaves on the bottom of the slow cooker.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

Place the tri-tip and marinade on top of the onion and bay leaves. Pour the tomato mixture over the roast. Cover and cook on high for 4 hours or on low for about 8 hours. Tri-tip should be easy to shred when done.

Perfect for burritos or tacos. Shredded tri-tip can be tightly wrapped in plastic and frozen.

Nutritional information:

Per serving, based on 8: 378 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 33 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 26 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 111 milligrams cholesterol, 109 milligrams sodium.

Basque-Style Garbanzo Beans

Serves 12

Santa Maria tri-tip barbecue traditionally includes pinquito beans, native to the area. But these savory Basque-style beans provide a perfect side dish.

1 pound dried garbanzo beans, cleaned and soaked in water overnight

A few hunks of Trader Joe’s uncured applewood-smoked bacon ends and pieces, or 5 strips of thick bacon, or 1 smoked turkey wing or a smoked ham hock

4 large shallots, thinly sliced into rings

1 green bell pepper, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced or crushed

1 teaspoon smoked paprika (I like hot, but you can use sweet if you prefer.)

1 tablespoon dried, crushed oregano

4 or 5 whole bay leaves

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon sugar

Splash of Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Water or stock

Place a large Dutch oven over medium heat, add the bacon or other smoked meat suggested. If you’re not using bacon, then add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Stir the bacon around until it gets crispy. If you’re using the bacon hunks, ham hock or smoked turkey wing, stir them around in the hot oil for a couple of minutes to slightly brown the meat.

Lower the heat and add the shallots and bell pepper, stir until veggies are soft. Add a dab more olive oil if your pan is too dry.

Add the garlic, smoked paprika, oregano and bay leaves, stir for a minute or so, but make sure not to burn your garlic.

Raise the heat to medium high and add the tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any bits. Add a can of water or stock, letting the mixture bubble for a few minutes.

Add the sugar and Worcestershire sauce, and stir in the beans. Now, add 4 cans of water or stock.

Add about 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper. You can use more salt later when the beans are done and you taste for seasonings.

Bring the mixture to a boil, uncovered, then lower the heat to simmer. Cook covered on low for about three hours. Stir occasionally.

After about three hours, remove the lid, turn up the heat and let the garbanzos bubble lightly until much of the liquid has evaporated and thickened slightly.

Nutritional information:

Per serving: 144 calories (percent of calories from fat, 4), 9 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 1 gram fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium.