ATLANTA — We all know 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 still is 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 chameleonlike 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 steakhouses. 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 3 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 out of California.