There’s a big, semi-climactic scene in the 2004 film Sideways where the angsty failed-writer character Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, broods on the topic of his infatuation with pinot noir to his love interest, played by Virginia Madsen, on the front porch of her quaint home in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. The impassioned speech lasts no longer than 90 seconds, but in the year that followed the release of the Alexander Payne film, California sales of pinot noir wine reportedly jumped almost 20 percent. When the film took home an Oscar, its setting in the Central Coast — a thriving region of mostly small towns, cattle ranches, and vineyards that hug the cliffs of the Pacific between Monterey and Malibu — became a bona fide travel destination, beckoning to wine tourists and weekend warriors from LA, San Francisco, and beyond.
The exact borders are fuzzy, but it’s generally considered that California’s Central Coast consists of three distinct counties: Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo to the north. Further on, explorers can find the endless valley farms of Monterey and San Benito counties, where John Steinbeck spent his best words describing the chaparral and struggling communities of a century ago. There is also Santa Cruz County, a rugged and independent place filled with foggy cabins and Silicon Valley weekend homes. But for the purposes of avoiding the greater NorCal versus SoCal debate, it’s best to constrain the Central Coast to three counties. (Truly, go Google image search “norcal socal border” if you want to go full galaxy brain.)
Without a doubt the region’s wine industry has been its most notable — and lucrative — claim to fame. On weekends, well-heeled travelers jam the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail route, starting around the glossy million-dollar Presqu’ile winery in Santa Maria, with its sprawling valley views, and ending at the clogged main streets of Los Olivos.
But aside from the chandelier-draped tasting rooms, ranches and stables still populate much of the three counties, an enduring outcome of the Mexican, Spanish, and Portuguese vaquero culture of centuries ago. Starting in the 1600s men on horseback took to the scrub brush, low hills, and warm beaches of the area in hopes of making a life, running livestock, or eking out scratch existences in rural hamlets and sprawling farms. Their settling — and the eventual influx of oil workers to the area — led to the creation of Central Coast towns like Orcutt, 10 miles north of Vandenberg Air Force Base, where Elon Musk has taken to launching SpaceX rockets. In contrast to some of the region’s glitzier cities, the small community’s frontier-town facades and wagon wheel culture remain preserved with pride.
Such enduring relics of the Wild West are more than nods to nostalgia or tourist kitsch. Throughout the Central Coast Western culture is alive and thriving in the boots and trucks and billboards arguing for water rights and low taxation. It’s also an indelible part of the way these three counties eat — a celebration of the ranchero cuisine of centuries past, even as the cities within them change day by day.
Coastal Central California’s particular brand of ranch cuisine is a natural reflection of the area’s mild winters and relative abundance, particularly where beef has historically been concerned. Here hearty steaks and chops are almost exclusively cooked over local red oak, and served alongside dishes like rustic, pepper-studded pinquito beans, pinkish legumes exclusively native to the region. Fruits and vegetables, when present, are often served simply — usually raw — as sides or garnishes. This is Alice Waters and the perfect peach, hundreds of years before the world became enamored with the simplicity of California cooking.
For the clearest example of the genre, it’s best to make the hour drive north from Santa Barbara to tiny Casmalia, home of the original Hitching Post. The turn-of-the-last-century hotel was retrofitted in 1944 to become a standalone restaurant, and today the Ostini family still serves much the same meat-heavy menu as its predecessor. A meal here is focused around rib-eyes, T-bones, and racks of pork ribs, each served as a full dinner with crudites, shrimp cocktail, bread service, coffee, and a scoop of ice cream for dessert.
A large glass window showcases the regionally ubiquitous Santa Maria-style barbecue, which gets its name from one of the largest cities in Santa Barbara County. These searing grills are characterized by a flat, cross-hatched metal grate that can be raised or lowered to adjust for temperature. The open-air smoking reflects the heritage of cooking on the range, but instead of stars they’re set beneath the ventilation systems of modern kitchens.
To many, ranch cooking along the Central Coast more closely resembles the asado styles of Argentina, where vaquero and gaucho cultures have also reigned supreme for centuries, and where beef has historically been plentiful. But Argentina’s large, outdoor Patagonian cross grills don’t easily translate to the California kitchen, and the Central Coast largely eschews chorizo and short ribs. That makes the smoke of red oak cresting through the grates of Santa Maria-style grills something truly unique, a window into this region’s history of ranching.
It’s not uncommon at ranch-style restaurants around these parts to find a link of Portuguese linguica or North African merguez sausage sharing the plate with a large cut of meat and some seasonal veg. It’s a holdover from the California exploration era that predates the state’s cowboy influx, when Portuguese adventurers first began tracking the landscape and creating personal homesteads along the Central Coast under Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (credited as the first European to “discover” much of the state by ship) in the early 1400s.
Over the generations these Portuguese mingled with the area’s missionaries, Mexicans, and the indigenous Chumash tribe, who tamed the greater Southern California coastline and nearby Channel Islands more than 8,000 years ago. (Today the tribe operates a popular casino and 12-story hotel in Santa Ynez Valley — the tallest building on the Central Coast.)
The Portuguese, meanwhile, ultimately gained familial prominence in the area’s seafaring industries as well as dairy farming and cattle production. It is the horseback techniques of the old Spanish-Portuguese Iberian Peninsula, interpreted and fostered in Mexico, that gave rise to those same vaqueros spreading across the Central Coast hundreds of years ago. By the late 1800s, Portuguese descendants owned large swaths of land from Avila Beach east through the San Joaquin Valley and on further north. Today many of California’s Portuguese surnames have been Anglicized (Cardoço to Cardoza, say, or Joaquim to Joaquin) or assumed to be Spanish in origin, but their culture’s sausages — unadulterated — remain a prominent fixture of Central Coast ranch cuisine.
It’s the reason why plump links of linguica are found alongside the steaks and rib-eyes at Jocko’s Steakhouse in the small city of Nipomo. About 20 miles north of Casmalia, Nipomo was the onetime postal route stop that’s now home to a hair over 16,000 full-time residents. But what this town in San Luis Obispo County lacks in density it more than makes up for in regional notoriety. For starters, the largely agricultural community ignominiously serves as the historical backdrop to one of the Great Depression’s most haunting images, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. But most of the folks traveling through here stop for Jocko’s, a half-century-old bearer of ranch cuisine that is just as busy today as ever before.
The restaurant itself isn’t much to look at from the outside, but the dining room and bar are dripping with funky old signage and hanging deer heads. A large picture window peeks into the grill area, and each diner gets a paper placemat that reads: At JOCKO’S, Jenuine Oak Coals Kooks Our Steaks. The focus here is on ranch-style steaks and sides like pinquito beans, Portuguese sausages, and a relish tray of crisp raw vegetables served with a side of saltine crackers. Every night it’s the same smoky scene, with hours-long waits for weekenders who show up without a reservation.
But the menu at Jocko’s is missing one key ranch-food staple, and for that, you need to head to Far West Tavern, a polished Orcutt roadhouse catering to weekend travel groups and big family dinners. The star of the show here is tri-tip, that Central Coast barbecue sirloin specialty so beloved locally, and so forgotten nationally. Meat snobs tend to bristle at the use of the term “barbecue” when talking about tri-tip, a hearty triangular muscle historically reserved for roasts or, away from the Central Coast, ground beef. The issue is the cooking method — faster and hotter than barbecue, due to the meat’s low fat content, over open flame — which eschews the traditional low-and-slow, compacted-smoke cooking techniques most associated with traditionalist American barbecue. Tri-tip still takes time, but it does not carry the overnight-cooking connotations of, say, Texas-style brisket.
Diners don’t seem to care much about the distinction anyway; they’re too busy enjoying plate after plate of smoked and grilled meat from the Far West Tavern dining room, ringed with hand-painted landscapes and maps of historic ranches in the area. Locals lovingly refer to this location as the “new one”; Far West was founded in Guadalupe, a sleepy village not far away. The original stood for nearly 55 years, but was even further off the beaten path and would have required costly retrofitting to comply with updated state earthquake standards. So, the Minetti family moved to Orcutt in 2012, taking much of the kitsch and the entirety of the menu with them, but sadly abandoning the bulk of the restaurant’s original charm.
There’s no respite from the inevitable creep of modern life, even on the slow and steady ways of the Central Coast. As the region’s economy becomes increasingly dependent on tourism dollars, there’s more and more incentive for businesses, especially restaurants, to respond. One place that aims to find a middle ground, and has so far succeeded, is the Bear and Star in Los Olivos, a 30-minute drive south from Orcutt in the Santa Ynez Valley. Los Olivos is foot-traffic-heavy and bursts with traveling wine-drinkers Friday through Sunday, and they all end up needing somewhere to eat. More often than not it’s at chef John Cox’s place, an upscale-rustic ranch restaurant just off the lobby of the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. Here is where the Central Coast’s ranching past meets its inevitable future, creating a blend of money, history, wine, and meat.
There are plenty of reasons to praise the Bear and Star, but chief among them is its ethos. Cox and his Parker family partners are keen to source as much of their produce and animal proteins as possible from a dedicated 714-acre ranch not far away in the foothills, relying on the seasons and more than a few ranch hands to curate the rotating menus. The place has proven busy enough that 100 percent ranch-to-table living is not possible, but nearly all of the product found on the Bear and Star’s menu comes from surrounding Santa Barbara County.
At the Hitching Post in Casmalia, a standalone ranch-style dinner can feel like being warmly encased in amber. But at the Bear and Star, the reclaimed wood, the three-figure steaks, and the loaded brunchtime bloody marys place you squarely in 2018. Still, the menu is unmistakably the food of the Central Coast’s forefathers, rethought for a new era and demographic. Here the cowboy-cut rib-eye costs $120 and the skillet cornbread is cooked in wagyu fat. The grilled merguez sausage is decidedly North African, not Portuguese, but the pinquito beans and the produce still hail from the restaurant’s own backyard, geographically and historically speaking.
The balance of old and new is always fraught with tension, and with every Tesla that zips up the 101 freeway, the Central Coast risks losing its distinct frontier identity. But so far the region has managed to embrace its billion-dollar tourism industry without altogether losing its core culinary traditions. The now booming wine industry is still built upon century-old vines planted by traveling Spanish missionaries outside of sites like Misión La Purísima Concepción de María Santísima near Lompoc. And those open-fire grills, a staple of the region’s historic roadhouses, still turn out cowboy steaks and tri-tip and Portuguese sausage. It’s just that now, on weekends, the food is for dining rooms packed with out-of-towners, hungry for a taste of the Central Coast ranching culture that never quite left.
The Original Hitching Post 3325 Point Sal Road, Casmalia, CA, (805) 937-6151, hitchingpost1.com
Jocko’s Steakhouse 125 N. Thompson Avenue, Nipomo, CA, (805) 929-3686, jockossteakhouse.com
Far West Tavern 300 E. Clark Avenue, Orcutt, CA, (805) 937-2211, farwesterntavern.com
The Bear and Star 2860 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA, (805) 686-1359, thebearandstar.com
Farley Elliott is Eater LA’s senior editor, and author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks.
Edited by Lesley Suter
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
Fact checked by Dawn Orsak