Make the BBQ Cut With a Simple and Savory Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich

author image

May 30, 2019

Tri-Tip Sandwiches. Photo: Kate Dunbar Tri tip sandwich on roll served on plate with blue star dish full of onions

Try tri-tip grilled steak sandwiches on your next outing.

Santa Maria Style Barbecue is as iconic in California as the Golden Gate Bridge. A style of cooking full of history and lore, this approach to grilling holds a dominant place in the BBQ culture. Going back to the days when Spain gave land grants in California and the Missions were centers of influence, the area in and around Santa Maria was the perfect haven for the Spanish vaqueros or cowboys. They tended the cattle all along the rolling hills, helping with land clearing and farming. The thick groves of California red oak, lush native pasture grasses and miles and miles of fertile soil helped grow the area’s best agriculture and cattle.

Rolling hills of Santa Maria, California.

The tri-tip had its origins amid the rolling hills of Santa Maria, California. Photo: Tim Mossholder

A Way of Life

In the springtime, when cattle were moved from the corrals to the mesa and hill areas to graze on that lush grass and fatten up for the late spring and early summer season, vaqueros would dig large pits in the ground and create large fires with that California red oak for cooking their meals. Long metal stakes were threaded with chunks of meat, then seasoned with simple ingredients like salt, pepper and garlic or herbs found along the open pastures and hills. While the flames seared the meat, one cowboy slowly turned those metal stakes that rested over a frame of branches. The beef self-basted, with all that fat heating and searing over the hot embers. The “char” from the accumulation of the spices to the softened and grilled fat was one of the most sought after bits.

Once the beef finished cooking over the open fire, the meat was carefully slid off the metal stakes then rested, sliced thickly and placed on a dinner plate with the traditional Santa Maria sides. Beans cooked in water with bacon fat, herbs and spices. Salsa made with fresh chopped tomatoes, roasted chilies, lime juice and onions then bread to sop up all the beef juices. It was a filling meal after a long day out in the hot sun working cattle from one pasture to another.

Succulent piece of tri-tip ready for eating.

A succulent piece of tri-tip with herbs rubbed on ready for eating. Photo: Kate Dunbar.

Modern Tri-Tip Twist

Today, there has been a slight and somewhat controversial modification to this iconic meal. The two terms today are “authentic” and “traditional.” The Santa Maria Elks Lodge #1538, which has been producing some of the best Santa Maria Style BBQ for years, consider the “authentic” cut of beef to be the top-block and cooked on long, steel rods. On the other side of the pendulum, BBQ companies, restaurants and home cooks consider tri-tip the “traditional.” The choice is up to you, but if you can get to the Santa Maria area, please try both cuts and decide if authentic or traditional is your favorite.

Replacing top block sirloin with tri-tip started with one man. In the 1950s, a Santa Maria butcher named Bob Schutz introduced the cut, which is a two-to three-pound triangular-shaped piece that’s cut from the top sirloin, he called it “tri-tip.” Butchers and supermarkets once used this cut of beef as part of a ground beef mixture or cut it up for stew meat. Today, because of its popularity and requests by consumers, butchers are now offering this as a staple piece in meat cases.

What Makes Tri-Tip So Great

What’s so special about this triangular cut of beef? Why do BBQ enthusiasts use it? If my butcher does not have it, how do I get it? Can beef tri-tip be cooked in a smoker?  Let’s answer these questions. The cut is special because it takes a well-trained butcher to remove it from the side of beef, since the tri-tip sits just about the top sirloin and is hidden by an enormous fat cap. The muscle pattern of the tri-tip is a solid piece comprising one end being a point and the opposite being the flat. Imagine a well-trimmed brisket, now shrink in down to just about three pounds.

BBQ enthusiasts use this cut for three reasons. First, it’s one solid piece of beef, making grilling, seasoning, cooking and slicing simple and easy. The second reason would be that a well-trimmed tri-tip with a ¼ to ½ inch fat cap will render out and self baste during the cooking process. That fat also develops a beautiful char during the cook, which if you are a true tri-tip lover is one of your favorite slices to get. But the most important reason people love tri-tip is the simplicity of the cooking style. Cooked over red oak open flames takes about 40-45 minutes. Removing the tri-tip from the fire at 138 degrees and giving it a 15-20 minute rest before slicing will allow all those concentrated juices to redistribute back into the meat instead of all over your cutting board.

Tri-tip can be found at butcher shops and grocery stores across America. But on the rare occasion you can not find it all you have to do is ask your butcher for a triangle roast or bottom sirloin primal cut; they will be glad to help you.

A piece of tri-tip ready for the barbecue grill.

A piece of tri-tip ready for the barbecue grill. Photo: Kate Dunbar

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ’Em

Although it is non-traditional, you can absolutely smoke a tri-tip, and it is delicious. Season the beef, make your fire out of oak wood, and cook it at about 225 degrees for around 3 hours or when the beef reaches an internal temperature of 135 for medium-rare. Once the meat is at temp, allow it to rest, then slice and serve. The pink smoke ring will be somewhere around ½-inch because tri-tip is a low-fat cut, so the smoke penetrates it perfectly.

Host a Santa Maria BBQ Party

Hosting your own Santa Maria style BBQ is simple. Use a BBQ that’s set up for open-flame grilling, a grill grate that can easily be raised or lowered depending on the heat from the fire. Serve traditional sides: pinquito beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad, and grilled French bread that’s basted with butter and garlic. That’s it; simple, traditional and delicious. If you wanted to raise the bar, there have been additions over the years to this meal that consist of grilled Spanish-style chorizo, grilled venison, chicken and quail. But if you are on the California coast, the addition of grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns or California lobster take this meal to a different experience.

A pair of grilled steak sandwiches ready to serve.

A pair of grilled steak sandwiches ready to serve. Photo: Kate Dunbar.

The simple balance of salt, pepper and granulated garlic is all that’s needed — no marinades, brines or injections for this meal. Complicated ingredients have no place here; remember, you are replicating the simple flavors of long ago and with very little fuss. If you felt the need to add more to your seasoning mix, try rosemary and oregano, because they grew in the area, and they are herbs traditional to Spain, Mexico and the Mission days. If you would like some heat, try adding in chili powder to the seasoning blend.

Slicing tri-tip correctly is the key, there are two grains that intersect, the first is the point with its vertical grain and then about ¾ of the way to the flat end the grain changes to a horizontal pattern. The best way to slice this cut is by splitting the roast at the meeting point, then cut against the grain with slices no thicker than ¼ to ½ inches. The tenderness is unbelievable, and if you have grilled it correctly, it will grace you with a beautiful pink core and a smoky outer layer that wraps the tri-tip slice. Place it on your dinner plate or between two pieces of fresh-grilled French bread, and your taste buds will be in heaven. One very serious rule about Santa Maria style BBQ is that there is no BBQ sauce; the juices produced will be all that you need to enjoy this meal.

Beef with lines indicating where to slice.

Where to slice a piece of tri-tip beef. Photo Courtesy of Traeger Wood Fired Grills.

Beans on the Side

Let’s talk about the side again, especially that pink pinquinto bean. Next to the tri-tip, those beans are the stars of the meal. The small, dense orbs produce a natural beef bean broth when cooked with water and some seasoning. An essential part of California cuisine, they are the stars of a tri-tip barbecue. What is unique is that they only grow in Santa Maria, California. The “pinks” were brought to the area by migrant citrus workers in the late 1940s and early1950s just about the time the big meat transition of top-block sirloin to tri-tip happened.

Putting it All Together

Below is a perfect recipe for a grilled tri-tip sandwich. The crunchy grilled bread, pickled red onions and peppery arugula salad greens make this sandwich perfect as a leftover meal or one you can easily feed a crowd with. One tri-tip can serve at least 6-8 adults or make about 12 sandwiches, making the cost of the cut a true value to any BBQ you will have at home or at the campground. If you’re ever in the Santa Maria area, these restaurants are the top picks to enjoy this delicious and traditional meal. Shaw’s Steakhouse, Historic Santa Maria Inn, F. McLintocks, A.J. Spurs and the true iconic stop at Cold Springs Tavern, which is my favorite stop along Highway 154 nestled in the dense red oak-lined hills. Motorists, former Presidents and famous chefs all find their way to this historic stop.

Tri-tip sandwiches with pickled onions, spinach and mustard sauce.

Tri-tip sandwiches with pickled onions, spinach and mustard sauce. Photo: Kate Dunbar

Ingredients: Grilled Tri-Tip Sandwich

• 1, 3-4 pound tri-tip, trimmed
• 1 bag arugula salad greens
• 1 package French bread sandwich rolls
• Mustard sauce (recipe below)
• Pickled red onion (recipe below)
• Tri-tip seasoning (recipe below)
• Seasoning
• 2 Tablespoons Kosher salt
• 2 Tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
• 1 Tablespoon granulated garlic


  1. Mix all the spices together in a small container with a lid, shake well and set aside.
  2. Trim off any large areas of silver skin or fat on the tri-tip. Rub seasoning all over the meat.
  3. Seasoning rubbed into the meat befor grilling.

    Seasoning rubbed into the meat before grilling. Photo: Kate Dunbar

    Refrigerate covered for 4 – 6 hours. Remove from refrigerator and let stand for about an hour before placing on the hot grill.

  4. After you remove the tri-tip from the fridge, light your cooking heat source. Heat a gas or propane grill to high, or light one charcoal chimney full of coals or chunks of oak wood.
  5. When the charcoal or wood chunks are at temp, spread evenly over the BBQ and place the grill over the heat. Clean the grill grate well and swipe it with an oiled paper towel to clean and create a non-stick surface. If using a gas grill reduce grill temp to medium-high (about 400 degrees).
  6. Grill the meat over direct heat fat cap side up, over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, turn the meat over to the other side and adjust the fire, turn every 10-15 minutes. Around 40-45 minutes total cooking time or until it reached the desired temperature.
  7. The tri-tip is cooked once the center reaches 135 degrees F for rare or 142 for medium rare. Remove from heat and rest for 15-20 minutes, then slice against the grain and serve.
  8. For sandwiches slice the beef about 1/8″ thick, grill your bread and place the mustard sauce on both sides of the bread. On the bottom piece place a good handful of freshly washed arugula then the sliced tri-tip and pickled onions. Place the sandwich top on and enjoy immediately.

Of course, no grilled steak sandwiches are complete without pickled red onions and mustard sauce. Set aside some time to prepare the following:

Pickled Red Onions

Prep time: 30 minutes to overnight


• 1 large red onion, sliced thin
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 2 Tablespoons olive oil
• 2 Tablespoon honey
• 1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
• ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
• 1 crumbled bay leaf
• 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

In a glass mixing bowl, mix all the dry spices and sliced red onion together, set aside. In a saucepan heat the cider vinegar, olive oil and honey until it just boils. Carefully pour the hot liquid over the spice and onion mixture. Toss with tongs to evenly distribute the seasoning and coat the onions. Allow cooling to room temp and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Mustard Sauce

• 2 tbsp whole-grain mustard
• 2 tbsp mayonnaise
• 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 tsp red wine vinegar
• 1 tsp dried parsley
• 1 tsp kosher salt
• 1/2 tsp black pepper

In a small bowl, combine sauce ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use.