Tri-Tip’s True Origins

Grilling pit master Donna Fong reveals the real facts.


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Anyone who’s ever grilled tri-tip probably knows its origins. As the often told tale goes, in the 1950s, a butcher at a Safeway in Santa Maria decided to take the cut—found at the bottom of the cow’s sirloin—usually ground up for hamburger and grill it with a little pepper and garlic powder in spite of his co-workers’ protests that it would turn out tougher than shoe leather. The result was tender and juicy and quite a hit with the locals. “Santa Maria style tri-tip” was born. End of story, right? Not so fast. Turns out there’s an “alt-facts” version. According to Alameda barbecue judge, semi-retired pit master (and molecular biologist) Donna Fong, tri-tip was first grilled up on a ranch in Dublin owned by Oakland meat wholesaler Otto Schaefer. Fong’s dad, Donald, ran Don’s Meats in East Oakland and he (and later Donna) were invited to barbecues in the 1950s where the cut was served up to rave reviews. Soon Schaefer began marketing it to East Bay meat shops like Don’s as tri-tip steak. He also prepared it at local rodeos attended by some cowpokes from, you guessed it, Santa Maria, who brought it back to the Central Coast and apparently did a far better job of taking credit for it. Fascinated by this long-simmering controversy, I rang Fong recently to grill her on the issue and other matters.

Paul Kilduff: How did the Santa Maria come to be known as the birthplace of tri-tip if it really took place in East Bay?

Donna Fong: Best as I can understand it, those Santa Maria guys were really good at talking up and publicizing Santa Maria tri-tip.

PK: And they got the idea after being introduced to it at rodeos in Northern California where tri-tip would be grilled?

DF: It isn’t difficult for me to imagine that word spread very quickly once you got your teeth on some nice tri-tip prepared correctly.

PK: So Otto Schaefer was also the first to prepare tri-tip correctly. What’s the proper method?

DF: We smoke it to medium-rare. Then we sear it on the outside and let it rest. And then slice it very thinly against the grain. If you don’t slice it against the grain, it’s like chewing abalone—there is just no way through it. Tri-tip is different from every other steak out there, because of that. Otto remembers selling it for so cheap because it was just unpalatable. Once he figured out, “Hey, this is the way that you prepare it,” then suddenly it became very popular and got expensive.

PK: Do you order tri-tip when you go out?

DF: I never order tri-tip when I go out, unless I am in Santa Maria. I went to Guy Fieri’s place in Windsor, and we ordered tri-tip, and they served it whole. I was about as offended as you can be. You cannot cut it that thinly with just what you are given at the table. The best treatment of tri-tip is to put it on a Hobart slicer and slice it like you would roast beef. You will just cry it is so good.

PK: It’s like lunchmeat then basically.

DF: Yes. It’s like having a bunch of celery. You can cut it either into little pieces or you can cut it lengthwise. If you cut it lengthwise, the celery is just not going to taste good, right? It’s like that. You want to cut the celery into little pieces against the grain rather than with the grain.

PK: Is tri-tip just a California thing?

DF: Tri-tip is a cut that was popularized in Northern California. You will find it in Southern California, but God help you if you are in Chicago and you are asking for tri-tip. It is considered to be a regional meat. It’s largely unknown in the rest of the country.

PK: Is tri-tip the one thing California has contributed to barbecue in America?

DF: Unquestionably.

PK: You are in the world of competitive barbecue world. Do they care about the origins tri-tip?

DF: They don’t know about it, and, do they care about it? No.

PK: This ranch is Dublin is very well the birthplace of California’s contribution to barbecue, but nobody cares?

DF: Nope. And it’s often a side category in professional barbecue contests. It’s actually really popular in backyard contests. What I mean by backyard is an amateur contest where there’s guys that just want to cook or they’re trying to become professionals. Those contests are not overnight contests. The backyard contests will very often cook tri-tip, ribs, and chicken. You can do that in a matter of hours. For a professional contest, because you’re talking about pork butt and brisket; you’re having to go overnight. You’re talking about a six- to 12-hour meat.

PK: How did you become a competitive barbecuer?

DF: I judged in Kansas City at the American Royal in 2010 and saw my friends after the first day of competition complaining about how bad their cook went and said, “I know I just finished eating a ton of really great food, but it would be better to be on the other side complaining about my cook than having eaten the food.” It’s not really the same level of accomplishment.

PK: I always got the impression that people enter these events to promote either their barbecue restaurants or products. True?

DF: I completely disagree with you. The vast majority of people who own barbecue restaurants are totally uninterested. Running a barbecue restaurant is a hard thing. Cooking in a barbecue contest is also a hard thing, and it’s extremely difficult to do both.

PK: If everybody loves your ribs, is that a good enough reason to enter a barbecue contest?

DF: Heck yeah! I mean, you show up at a contest to have fun. If you want to prove your chops, you’re more than welcome. I encourage anybody that feels confident about their barbecue to enter a backyard contest first.

 

Donna Fong’s Vital Stats

Age: 50 | Birthplace: Oakland

Astrological sign: Aries

Book on nightstand: Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In by Bernie Sanders

Motto: “Life is short. Love and respect everyone. Hate and resent no one. We are all equals.”

 

Donna Fong’s “Oakland Style” Tri-Tip Recipe

1.5 to 2 pounds trimmed beef tri-tip

    (preferably prime grade)

2 tablespoons yellow mustard

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons coarse pepper

2 tablespoons coarse granulated garlic

 

Preheat the oven to 250° F. Apply a thin layer of yellow mustard (or beer from your favorite local microbrewery) all over the tri-tip. Mix together salt, pepper, and garlic. Sprinkle an even coating of the mixture over both sides and rub in. Wait 30 minutes. Cook tri-tip until the interior temperature hits 115°F to 120°F. Transfer to a hot propane grill (or stove top). Char both sides until a dark bark is achieved. Remove when internal temperature is 135°F in the middle of the roast. Let rest until it comes down to 110°F. Cut in half along the grain and then slice, very thinly, against the grain. Dip each slice into the au jus created by slicing and sprinkle with finishing salt or rub. “The finishing salt and rub is meant to compensate for the lack of flavor in the interior of the meat, and it’s very important for a perfect product,” said Fong.

 

This report appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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