Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
California barbecue: the pulled tri-tip sandwich.
There are dark moments when American food appears to be slouching into strip-mall homogeneity, forcibly cheered on by the shrill strains of waitstaff marching a birthday dessert to a table at TGI Friday's. This dystopian malaise can be shaken off a number of ways. You can hit up a mom-and-pop joint, revel in the cuisine of one of our immigrant communities, try something a little experimental from a creative chef or dig into regional American cooking.
Barbecue remains, blissfully, a contentious business. Say the word "boiled" to an Oklahoman with a pair of tongs and see what happens. From Alabama's white sauce to Texan brisket to Hawaiian kalua pig, across the country our pits and grills contain multitudes. In California, birthplace of the Santa Maria grill, tri-tip is king. It's a cut I never encountered back east. Turns out the sirloin bottom cut is not some muscle cows don't develop that side of the Rockies — it's just often ground for hamburger instead. And to be honest, I didn't get it at first, as lean and potentially tough as the meat is.
But marinated, rubbed, smoked and sliced, tri-tip won me over. (Respect, Humboldt Del Norte Cattlemen's Association dinner.) But why has it taken so long for pulled tri-tip to show up? Relative newcomer 101 Barbecue Steakhouse (1134 Fifth St., Eureka) has stepped up with a saucy pulled tri-tip sandwich on ciabatta bread ($14.99). The meat, cooked low and slow over 10 hours, has enough deep beef flavor to stand up to the sweet honey-Bourbon barbecue sauce that is the house staple, as well as the melted Swiss cheese. Yes, Swiss cheese. This is California and all bets are off. The grilled onions are firm and translucent, the bite only just cooked out of them. The toasted and airy ciabatta has a sheen of oil and (sorry, purists) holds together better than a traditional white bun, giving you a little more time to savor before it all goes sideways.