Tri-tip is a lean cut of beef that's taken from the bottom sirloin, or the large slab of muscle situated in between the top sirloin and the flank. It's a West Coast delicacy with which most South Floridians are not familiar, unless you're a true meat connoisseur.
Although uncommon, tri-tip can be found in some butcher shops throughout Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Typically found in triangular roast-size slabs of two to five pounds, tri-tip is generally said to have been invented by Bay Area-based rancher Otto Schaefer, Sr. who popularized it in the 1950s among the ranchers at the Elks Lodge in Santa Maria, California. (In fact, when I called more than two dozen locations asking if they carry the cut, at least two people on the other line asked me if I was from California.)
Grill master Will Banks of Blue Willy's Barbecue in Oakland Park knows a thing or two about tri-tip and says the meat is best grilled or smoked — and never barbecued, he says — whole to medium-rare and sliced thin against the grain in small chunks or into steaks.
It's called Santa Maria-style barbecue, but it's not really barbecue at all, according to Banks. As opposed to brisket — which is slow-cooked to well-done tenderization — Banks says tri-tip does not soften as it cooks and is instead traditionally grilled over an open flame of oak wood. Tri-tip meat is often served with a side of pinquito beans (another Santa Maria delicacy) and garlic bread. Banks tends to differentiate tri-tip from other cuts because of its leanness.
"It's not meat, it's a muscle," Banks says. "The original point of barbecue is to cook it a long time to break it down, but tri-tip doesn't hold up well to barbecue. It's one of the few muscles that are able to be grilled that's edible."
The reason it doesn't barbecue well, he says, may be because of less collagen — the protein-rich tissue that connects muscle fibers. Despite that, he considers the tri-tip a tasty cut of meat — tastier than a rib-eye, in fact— but you'll never find it on the menu in his restaurant. Why not? It's because people don't usually like to eat tough pieces of meat, he says.
"If cooking rare or medium-rare, the red center will be tough," Banks says. "It doesn't get soft."
Santa Maria-style not only refers to the tri-tip itself but the kind of grill used, which is basically a platform raised and lowered over the flame using a wheel and pulley system. The meat is usually seasoned with a Southwest-style dry rub that consists of paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt. Banks also points out that tri-tip is a popular grilling meat in Brazil and Argentina.
Good luck finding a Santa Maria barbecue pit in Florida, though. Banks doesn't think they exist and adds they either have to be fabricated or ordered online and delivered to the Sunshine State.
In addition to the handful of places listed below where you can find tri-tip, Banks adds that he sees it once in a while at the Publix grocery store on Andrews Avenue in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Otherwise, here's where you can find it locally:
Guido's Meat Market carries tri-tip from time to time. It sells for $8.99 per pound when they have it. The shop is located at 78 E. McNab Rd. in Pompano Beach. Call 954-782-6003, or like them on Facebook.
Delaware Chicken Farm and Seafood Market (4191 N. State Rd. 7, Hollywood) sells tri-tip for $9.99 per pound, although it comes in packages of four 14-pound roasts which can't be sold individually. Call 954-983-6831, or visit delawarechicken.com.
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Amici Market, located at 155 N. County Rd. in Palm Beach, carries tri-tip, although it must be ordered at least a day in advance. Price per pound is to be determined. Call 561-832-0201, or visit myamicimarket.com.