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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Do Not Adjust Your Dial

Yes, that is a church in the background.

It seems as though I spend so much time in the Central Valley that this blog's homebase should probably shift from SF to Modesto.

Yes, once again, we were there – this time for Bruce's niece Lori's graduation party. She just earned her BS, which I didn't even realize was something one had to earn. I mean, I just BS so naturally (hardy har har), yet the highest grade I ever reached was 12th, and even that was achieved, according to my teachers, by the "skin of my teeth".


Lori's party was on Sunday, but we decided to come down early since the big Rodeo's in town (Oakdale) and we had never been to the Rodeo parade before. We rolled into town Friday night, starving and looking for food – any food. Most places in Oakdale close up around 9 PM, even on the weekends. There are a few taquerias and pizza places that stay open later, but for the most part the place is a ghost town after 10 PM.

Driving down the street looking for places still open, we saw actual cowboys! Hat's, jeans, boots, the whole works. Most of them were waiting in line to get into the town's sole cowboy bar, the H-B (pronounced H bar B), while others were walking down the street in groups with their lady friends.

It was kind of strange for me, actually. Basically, the whole town was taken over by a cowboy convention. Even the bag boys at the local grocery store were decked out in boots, jeans, buttoned-down shirts, and ten-gallon hats. Big pick up trucks carrying bales of hay were pervasive.

If you're looking for Brokeback Mountain jokes, sorry. Trust me, I've spent way too much time writing and then deleting them from this post than I probably should have. In fact, this damn thing probably would've been written already if I could've just resisted to begin with.

Moving on.

The next morning we went to the Parade and, other than the police officer with delusions of grandeur that we made fun of the whole time, it pretty much the same cast of characters as the Ripon Almond Blossom parade with a few more vaqueros thrown in for good measure. And to give Ripon some credit, theirs was also better planned (ie., no large gaps between contingents).

So, that was sort of a bust.


Later in the day, we cruised around the area and happened to drive past several ethnic markets, which we stopped in. Usually, one doesn't think of the Modesto area as being very multicultural, and actually, it use to not be. But, of course, times change.

Whenever we flip the channels on the TV at Karen's house, we always stumble on the Assyrian Vision channel. I always use to ask, where are all of these damn Assyrians? And, what the hell is an Assyrian?

For some reason or other, Assyrians have decided that Modesto, California, USA is their landing spot for the diaspora. Of course, they aren't the first. Before them it was the Italians, then the Portuguese, then the Armenians, and now the Assyrians and Indo-Fijians.

Knowing that the Modesto area now has these immigrants, seeing a storefront with the name "Babylon Market" gives me reason to believe that it may be more than an Arab-owned convenience store. And, in fact, my hunch proves to be true.

Browsing the shelves at the Babylon Market, I was surprised to see how many products of Russian origin there were. Of course, there were the usual displays of Middle Eastern food such as flat bread, cans of hummus, fresh feta cheese, chick peas, lentils, rose water, and pomegranate syrup, but then there were these funny shaped pastas.

I wish I had more time to ask the proprietor/cashier questions like "what" and "why" and "how" and what the heck is up with all of the Russian stuff, but we had to get going. I nervously said "shukrun...right?" to him. He smiled slightly and said "shukrun" in return. Knowing nothing about Assyrians other than many of them are from Iraq, I assumed I could get away with saying this word, but I probably shouldn't say "insha'allah" or any of the few other Arabic phrases I know that might be seen as culturally/religiously insensitive, or in my case, ignorant.

As we left the store, I heard one of the older women shoppers say something to him and say "al Arah-bia", obviously in reference to what I had just said and perhaps complaining a) "why is he speaking Arabic to you" or not complaining b) "oh, he knows some Arabic. That's nice."

I tell you, people. It's like tiptoeing through a cultural minefield out there. Only, I probably shouldn't call what I do tiptoeing – it's more like stumbling.

Afterwards, we headed over to the 9 Islands Portuguese Bakery in Riverbank to pick up some more hot pepper sauce. While we were there, I also purchased some salt cod since it was so cheap.

Don't worry. I don't even try to speak Portuguese. And I have no idea what I'm going to use the salt cod for. Any suggestions?


The real exciting food event for me happened Sunday, the day of Lori's party. Lori's dad, Dwight, is an expert in tri-tip barbecuing.

I've said it before, but let me say it again in case there are some dense or distracted amongst you: tri-tip barbecuing is the regional, unique barbecuing style of California, in particular the Central Valley of California. In general, tri-tip often gets overlooked by people who talk and write about barbecue, probably because when most people think barbecue, they think of the South. They think beef brisket or beef ribs from Texas, pulled pork with slaw and vinegar sauce from North Carolina, or pork ribs from Tennessee. But when it comes to our barbecued tri-tip, we Californians get no respect.

Well, what is tri-tip, anyway?

Tri-tip is a cut of beef (usually around 2 pounds) that is triangular in shape, boneless, and part of the bottom sirloin. There are only two tri-tips per carcass. In most of the country, this cut of meat is generally cut up into chunks or used for ground beef since there isn't enough demand for whole tri-tips. However, perhaps due to the fact that California has many cattle ranches, whole tri-tip is widely available, especially in those areas and towns that lay in close proximity to the ranches.

Tri-tip isn't necessarily cheap, but neither is it very expensive. Here in SF, one conventionally-raised 2-pound tri-tip at Safeway can cost anywhere between $14 and $16 ($7 - $8 per pound). Because the of prevalence of beef and the overwhelming consumption of it in the Central Valley, tri-tip can sometimes be found for as low as $4 a pound, but on average I've seen it mostly at $5 per pound. Grass-fed/finished, "organic", tri-tip prices can swing wildly from $8 per pound, $13 per pound, and all the way to $21 per pound.

While some of these prices, especially for the organic, grass-fed stuff, seem high, take into consideration that one 2-pound tri-tip can easily feed two to three people.

While I suppose tri-tip can be roasted in the oven, it is best barbecued. Dwight's barbecued tri-tip is some of the best I've ever had, and I sincerely mean that. While I'm not sure how much of a role the marinade plays in the flavor of the finished product, I'm pretty sure his rig plays a huge role.

Dwight, by trade, is a union-certified diesel mechanic who services road-building equipment. He didn't come to barbecuing by accident. He says that it began one day when (my memory's a little fuzzy on this part) his co-workers were planning a big barbecue dinner for 100 guests due to one of them retiring. Somehow, Dwight got picked to organize the barbecue portion of the dinner, despite the fact that he had never barbecued for that many people before.

Having easy access to welding equipment and steel barrels, he and a few of his buddies set about building a few of these upright barbecue rigs. Though the design of the barbecue rig was not his own, he did tweak it around a bit and eventually ended up with the one he has today.

Before the barbecue dinner was to happen, he says he barbecued after work, out by the bar near the union hall, 3 days out of every week for 6 weeks straight, while perfecting the marinade, the cooking temperature, the time, the amount of charcoal, etc. During this period, he says people would just invariably show up, sometimes out of the blue, once that barbecue smoke permeated the air. I guess it got around that some good California barbecue was going on down at the union hall.

Dwight isn't sure how many barbecued chickens and tri-tips he went through in that 6-week period, but by the end such a frenzy of excitement was whipped up over his barbecuing that over 200 people showed up at the event.

It cracks me up to see this barbecue rig of his.

From the outside it literally is a rusty steel drum that if your neighbors saw it sitting in your front yard, they would probably call the Department of Public Works in an attempt to have it removed. While it may look like the poor ugly stepchild (sorry, stepchildren) or fancier, cleaner, and bigger barbecue rigs, in its simplicity it is a work of genius.

It's like the Zen barbecue rig. Or in Kung Fu Theater terms, it's like the drunken old man whom everyone believes is the town bum, but is really a famous kung fu master who just so happens to have mastered the drunken monkey style, which he then teaches to a young, impressionable youth, who then goes on a drunken monkey killing spree against gangsters and corrupt politicians the likes of which the people of the province haven't seen since the infamous and bloody Tong war of 1825.

Kinda like that.

Again, the construction is steel. Both ends of the barrel have been cut out, with the top end reserved to act as the lid (a stainless steel handle has been fashioned and welded to the top) and a bottom piece fashioned with legs so that it rests off the ground as a separate unit.

A detachable disk from a disk harrow used to prepare the soil for farming serves as a holding plate for the charcoals. Three stainless steel rods are held horizontally through three slots cut opposite of each other near the top edge of the barrel while two 3.5" round, closeable vents lay opposite of each other near the bottom. The rods at the top serve to hold the tri-tip (or chicken), but also act as handles in order to pick up the barrel.

To begin with, Dwight prepares the coals (in this case, 20 pounds) on the bottom plate and allows them to burn until they're nearly white with ash. By mistake, he picked up what he thought was regular charcoal starter but ended up being this creamy, napalm-like, orange-scented stuff which ended up being useless. Despite this, they seemed to stay lit and burned well. Personally, I use hardwood charcoal and use a chimney starter to get them lit, but then again, that's on my little Weber bullet and not something as big as this.

Once the coals were ready, he then loaded the marinated tri-tip onto steel hooks which hung from the steel rods.

He wouldn't divulge what was in his marinade, but from seeing him dry rub a pork shoulder about a year or so ago, I imagine a little bit of everything. However, while it's not the only ingredient, I have a feeling this probably figures in there somewhere.

When the tri-tip had been hooked and hung, the barrel was then picked up from both sides by Dwight and Aron and then placed over the hot coals.

At this point, it was all about monitoring the temperature of the barbecue rig. After placing the lid on top of the barbecue, Dwight used one of those fancy, high-tech instant read laser thermometers to determine the heat of both the top and bottom of it, making adjustments to the vents as needed.

Once the temperature was stable (250F), it was left alone for at least an hour and 45 minutes. Around that time (or it could've been a little longer since I lost track of time – oops), he checked the tri-tip by slicing into one.

Yep. These are ready to take off.

It was all I, and those standing around me, could do not to grab a whole piece and start gnawing on it! These babies looked and smelled wonderful!

None of us could wait for Dwight to get these puppies sliced so that we could start chowing down. They were a little pink on the inside, which is just I how love it. Not cold or bloody, but medium to medium-rare. The color on the outside also was just amazing and the whole piece of meat was smokey, tender, and juicy.

This is the stuff I wish we could get here in the Bay Area, but as you see, it has to be done down in the Central Valley. Maybe Dr. Biggles does it this way? Or at least knows someone with some good tri-tip.

I think I would've died and gone to heaven if this had been served as a tri-tip sandwich, but then there was so many other good sides to go with it. Good meat like this needs good, simple sides, like garlic bread, a salad, a pasta salad (has to have mayo!), and some smokey, porky baked beans.


This is comfort food at its finest.



Blogger bobgirrl said...

Oh good god, tri-tip is the best and actually did not start in the Central Valley but in Santa Maria, CA. It is also known as the Santa Maria steak. Drive through that area and they have ginormous bbq's set up in the parking lot of every strip mall in town churning out this meaty goodness. It did, however, catch on very quickly in the Valley. It used to be absolutely DIRT cheap. But like all things that become "the next big thing," sadly 'tis not the case anymore. My dad has always been a master griller and makes a mean tri-tip. Makes me homesick.

Oh, and be glad you've never had to endure the Selma Band Festival.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Bacon Press said...


This post is fresh off the presses (likely with errors and re-writes I've yet noticed) and you're already commenting.

I like that.

But other than admiring your lightning-quick reading skills, especially as they penetrate my oft times bad English prose, numerous grammatical and spelling errors, and discombobulated sentences, I appreciate your crazy, scary knowledge on tri-tip.

In fact, I'm smitten.

Thanks for cashing in your two-cents, which in this case is worth a million dollars.

You've broadened my knowledge, and for that, I say...

Got any more tri-tip stories?


(PS Thanks.)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Cali said...

I *heart* tri-tip! Usually I just use a basic salt, pepper, garlic semi-dry rub and cook it on my Webber. I just put the briquettes and the pre-soaked wood chips on one side and smoke/grill the meat (little side never goes toward the fire) on the opposite side from the coals. It takes about an hour and works great.

I have used a barrel barbecue, though. We had one at the gun club where I used to work. We used it almost exclusively to barbecue ducks.

As for the salt cod, surprise, surprise! I was going to suggest baccalau, which is just a different version.

When I had it at 42 Degrees they used peeled, sliced Yukon gold potatoes, the salt cod, butter to grease the individual caserole dishes, a bit of cream, chives, salt, pepper and garnished it with more snipped chives and oil-cured olives. I was told they soaked the cod twice, once in water and a second time in milk. It was salty, but in a good way. It was very yummy!

11:24 PM  
Blogger bobgirrl said...

More tri-tip stories.......hmmmmmm.... I think the family dog once grabbed an entire one off the dinner table and ate it. Doh!

9:20 AM  
Blogger drbiggles said...


Huge huge fan of the tri-tip, got the flavors of roast beef and close to the toothyness of brisket.

Our local (within walking distance) muffler shop has a que every wednesday, or at least they did. Here is my post on MH. Oh, the reason I mention it was cause they have the same smoker.


I like the part where they used a lid off an old weber for the lid, nice thinkin'.

Here's my basic tri-tip rub. I know it sounds too simple, but it's the base for nearly any concoction you can come up with. Originally it had sugar, that had to go.

Paprika 4 teaspoonfuls
kosher salt 2 teaspoonfuls
onion powder 2 teaspoonfuls
ground black pepper 2 teaspoonfuls
cayenne 1 teaspoonfuls

And NEVER EVER garlic powder, that shit is nasty. My eye shake even thinking about it.

There is one very important thing about tri-tips. They got grain. And if you don't cut against the grain, you got boot leather. This isn't the case with the following cut.

Another cut you should look in to is the ball-tip beef roast. Not a lot of fat with a very smooth texture. Lends itself VERY well to marinades. Got one in the fridge with 5 days in a teriyaki blend.

I can say this, Robert of Appetites food blog found tri-tip in their local Whole Foods. This is saying something considering he's in NOLA. The butcher eyed him all sideways and asked if he was from California. Cause they don't get much call for that tri-tip. Which is insane considering how good and easy to deal with the tri-tip is.

I can make you a tri-tip that'll drop you to your knees. Mesquite wood with hickory overtones smoked quietly at 225 until ready at 138F. I'll eat half of one myself, easy.

I wonder if it's raining yet?


2:54 PM  
Blogger SalGal said...

Damn, I just drooled all over my pjs! I know what's for dinner tomorrow...

Oh wait, anybody got ideas on how to cook it on gas?

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Sean said...

Back to the salt cod - once reconstituted and rinsed (you have to do this several times over the course of 2-3 days), you can shred it and whip it with potato and garlic to make a nice brandade. In my family, we make baccalà -- you take the rinsed, reconstituted cod, roll it around a stuffing of bread and vegetables and bake it in a tomato sauce. Not to everyone's taste, but it's one of our standard holiday dishes, especially on Christmas Eve.

9:10 AM  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

I'm a little late here.
But the Santa Venetia Market north of San Rafael does a tri-tip BBQ every Friday evening, in the parking lot! It's pretty good.
Come on up.

7:26 PM  

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