Restaurant News & Reviews

Old San Luis BBQ Co. serves up Santa Maria-style classics

It’s said that good things come in small packages. In the case of Old San Luis BBQ Co., good things also come out of small storefronts.

Matt Pearce’s diminutive new eatery on Higuera is really just that — a walk-up window where you place and receive your oak-grilled order. From there, the dining ambiance depends on Mother Nature, but that’s not so bad given the climate that San Luis Obispo enjoys.

Several tables just outside Old San Luis BBQ get shared in an easygoing, ebb-andflow demand with the adjacent coffeehouse. Many customers also get their food to go and enjoy an al fresco picnic in nearby Mission Plaza or overlooking San Luis Creek.

Pearce came to the area a dozen years ago from Simi Valley to attend Cal Poly. After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, he got a job in that field but found himself gravitating toward food because “I’ve always loved cooking.” Armed with that outlook and experience working in fast food and fast casual, he began doing some catering on the weekends.

About four years ago, a friend introduced him to a cuisine he’d never heard of before — Santa Maria-style barbecue. Pearce became an immediate fan, reveling in the history of the local culinary tradition, and learning the time-honored recipes and methods of his friend’s Nipomo family.

“I couldn’t believe I’d never had this type of food, it’s so much a part of the local culture,” recalled Pearce. “And I was surprised that there’s a relative lack of Santa Maria-style barbecue in the area (beyond full-service, sit-down restaurants).”

Pearce began working the cuisine into his catering menus, and eventually established Old San Luis BBQ Co. as a presence at a couple local farmers markets.

Through that process, he realized that he “really liked the casual, walk-up type of restaurant concept.” Thoughts of a food truck morphed into the Higuera Street location, which opened in June after several months of re-configuring a former retail space to hold a red oak-fired grilling pit.

By design, the menu is limited, in part to be true to the original cuisine and also because of space constraints. At its core, it’s indeed classic Santa Maria-style barbecue: tri-tip, chicken, linguica, pinquito beans, and garlic bread.

Pearce has rounded that out a bit with fresh-cut French fries, a BBQ Chef Salad and a Strawberry Field Salad — both salads made with “locally farmed mixed greens” — plus a couple of ice cream treats such as hand-scooped milkshakes.

He added that “we hand-trim the tri-tips (which are certified Angus beef) and cook them throughout the day — they’re not just sitting around — and the salsa, barbecue sauce and all but one of the salad dressings are made from scratch.”

Order up the tri-tip or chicken in a “Pit Plate” with garlic bread, plus your choice of beans, fries, or Cowboy Corn Pie. The latter is another family recipe that’s been adapted just enough so it can be served as a wedge of moist savory cornbread with minced jalapeños and whole corn kernels.

You can also opt for tri-tip or chicken sliders, and both those meats and the Cattaneo Brothers linguica are available in sandwiches served on French or sourdough rolls from Brian’s Bread in Atascadero.

“Our motto is ‘Fresh. Local. Authentic.’ So obviously we want to support local businesses as much as we can,” said Pearce. “We also want to give people a really good product at a fair price.”

Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at ktbudge@sbc .