A steel-lined chuck wagon holds the oak log fire
Spring Street at La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Danae Kaler and Julene Morgan stir up a new batch of root beer
The two old crones stir the vats surrounded by circling bats.
Okay, no bats. No quoting from Macbeth. No crones. But these gals really are stirring up brews in vats, with billows of fog coming out.
I’ve just snuck under the flap of this tent here. Can’t believe my eyes. Half a dozen buckets fill the center table, each with snake-brown liquid swirling in the bottom, and white vapors frothing over the top. The two women, Julene and Danae, walk around with giant whisks, stirring vat after vat.
“Dry ice,” says Julene. She’s Danae’s mom. “It cools the root beer right down.”
Root beer? Being made in a tent?
This all just happened by chance. Like, I get off the trolley at La Mesa Boulevard around seven at night and find the village’s main street is one big party. Oktoberfest! It’s clogged with tents and carny midway attractions, and lots of sauntering people. Halfway up the main drag I notice this line of people. Guy’s calling, “Homemade root beer! Made right here!” He and his four assistants, all dressed in 1920s Chicago gangster duds, can hardly handle the demand.
Dang. I love a good root beer. “So, you really make it here?” I ask the guy.
J.P. Morgan (yes, his real name) cleans up like his namesake
“Go see for yourself,” he says. Name’s J.P. Morgan. Really, he says. “In the tent at back. Ask the ladies.”
So I do, and after I’m back outside, I almost join the line.
But then the nostrils start picking up stray whiffs of BBQ smoke. I see it’s coming from down Third, past the First Republic Bank. Spot a bona fide chuckwagon. Now I’m down there. Flames lick up from it toward an iron rack loaded with cuts of meat. Behind the glow, a red tent, and I see another line of shadowy customers straggling clear across Third.
“Hunter Steakhouse,” reads the canvas sign. “Established 1970. Tri Tip & More.”
They’re from Oceanside. I stare at the big log fire sparking away in the metal-lined wagon. Man. This is a BBQ. The cook — name’s Bogart — hand-cranks the meat rack up so he can pick off the cooked pieces of meat. “Takes two hours for tri-tip,” he says, wiping the smoke tears from his eyes. With the breeze blowing the cinders straight at him, he looks half-cooked himself.
I check the price list at the red tent. “Santa Maria Style,” it says. Never heard of that. A tri-tip sandwich goes for $8, and so do all the other sandwiches, chicken, pulled pork, and tri-tip or chicken Caesar salad. Veggie or cheeseburgers cost $6, hot dogs $5, and sautéed mushrooms and onions, $1 extra.
They also have a combo of any of the sandwiches, which come with beans and “fresh red skin potato salad,” for $11. Or the same combo with the burger or dog for $9.
Drinking companions: Andy, Wendy, Garrett
So I join the line, and ten minutes later, I’m ordering the tri-tip combo. And quicker’n you can say “Santa Maria,” the cheery gal Janet has slapped mine together and hands it out through the tent’s service hole.
I head alongside the chuck wagon to a stand-up table where two ladies, Garrett and her daughter Wendy, and Andy, Wendy’s really bright kid, are chowing down on dogs and beans. I ask if they’ll guard my meal while I go and get a root beer from the Bootleg Brew stall. Ten more minutes later (have to wait in their line, too), I’ve paid seven bucks and come back with my reusable bottle of root beer — it has a ceramic and rubber cap with a lever on it. (You can go back and refill it for $2.) Plus a couple of plastic tumblers to share this stuff around.
Garrett, Wendy, Andy, and I raise a toast to good root beer. “And this is the real McCoy,” says Garrett. “Sarsaparilla root. But often the Indians make it out of yucca root.”
Oh, man. I suddenly get it. Root beer. This is a beer made from the actual roots of things. Sassafras, sarsaparilla, yucca plants. Turns out it’s a Native American medicinal drink from way before Mayflower.
Now I’m chowing into my tri-tip. It has a good, sweet BBQ sauce all over it. “Very tasty,” I say to Bogart.
“That’s the Santa Maria style,” he says through the smoke. “We always use red oak — coast live oak.”
“And the beans?”
“Pinquito beans,” he says.
Seems pinquito beans are little pink beans native to Santa Maria Valley, up in Santa Barbara County. Turns out “Santa Maria style” is not just a name. The tradition started in Santa Maria Valley back around the 1850s, when rancho bosses would hold big feasts for their vaqueros every spring.
Santa Maria–style spices are simple: Black pepper, salt, and garlic salt. The tri-tip cut was added more recently: they say that in the 1950s, a Santa Maria butcher named Bob Schultz discovered he could cut a tender triangular morsel from the bottom sirloin, and “tri-tip” became part of the Santa Maria style. And the world discovered tri-tip. Maybe thank Ronald Reagan: he staged five Santa Maria–style barbecues on the South Lawn of the White House during his time.
Heading back to the trolley, I nail the Oktoberfest tradition by stopping in at Tiramisu, the Italian eatery, order their 28-ounce stein of actual Oktoberfest beer. Kolshella. Costs $8. And...why not? I order the house tiramisu (delish, like a soggy coffee-dipped cake) for $6. Odd combo with the beer, but I love ’em both.
Meanwhile, guess I’m gonna have to hit Oceanside and try the actual Hunter restaurant. See if it’s as good as its chuck wagon.
The Place: La Mesa Oktoberfest, La Mesa Boulevard, downtown La Mesa; Hunter Steakhouse, 1221 Vista Way, Oceanside, 760-433-2633
Prices: Tri-tip BBQ sandwich, $8; chicken sandwich, $8; pulled pork sandwich, $8; tri-tip Caesar salad, $8; veggie burger, $6; cheeseburger, $6; hot dog, $5; combo tri-tip sandwich, pinquito beans, potato salad, $11; same combo with burger or hot dog, $9.
Buses: 1, 7
Nearest bus stop: La Mesa Boulevard trolley
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: La Mesa Boulevard (at Spring Street)