When my grandparents announced that they would be making their annual trip to the Santa Ynez valley, I started salivating. This was in October.
Most of my memories are conjured up by food, some so lucid I can close my eyes and taste them. Such is the case when I think back to a trip I made with my grandparents in their motorhome in 2009. We traveled up over the Santa Barbara mountains and parked at a campground outside Buellton, near the Danish-inspired town of Solvang. What I remember most from that trip was the slab of beef I ate at the Hitching Post II, the restaurant made famous by its feature role in the movie Sideways.
On Friday I posted on Facebook that I was ten minutes away from what I remembered as the best steak of my life. I didn’t mention where I was. A friend responded: “Makes me think of the Hitching Post.”
“It was the Hitching Post!” I responded. I wasn’t aware that the place had a reputation outside California. Sure, it was in the movie. But did they eat steak in the movie? I had seen it recently and all I could remember from their meal was the wine.
“It’s listed on our book,” said my mother when I relayed the conversation. When my parents traverse the country in their motorhome, they have two guides: 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late and 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I routinely get email updates from my mother in which she will mention some place they went to because it was in the book, followed by a comment like, “in my opinion, you can just plain skip the west side of the state or drive fast through it,” or, “I am sorry if I offend anyone but I felt like I had stumbled into an assisted living complex.” I love my mother.
Since they arranged to meet us in Buellton this year in their motorhome, they were able to make it to the Hitching Post before it was too late. And I had the good fortune of them picking up the bill. Though The Best Steak of Your Life, an Angus rib chop served bone-in, is big enough that you can split it and still take some home, it will set you back $50.
A steak that stands up to memory
If you don’t already have it on your bucket list, the steaks at the Hitching Post are worth eating before you kick it. They prepare the meat in the style of California barbecue, which will surprise anyone used to saucy, Kansas City or Carolina style barbecue. (The California BBQ Association has some interesting FAQ about regional variations here.) At the Hitching Post they age the steaks and lace them in their “Magic Dust” spice blend before lowering them over an oakwood fire.
Having recently finished reading Two Years Before the Mast, eating meat cooked this way made me feel a part of California history, connecting me to a time when there were only a few scattered missions and presidios up and down the coast and cattle hides were the primary reason for trade. In the book, when the sailors finally made landfall after sailing from Boston, they went from eating a daily regimen of gruel to eating one cow each week!
Other things about the Hitching Post put you solidly in the 20th century. The plate of pickles that includes hamburger dills, radishes and celery sticks looks like it came out of the pages of a women’s magazine circa 1965. The decor is feeling its age. But the great thing about something as simple as a well-grilled slab of meat is that it doesn’t need to be updated to be delicious. It tasted exactly how I remembered it: charred and crunchy on the edges with little fat clusters that dissolve in your mouth, yet soft as butter in the inside.
After eating as much as I could, I cut the rest of the meat off the bone and sunk my teeth into the remaining flesh. It would not be the same tomorrow. Right at that moment, when the bone was still hot from the fire, that was the best time to suck on it. By tomorrow it will have dried out. I always feel a little funny gnawing on bones in a restaurant that has tablecloths, but then I imagine that if the chefs and the cooks could see me, they would surely see this as a complement. I’m also certain that those seated around me, genteelly eating their steaks with a knife and fork, are wishing they had the audacity to follow suit.
While the lifespan of a bone is short, I planned to give the leftover meat a second life. Indeed, two mornings later I revived it for breakfast. I sliced it ever-so-thin, warmed it ever-so-briefly, and served it with eggs over easy.