Tri-tip: A Food Question

The question’s simple enough, aimed mostly at people outside the U.S. “far west”:

Have you ever heard of tri-tip? Do supermarkets in your area sell it?

Here’s the background. Two Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a biannual get-together of a distantly-related family (she’s doing genealogical research, located these folks, answered some questions from them, got invited). In the Altamont pass wind-farm country (near Livermore). The primary barbecue was tri-tip–marinated and seasoned.

Last Sunday, my wife and I went to my brother’s first-anniversary party, at his house in Livermore. He provided the barbequed meat and drink. The meat was tri-tip, marinated and seasoned.

We were in Santa Maria year before last, and of course I had tri-tip for dinner, since Santa Maria tri-tip is a key local dish.

At the get-together and again at the first anniversary, people familiar with the meat industry said that tri-tip is unknown outside of the West–that it gets used for hamburger or sold as parts of different cuts elsewhere. It’s a tricky cut: It really needs thin-slicing and typically marinade to avoid being too tough to eat. But it’s also a great barbecue meat when it is marinated and thinly sliced. (One of my favorite lunch spots, years ago, used to serve a tri-tip sandwich once in a while: Great.)

So: Is this a Western urban legend? Do you get tri-tip in New York or Texas (well, Texas may count as “the west”) or Illinois or Great Britain or Australia or Toronto or Wisconsin?

(We’re finishing a trifecta today, really unusual for a not-terribly-sociable couple: Going to brunch today with a dear long-time friend…once again, in Livermore, but this time in a restaurant. I suspect tri-tip won’t be on the menu.)

Beyond that: We seem to be well into stone fruit season, and the local farmer’s market is rich with great peaches, superb plums, wonderful apricots, and magnificent cherries. We’re hoping to get a few Blenheim apricots from our own tree, but the birds may beat us to it… I do love stone fruit season, particularly as it ends the several-week near-drought of fresh local fruit!

27 Responses to “Tri-tip: A Food Question”

  1. T Scott says:

    I was raised in Wisconsin and have lived in Washington DC, St. Louis MO, and Birmingham AL. Never heard of tri-tip. (On the other hand, I never heard of “St. Louis style pork ribs” until I after I moved away from St. Louis).

  2. Never heard of tri-tip out here in Massachusetts!

  3. Lynn says:

    I’d never heard of tri-tip while I lived in Alberta, but when I moved to South Texas – I saw it used quite a bit in BBQ. It is also quite common in Mexico.

    I’ve also had tri-tip sliced into “triangle steaks” while living in Toronto. This is a very British dish and my friends who made it had to get the tri-tip from a butcher as the local supermarket didn’t carry it.

    My husband, who’s from South Carolina, had never heard of tri-tip before he started his chef’s training.

  4. Paul Mills says:

    I have not heard of tri-tip here in northern Illinois, but am intrigued!

  5. Steve Lawson says:

    I have lived in “the west” (Denver, Austin, San Diego, and now Colorado Springs) and I have never heard of “tri-tip.”

    This tri-tip; it is beef?

  6. Phil Bradley says:

    Never heard of it in the UK either. Though to be fair, and in the spirit of disclosure I’m a vegetarian so I probably wouldn’t notice anyhow, but I’m fairly sure you’ll get blank looks from other Brits.

  7. I’ve lived in Michigan, New York, Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, Massachusets, and the Kansas City Metro Area (as well as the UK, Ecuador, and Japan), and I’ve never heard of “tri-tip.”

  8. Pete says:

    To back Phil up… *blank stare* And I do eat meat.

  9. walt says:

    Steve: Yes, it’s beef. Everybody: We seem to have pretty good confirmation that tri-tip is a western specialty (Santa Maria being the heartland, much as San Antonio was apparently the birthplace of fajitas, using another cut of beef that most butchers couldn’t bother with, namely skirt steak).

    Niman Ranch (one of the top local producers of first-rate grassfed beef) offers this description: “A great value with a lot of flavor and tenderness. This cut hails from the sirloin tip of the loin, where three muscles come together. Marinate with red wine and garlic then grill at high heat for the “Santa Maria roast”, a California favorite since the days of the rancheros.”

    Thus “tri-tip.” Note that even with Niman beef’s superior tenderness (I’ve only had Niman meat once or twice, but it is great stuff), they say to marinate tri-tip. A tri-tip runs 1.5 to 2 lbs, and there are two of them per animal, which means they make lousy displays in traditional butcher shops: Not enough of them, and they’re funny-looking. I think one great strength (picked up from another website) is that the shape of the whole tri-tip means that, when the thickest part is rare, there will be a good gradation from medium-rare to well: You get a whole range of doneness in a single bbq.

    Hmm. I wouldn’t have expected this: Wikipedia has a brief article on tri-tip.

  10. Ruth Ellen says:

    When I was a child my mother used to make Triangle Tip roast. It was never marinated and it was cooked in the oven. It was tough and not particularly tasty, even the pinker parts. I could never figure out what the point was. Now I know why. I’ll have to try it marinated and grilled.

  11. Kaijsa says:

    I’ve eaten tri-tip in Washington state, and now Wyoming. I didn’t know it was a particularly western, but that’s interesting. Kind of like how the butter sticks in the west are short and squat (the “western stubby”), when they’re longer and thinner elsewhere.

  12. walt says:

    Ruth Ellen: I think tri-tip almost needs marination or VERY thin slicing to work well. Kaijsa: Re butter–interesting. Where we shop, it depends on brand…but yes, most brands are short and squat. Land’o’Lakes just switched. Fortunately, Safeway’s O/Organic is thin-and-long, which I much prefer.

  13. Angel says:

    Living in Houston now, and this is the first I have heard of it. Neither did I hear of it in my travels to San Antonio, nor from family up in Fort Worth. Certainly not when I lived back in Texas. But hey, it’s meat, you can barbecue it. It’s all good (if you like meat that is). Best, and keep on blogging.

  14. Angel says:

    I meant when I was back in Indiana (I am already in Texas…oops).

  15. holly says:

    A Washingtonian confirming that this is likely a West Coast phenom. I’ve actually had this conversation with other people from different parts of the country!

  16. walt says:

    Holly: Deleted the presumably accidental partial duplicate. Interesting.

  17. Jackie says:

    Commenting on your final paragraph, I spent last weekend on bird duty trying to protect my Blenheim apricot tree. Tried hanging a small windchime from a branch hoping the sound and movement would scare the birds away, nope. Only thing that worked was running outside every 1/2 hour or so yelling at them. I’ll probably get home from work today to find the tree lacking all its fruit.

    How do you tell when an apricot is ripe? When all you find is a pit beneath the tree.

    The birds really seem to know the momment of peak ripeness.

  18. walt says:

    Jackie, So true. We’ve seen some apricot trees with nets around certain branches, but that’s…well, difficult. When you can get them first, Blenheim apricots are magnificent. Can’t blame the birds for agreeing, I suppose.

  19. Adam says:

    I live in Chicago and I buy the Tri-Tip cut often. I like it well. It seems that it is usually included in other cuts, so that is probably why many folks don’t see it.

  20. Carolyn says:

    Yes, I’ve heard of tri-tip. In fact, there’s a recipe in either Bon Apetit or Cooking Light this month that features that cut. I’ve lived up and down the East Coast, and now live just outside DC. Sounds like you treat the tri-tip similarly to London Broil. Marinate and slice thin, and it’ll work.

  21. Aaron says:

    Yup heard of it. Love it and cooked the hell out of plenty of them. I grew up in Cali and never had a problem finding it. I generally would let them marinade at least 24 hours. I find stabbing it quite a bit prior to marinding makes the meat mor flavorful and tender. I have recently moved to Tx and am trying to find it….if I can’t find it I feel it may be my duty…perhaps my sole duty in life to introduce this fine cut of meat to the people of Tx.

  22. walt says:

    You should be able to find it in Texas. That seems to be the second home of tri-tip. But who knows?

  23. Gin says:

    I work for a Nevada owned and operated grocery chain, and every weekend for 6 months we bar-b-que appx. 100 tri tips per day at each store on big pits in our parking lot. We do NOT marinate. We have our own special blend of seasonings. Lots of garlic. This is by far the best meat I’ve ever tasted. People almost fight over who is going to get the first one off the bar-b-que pit. I come from a very large family, and they all live in Texas. They have never heard of Tri Tip. That makes me sad. They don’t know what they are missing. I hear they grind it up for hamburger, since there only two per cow. The Tri Tip is the roast at the bottom of the Sirloin, sometimes called the triangle roast. It is NOT tough if you know how to cook it and slice it. It needs to be seered on all sides to seal in the juice, then , slow smoked to 150 degrees in the thickest part. It needs to be cut against the grain, and since it is three muscles that come together, you need to watch and turn it twice to make sure you are always cutting against the grain. It is very juicy, very tender and very tasty. Yum! Yum!

  24. David says:

    Gin is absolutely right. Tri-tip is fantastic with a rub – even just salt and pepper is great – (or marinated) and grilled (although smoked and/or cooked over low heat is even better). I ate it all the time when I lived in Southern California, but here in New York, the only place I have seen it is at Trader Joe’s (which has its roots in CA). We had one today cooked on a basic kettle grill, with a basic rub, and smoked over wood chips and coals. Awesome. It was nicely complemented by the smoke from the fireworks above the East River, which almost completely obscured the show.

  25. Ryan says:

    I too grew up in the Chicago and had never heard of tri-tip. However I went to college in San Luis Obispo (SLO), CA which seems to be the Holy Grail of tri-tip as it is just down the road from Santa Maria and on the central coast, and I fell in love with this stuff. If you ever are in SLO, which is great place to visit, it would be a crime if you did not treat yourself to a tri-tip from one of (or both!!) these places:'s

  26. Pat says:

    Tomorrow I’ll be smoking 5 tri tips with hickory and apple woods. YUM! I live in San Jose, CA by the way.

  27. Ashley says:

    I live in St. Louis, Mo and I first had some tri tip from Springfield, Mo. When we got back to St. Louis we were told by a butcher here that it was just the “wrong” way of cutting a certain cut of meat. If anyone knows where to get it in St. Louis let me know.