In a cloud of red-oak smoke, the owners of Columbia Beach Barbecue transform a cut of beef into an unassuming, culinary masterpiece that evokes the cowboy country of Santa Maria Valley.
The little bit of magic is being cooked up on the island and served to hungry islanders, prompting grateful thanks to an extended family on South Whidbey with roots that go deep into the community at the heart of California’s Central Coast.
Justin Goodwin, born and raised in Santa Maria, moved to Whidbey last year to help run the barbecue business started a month earlier by his mother, Nancy Akada, and her husband, Randy Akada. They are often aided by Goodwin’s grandparents and a spare cousin, all from the same area.
Goodwin said it had long been a dream of his to start a Santa Maria-style barbecue business on Whidbey, where the wonders of this particular style of grilling are still a mystery. After years of little notice, much of the world is finally catching on to Santa Maria barbecue.
“We wanted to bring something to the island that we knew was missing,” he said.
While Goodwin hopes to someday open a restaurant or a permanent stand, for now Columbia Beach Barbecue can be found at farmers markets and festivals on the island, as well as private parties. The business is named after the Whidbey beach where the Akadas live.
The secret is in the wood. Goodwin explained that the dry countryside of his hometown is teeming with red oak trees. The barbecue tradition started at cattle ranches, where cowboys cooked up entire animals on open fire pits fueled by the ubiquitous oak. It was like discovering gold.
“Oak wood gives it a unique, smoky taste you just can’t get from any other wood,” Goodwin said.
Today, the streets of Santa Maria are lined each weekend with freelance barbecue pits brimming with tri-tip steak, a bottom sirloin cut that is celebrated in the area. Also, there’s plenty of ribs, chicken and linguica, a spicy Portuguese sausage.
Columbia Beach Barbecue offers a completely authentic menu, plus more. The owners brought with them specialized Santa Maria-style barbecue grills, which have cooking grills that can be cranked closer or further from the coals.
Goodwin travels all the way to California to purchase cords of the red oak, which they use for all the grilling. This year he brought back 750 pounds of pinquito beans, a small, tasty legume that only grows in Santa Maria.
Following the tradition, they barbecue tri-tip steak, chicken, pork ribs and linguica. The tri-tip is served in a sandwich with a side of pinquito beans, or carb-conscious folks can get all meat, all the time.
In addition, Columbia Beach offers food with more of a Northwest flair. They barbecue portabello mushrooms, the occasional fish and artichokes, which have been wildly popular.
“Down in Santa Maria, you don’t see them cooking many vegetables on the grill,” Goodwin admitted.
So far, the barbecuers have had their greatest success at the Bayview Farmers Market, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They will also be at the Coupeville Arts and Crafts Festival and the Island County Fair. They occasionally make it to farmers markets in Coupeville and Greenbank.
Their island-wide catering business has also taken off. Goodwin said they offer very reasonable prices and they will barbecue just about anything customers may want to eat.
“We’ve never had a dissatisfied customer,” he said. “Everyone who has tried our food loves it.”
Hungry people can contact Columbia Beach Barbecue at 360-341-2109, send an email to email@example.com or check out www.columbiabeach