Smoke and BBQ, California Style

If California has a barbecue style, let it be exactly like Aptos St. BBQ’s.

Aptos St. BBQ is in Aptos, which is in Santa Cruz County on the central coast, and one town over from Santa Cruz. In other words, Aptos is not Memphis or St. Louis or Austin, or any other place in America where barbecue is part of smoke-pit culture. Despite this, five-year-old Aptos St. BBQ does feel very much a part of local culture.

In Aptos generally, you sense historical bleed-through from the faded batik of Big Sur in the Beat Era (the novelist Thomas Pynchon and the composer Lou Harrison both lived here), and the dank-weed dude world of Santa Cruz. At Aptos St. BBQ, with its found-object collage wall backing the low-rise blues stage, it’s not hard to imagine Pynchon or Harrison sauntering in for thick slices of beef tri-tip smoked outside in the smudged black Yoder smoker, sitting down next to the stoner kid with an Amish-style chin-buff beard and big fleece hoodie.

The wainscoting is painted the green of oxidized copper; dishtowels pinned to sagging clotheslines serve as slacker curtains; a box of kindling scraps is marked “table leveln' sticks,” as if the act of keeping your table from rocking (as well as supplying the drop-off letters from “leveln'”) is all on you, bro: Go for it. There are 37 taps on the beer wall, and some really delicious meats coming out of those smokers in the side lot. That’s the main thing.

The tri-tip, in particular, is delicious. The first time I had it—fat slices piled into a split bun like ciabatta—its flavor, juice retention, and the elastic pull of its grain astonished me. The second time it was drier but still good, though this time I fell in love with the angry cubes of sauce-steeped beef in the Rajun’ Bull. It was the only non-chill thing in the room. That’s Cali for you.

Photos by Chris Rochelle