By Anni Caporuscio

On Open Mic Night, Paniolo is a festive full house with an impressive set of community-charged music.

Guys, I had so much fun! I went to the Paniolo Santa Maria Style BBQ in Old Kapa‘a Town on a Wednesday night, which happens to be a rockin’ Open Mic night. I saw live music, saw old friends, and ate Santa Maria style barbecue. It was a great night!

The location has been fashioned into a cowboy-style woodhouse, full of early 20th century memorabilia, and old ranch pictures and paraphernalia. Several single tables and some family-style benches are spread the covered outdoor dining area. The whole place was full of people giving attention to and participating with the music (the house band that night was Animal Dream accompanying the acts), all with the pervading scent of barbecue.

The Diaz family is originally from Santa Maria, on the Central Coast of California. Santa Maria is famous for barbecue, which I knew growing up in Southern Cal. Jared Diaz gave me a little history about barbecue and culture on the Central Coast; the guy is brimming with knowledge.

The Cheeseburger is big meat, served with barbecue sauce, cheese and salsa on a hearty bun. The meat has that smoky homemade feel to it that I love about a burger. And those fries!

Back in the 1930s, Hispanic communities in California were primarily ranchers. Our Hawaiian pidgin for cowboy is “paniolo,” which comes from “hispaniolo,” the Spanish slang for cowboy. Many hispaniolos moved to Hawai‘i to work for royalty, helping them handle their new livestock, so local culture includes an element of Mexicana. The ranchers would give to the ranch hands the “top block” of the cow as their portion for food and keep the rest. The ranch hands would cook it over a redwood fire. The top block contains cuts like top sirloin and also tri-tip.

A Santa Maria butcher claimed he discovered the tri-tip cut in the 1950s. He who would cut the three muscles in a triangle off the hip of the cow, and sell it for real cheap. Santa Marians would marinate and dry rub it, and eventually it became famous for the preparation.

Santa Maria’s specialty, the tri-tip is cooked in “pits,” But it is a modern version of a pit, which is a tricked out stainless steel barbecue wagon that can withstand high heat. These pits are so common in Santa Maria that you can spot them on every corner on a Saturday, and high school kids learn to weld them in shop class.

Tri-Tip Plate, with garden salad. Tri-Tip itself is serious meat. It’s not the tender, fall-off-the-bone kind, but a good cut of not-fatty muscle. The dry rub gives it a crispy seasoned edge, not crispy-burned, but crispy-don’t-want-to-share. It’s served with a family recipe chili beans, green salad and topped with salsa that keeps everything nice and juicy.

These pits produce some serious flames, and the cooking takes much less time than a smoking barbecue method would take. Every self-respecting Santa Maria family has their own process of cooking the meat. What you get on Kaua‘i is the Diaz family’s specific style.

On any given night, Jared is cooking, or his brother, dad, mom, nephew, friends; all in the family. They use a combination of a dry rub and a marinade, both house made. But I didn’t ask all the secrets because we all love a good mystery, and I’m from Southern Cal, not Central Cal, it’s not for me to know.

While tri-tip is Paniolo’s specialty, there is also a full menu of salads, sandwiches, plates, hamburgers (possibly my favorite food) and grilled seafood. Gluten free? Try a tri-tip salad. Vegetarian? Try the chunky bean chili and rice, or Paniolo Nachos.

Another of their specialties is live music, which you can hear every night that they’re open, Monday through Saturday, with Open Mic on Wednesday.

Find Paniolo in Old Kapa‘a Town in the old Roxy Theatre Square, at 4-1345 Kuhio Hwy, lunch and dinner service.

  • Anni Caporuscio is a food lover and can be found daily at her Kapa‘a business, Small Town Coffee.