I should say that I spent a few of my very early years around there; Lompoc actually, where my dad was stationed at the Army DB as a prison psychiatrist during the Korean war. Yes, our family left and moved to Los Angeles but we returned many times over the years and eventually made the Alisal -- a dude ranch in Solvang -- our place for annual family reunions every Fourth of July week for decades.
Over the years, I came back on my own many times both as tourist (hey, I like it!), and also for a few equestrian events during my college years. So, I'm no stranger.
Going back to the Korean war years, my mom and dad loved the original incarnation of the Hitching Post, located not too far away from Buellton (home of the Hitching Post 2), in Casmalia; a place so famous that no one on CT other than me probably has the foggiest idea concerning. Let it be said, that there's not much difference between the original Hitching Post, the Hitching Post 1 (also in Casmalia), and the Hitching Post 2 in Buellton.
Now that we're talking about Buellton and Casmalia, you may wonder why I mentioned Solvang. You'll just have to trust me that there's a lot more in Solvang than Buellton and Casmalia by a long shot, and it's probably where you'll spend the night unless you opt for the flesh pots of Ballard or Los Olivos.
For what it's worth the HP2 was featured in Sidewise, the film by Alexander Payne; and what you saw in the film is pretty much what you get now, what you got in 1986, and what you got at the original Hitching Post when it opened in 1952. Perhaps the biggest difference is the way the modern Hitching Post reflects the way the business of the valley has gone from beef to wine.
It's not fair to say that the HP2 is all about beef; but it is all about California Beef Barbecue -- that is to say darn near everything is cooked over an open pit with a live, red oak fire at the magic mix of temperature, direct and indirect heat that makes California Barbecue its own special, wonderful thing.
I'm not sure that I'm an expert when it comes to California Barbecue, but I'm not sure that I'm not. Close call. Let's leave at this: It's something I do fairly often, do well, and its inherent simplicity and heavily reliance on using the right equipment, good ingredients and not screwing the ingredients up with over complication, carelessness or inattention to detail has a lot to do with forming my overall culinary viewpoint.
Again, it's not fair to say that the HP2 is really a steak house (but not fair to say that it isn't) because it's such a throwback to an earlier time. On the other hand, it's fair to say that it's a fifties' steak house pretty much with some menu updates and a very well constructed and sensitive wine list. It should also be mentioned that the HP bottles its own wines.
The beef is mid-western, corn-fed, aged and Prime.Dress is casual, and the clientele is a good mix of locals and tourists -- emphasis on locals. Prices are fair for the type of food and the wine country locale. Good value, but not cheap.
Linda and I ate there twice in the last three months. This review will fall very flat if I keep describing each dish as excellent, so just figure everything was excellent unless I say otherwise, which ain't happenin'.
On our both visits we shared two starters, the grilled artichoke and the mushrooms. On the first visit, Linda didn't have an alcoholic cocktail; but I had a couple of very good martinis and they were served exactly as specified. Linda had the filet mignon, I had the (huge) beef rib chop. We had the 2005 Cork Dancer Pinot Noir with our meat.
The artichoke is trimmed so that the points are removed but most of the tender leaves are left on the heart, the heart is de-choked, and the globe is barely cooked in water heavily seasoned with garlic, then finished on the grill with garlic scented oil and the house dry rub, "magic dust." It's served with a chipotle mayonnaise.
The mushrooms are left whole, cooked on the oak grill with magic dust, and finished in a red wine reduction. A couple of surprises compared to ordinary "steak house mushrooms. The first is far less garlic than you'd ordinarily expect, and the second is the wine itself. I'm not sure what they use, and forgot to ask both times, but whatever it is, it's fruity as all get out.
In addition the special "starters," complete meals come with the usual app suspects such as soup, salad, bay shrimp cocktail, etc., all of which are well prepared but none worthy of loving description here. You won't be disappointed but you won't interrupt your meal to email your BFF either.
The steak, on the other hand... well, this is what's "Santa Maria Barbecue" is all about. If you want instructions we can talk. In the meantime... tastes exactly like well-seasoned, excellent beef, cooked over oak should taste like. It's served without sauce, but with a salsa cruda very typical of the area and which most of you would think of a finely chopped "pico de gallo." Linda had her filet rare, I had my rib chop medium rare (because I think rare rib is a little greasy). Both were perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned and in all respects sublime.
On our second trip, Linda did have a cocktail, a Pina Colada which was made with some interesting bartending but not exceptional. I had whiskey. Linda didn't drink wine with dinner, I had a pretty good Syrah, the 2005 Big Circle.
Linda had the single, pork, bone-in rib chop while I had the large (15 oz) top sirloin. Pork chops were meant to be cooked over oak. Top Sirloin is the quintessential California Barbecue cut, even more so than tri-tip although you'd hardly believe it considering the run tri-tip gets these days.
Meanwhile, back at the subject... Linda's pork chop was medium/medium-well, cooked just the way she likes, not "crunchy" in any way -- she didn't specify doneness, apparently that's just the way they come. I ordered my sirloin rare and it game perfectly, gloriously, not quite mooing rare. While not as tender as a filet, a New York or a rib-eye, the true taste of beef exploded with every chew. What was that word? Ah, yes. Sublime. And yes, I used the salsa.
The desserts are steak house typical -- cheesecake with fruit puree, brulee, and so on. Very good, but no run to text your other bff. Frankly, if you've got room for dessert you did something wrong.
We took ours "to go" and had them the next morning with coffee in the jacuzzi.
The Hitching Post is not inexpensive but not as expensive as a "brand name," top flight urban steak place either. Dinner for two including appetizers, premium call cocktails, first class wine, dessert and tip will fall well south of the $200 plus you'd spend at Morton's or even at a Ruth's Chris. Each of our evenings at the HP2 was around $160 inclusive.
I love the Hitching Post. To my mind, it's on the very short list of America's great steak houses. If and when you ever get to the area, I hope you try and love it too.
Edited by boar_d_laze - 5/15/12 at 10:09pm