Chili-Rubbed Smoked Tri-Tip

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Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 60 minutes
Servings: 8

This dish is to central California what pulled pork is to North Carolina. The first time cookbook author Fred Thompson had tri-tip this way was at a convenience store in the heart of artichoke country, south of San Francisco. The meat was cooked on a gas grill out behind the store and it was so good, Thompson talked the cook out of his recipe. Here it is.


For the pico de gallo: 

  • 3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped 
  • 1/2 cup diced red onion 
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro 
  • 1 jalapeño chili, seeded and diced 
  • Juice of 3 limes 
  • Kosher salt, to taste  
  • 1 tri-tip roast, about 3 lb.  
  • 1 Tbs. chili powder  
  • 1 tsp. garlic salt 
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste 
  • About 4 cups wood chips, soaked in water, beer or apple cider for 30 minutes  


To make the pico de gallo, in a bowl, stir together the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, jalapeño and lime juice. Season with salt. Let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend. The salsa will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

About 1 hour before you are ready to begin grilling, remove the roast from the refrigerator. Season the roast on all sides with the chili powder, garlic salt and a generous amount of pepper.

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for smoking over medium heat; the temperature inside the grill should be 350° to 375°F. If using charcoal, bank the lit coals on either side of the grill bed, leaving a strip in the center without heat. Place a drip pan in the center strip and fill the pan with water. Add about 2 cups of the wood chips to the fire just before grilling. If using gas, fill the smoker box with up to 2 cups of the wood chips, then preheat the grill. Turn off 1 or more of the burners to create a cooler zone. Brush and oil the grill grate.

Place the roast on the grill over the direct-heat area and sear, turning as needed, until browned but not charred on all sides, 15 to 20 minutes total. Move the roast to the indirect-heat area, cover the grill, and cook for about 45 minutes for medium-rare or 1 hour for medium, adding the remaining wood chips after about 30 minutes. Tri-tip roasts come in different shapes—some are squat, and some are more rounded—so cooking times will vary. Remove the roast when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 130°F for medium-rare or 135°F for medium.

Transfer the roast to a cutting board, cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 15 minutes. Slice very thinly against the grain, capturing any released juices, and arrange on a platter. Pour any accumulated juices over the top and serve immediately with the pico de gallo. Serves 6 to 8 with leftovers.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Grill Master, by Fred Thompson (Weldon Owen, 2011).

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