The primal act of cooking over fire is a truly satisfying way to feed your friends and family–but fire is an unpredictable heat source that can be difficult to conquer. Combine that with a multitude of barbecue distractions, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Burnt tri-tip? Try again.

To help you with that, some of San Diego’s most talented chefs and grill masters have shared their secrets to BBQ success with us. From seafood to steaks and veggie options, here are some recommendations for sensational summer grilling.

Tomahawk Steaks That Wow

James Montejano

James Montejano, the executive chef at International Smoke Del Mar, has noticed tomahawk steaks becoming increasingly popular as a grill option. “There’s something very appealing about the long bone. We’re seeing tomahawks pop up on menus all over the city right now. I get it—people ‘ooh and ah’ over it. Sometimes it can be intimidating, but if you know what to look for and how to prepare it at home, it’s an impressive yet simple presentation. Be sure to preorder it in advance online at a local butcher like Seaside Market. Flannery beef also sells tomahawks and mini-tomahawks.”

For these larger format cuts that take longer to cook, technology is key. Montejano recommends, “Invest in a good meat thermometer. There are great ones out there now that are digital with Bluetooth. It gives you a chance to sit back, have a beer and it texts you when it’s ready!”

Coal Roasted Cabbage

Tara Monsod

Chef Tara Monsod from ANIMAE shares that cleanliness is next to deliciousness, especially when it comes to your grill. “A clean grill makes grilling so much easier! Treat your grill like a cast iron pan. Before you start and when you finish, make sure you give your grill a good scrub with a grill brush, a wipe down with a towel, and coat with neutral oil. Burn off any excess residue to prevent your food from sticking to the grill, which will also make your food look and taste even better.”

Image: ANIMAE.

Once your grill is prepped, it’s time for the veggies. “Cut your vegetables into sizable pieces where you are not fighting to hold on to them. You can always cut the vegetables smaller when you’re done grilling. Cutting vegetables lengthwise or keeping them whole will make the grilling process easier. One of my favorite vegetables to grill is cabbage. A whole cabbage can be thrown directly into the coals, causing the outside layer to get dark and charred while the natural moisture from the cabbage steams the inside. You’ll get a smokey flavor from the coals and a soft texture. Peel away the outside layer, cut up the soft center, and finish with some lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, herbs, and salt and pepper.”

Yummy Yellowtail

JoJo Ruiz

Include San Diego’s fresh seafood on your grill, says JoJo Ruiz, executive chef of Serēa at Hotel del Coronado and Lionfish at Pendry San Diego. “For a delicious fish option, I always recommend grilling local yellowtail. Not only is it the easiest to grill, but it’s also the most versatile and, in my opinion, it has the best flavor. Yellowtail is great marinated for a healthy grilled fish option and is equally amazing in tacos. When grilling on the bbq, first and foremost, the grill always needs to be HOT. Properly seasoning your fish with oil is also super important as that will keep your fish from sticking to the grill. I would also recommend seasoning the fish with a rub but again, make sure there is a good amount of oil on the fish to avoid sticking. For timing, the fish will tell you when it is ready to be flipped or pulled off. The biggest mistake grillers make is touching and flipping their fish too much. Leave it alone!"

Ribs You Can’t Ruin

Kevin Templeton and Rich Sweeney

Image: The Smoking Gun.

When cooking ribs, Kevin Templeton, executive chef of barleymash and consultant for The Smoking Gun, recommends using bacon fat in the recipe, which will help make the ribs fall off the bone tender. “After you’ve added seasoning to your ribs, you can spread the bacon fat evenly, on both sides, wrap the ribs in aluminum foil, and grill over low heat for approximately an hour.” Templeton uses hardwood smoked bacon fat which adds a smokey element to the ribs.

Rich Sweeney, executive chef at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens Liberty Station, opts for pork ribs and—of course—uses beer to make them juicy. “To get the juiciest pork ribs when grilling at home, make sure you get them in some brine. I like a combination of sugar, salt, water and beer. Stone Delicious IPA makes for a great brine base, but I might be a little partial to it. Get your ribs in the brine at least the day before, and let them take on the salty-sweet-Stone-spike goodness that will carry over to the grill. Be sure to let them dry off well before you get them ready for the grill. Cook them covered over indirect medium heat for 30 minutes on each side, then move to medium direct heat for about 30 or so minutes more until tender. And if you're gonna get saucy with some BBQ sauce, wait until the end of the cooking process to ensure your sauce doesn't burn.”

Not-so-basic Burgers

William Eick

Shrimp Burger. Image: William Eick.

William Eick, owner of Naegi and Matsu, breaks down what makes a burger such a barbecue staple and how to replace it with seafood or vegetarian options that still pack a punch. “Typically for the best burger, nothing is better than a dry aged chuck. Chuck has the right balance of fat and muscle to give the best blend, while the dry aging intensifies the flavor of the beef. Trying to replicate this with seafood or vegetables can be quite difficult, however, I look at it from a flavor profile standpoint. There has to be a balance of sweet, salt, fat, bitter, acid and savory (umami). For seafood, something like salmon or shrimp can be easily used. Salmon is great because of the fat content, but a ground salmon should not be put on a grill because it will fall apart without some sort of binding agent. In my honest opinion, the best seafood ‘burgers’ are more fried fish sandwiches. With that said, a ground shrimp patty provides the right bite, while being able to withstand several applications. I would pair it with an Asian flavored tartar sauce, and some cabbage, keeping it quite simple with most of the balance coming from the tartar sauce itself.”

For a vegetarian option, Eick recommends a roasted Portabello mushroom. “First remove the gills, then render down the gills in soyriso fat in order to introduce the necessary fat that was missing for the application. Then bind it with a little panko bread crumbs and stuff the mushroom gill mix back into the mushroom cap and roast. I like to then dress a Japanese milk bread bun from Hokkaido Bread Company with fermented chili aioli, grilled green onion, romaine lettuce and queso fresco. This provides the right balance of sweet, salt, fat, bitter, acid and umami.”

Plan Ahead for Brined Local Tuna

Kenzo Inai and David Kendall  

Sideyard BBQ’s master of the pit David Kendall and executive chef Kenzo Inai suggest brining local fish and smoking the filets. “For the home chef interested in smoking local tuna we recommend selecting filets in six-ounce pieces, about one-inch thick. A great tuna brine is 4 cups liquid, ½ cup salt, ½ cup sugar, brined for 2 or 3 days. You can use a variety of different liquids in your brine and all different kinds of spices and fresh herbs. Thai basil, lemongrass, fresh serrano chiles, coconut water and fish sauce will take you in one direction while, say, sliced apples, a splash brandy, fresh thyme, parsley, brown sugar and a little soy sauce will take you elsewhere. The point is to experiment and have fun. We recommend making sure your salt has dissolved completely and that you taste the brine before placing your tuna into it. The brine should only be as salty as seawater. Certain liquids have strong flavors and so less is more: soy sauce, Worchester sauce, liquors. Acidity will cook fish, so go easy on the acids like citrus fruits and vinegar.”

Image: Sideyard BBQ.

Once your tuna is brined, turn to your smoker. “160 degrees for five hours will give you a nice, moist fish. It is wonderful by itself, hot or cold. Always make sure your smoker is at desired temp before you place your brined tuna, limit opening your smoker as much as possible, and limit temperature fluctuations when using a wood smoker.”

Tri-Tip Tips

Kaitlyn Weber

Grilled Tri-tip. Image: The Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Image: The Grill at Torrey Pines.

You may not have access to the incredible custom-built, wood-burning barbecue/rotisserie/smoker at The Grill at Torrey Pines, but you can still apply some of their recommendations for delicious tri-tip. Chef Kaitlyn Weber shares, “for perfectly moist tri-tip, at The Grill, we marinate our tri-tip in our special recipe which consists of red wine, Dijon mustard, whole mustard seeds, onion, garlic, rosemary, and thyme for at least 24 hours. Once the grill is smoking hot, we take our tri-tip, seasoned with salt and pepper and place it directly over the flame for that smoky char-grilled flavor.”

Her pro tip? “Leave it alone! Let your tri-tip get nice and caramelized before turning over and cooking evenly on all sides. Once your tri-tip has reached 135 degrees internal temperature, remove from the grill and let your tri-tip rest for at least 20 to 25 minutes for a perfect medium rare. Letting your tri-tip rest will allow the juices to settle back into the meat leaving it moist and tender. Don’t forget to slice your tri-tip against the grain to ensure that your tri-tip is as tender as possible.”

About the Contributor
Michelle Stansbury
Michelle Stansbury is a food enthusiast and the founder of Eat, Drink, Be SD, sharing the best restaurants, bars, and happenings in San Diego. Misuse of the word "literally" drives her figuratively insane.