On a family trip to Lake Tahoe in California many moons ago, I was given the responsibility of picking up the meat for an impending afternoon barbecue. At the butcher counter of a local supermarket, I ran up against some unexpected difficulty as I tried to accomplish my task.
Searching the pre-wrapped cuts of steak and the options presented in their red, uncooked glory in the butcher counter’s display case, I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and my initial meal plan seemed to hit a snag. Where were the “steak tips?” This was a truly surprising development.
“Do you have any steak tips?” I asked the butcher behind the counter.
“Tri-tip, you mean?” he responded.
“Umm, I don’t know, like, you know, sirloin tips. Is that what tri-tips are?” I inquired.
The butcher was as befuddled by my request as I was by his lack of understanding mine. He told me he wasn’t sure what I was talking about, but it was probably tri-tip steak. And so, I bought tri-tip and attempted to mimic — somewhat unsuccessfully— the tried-and-true recipe I had perfected for cooking sirloin tips back in Boston. My patrons for the cookout weren’t made aware of any difference I had made to the way I’ve always cooked for family outings. And yet, they commented that something was different, for better or worse, about the main course that day.
It was my first elucidation into not only the regional discrepancies in cooking but also in how butcher ply their trade in different areas of the country. For that matter, it was an education into how our tastes — and the assumptions we make about food — can vary across the country.
If you aren’t aware of the phenomena I ran into that day in Tahoe, it is this: sirloin tips are a relatively East Coast food, while tri-tip steak, though more widely available, is found more often on the West Coast.
Emotions about both cuts can run high among the tribalistic purveyors and backyard chefs of each region. Both cuts are extremely hard to find in the opposite region — sometimes because they go by a different name. The drama — and online discussions — surrounding these cuts may add a bit to the mystique surrounding both cuts. Also, a long history of coastal rivalry — Magic vs. Bird or Biggie vs. Tupac, for example — and transplants moving back and forth to both regions doesn’t help keep the conversation about sirloin tips and tri-tip always civil.
In New England, sirloin tips, or steak tips as they are often called, are the staple of summer barbecues and are featured on the menus of restaurants throughout the region. You are as likely to find steak tips on the menu at a lowly dive bar as you are at the most popular bistro on Newbury Street in Boston. There is no obstacle to finding some great “tips” in and around Boston, as well as in New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. In the opinion of this amateur critic, some of the best steak tips are found in the seedier local establishments throughout the area.
Sirloin tips are usually marinated in something sweet and tangy, and they are often prepped well in advance of cooking so that the meat sops up the marinade. I’ve heard of some unusual combinations of products used to add flavor to steak tips. Some common marinating options include can include everything from ketchup, barbecue sauce, lemon, lime, wine, maple syrup, balsamic vinaigrette, Italian dressing, to even copious amounts of Coca-Cola.
A great mystery, and part of the reason that many butchers outside of New England seem dumbfounded when asked for “steak tips,” is what exactly constitutes a “steak tip.” Our ButcherBox sirloin tips are the most common cut; they come from the sirloin sub-primal, similar to but not exactly tri-tip. However, what constitutes “steak tips” in New England is quite confusing and often the subject of debate. While part of the sirloin tip is often used, steak tips can also come from flap steak as well as tenderloin tip and parts of the round. Whatever the exact cut, if you go to a reputable — or even disreputable — restaurant known for their grilled “tips,” on your next trip to Boston, you won’t be disappointed.
As for the tri-tip, the cut also comes from the sirloin sub-primal of the cow. However, it is larger, often triangular shaped, and has a few different preparation options.
While it is available across the country, tri-tip has an almost legendary status in California, where it is the feature of barbecues from the San Francisco to the San Diego and everywhere in between.
Tri-tip, like sirloin tips, is often marinated in an array of ways, but traditionally it is seasoned with a fair amount of salt, pepper, garlic, and olive oil. For a traditional California barbecue — likely on a classic Weber kettle grill — it often grilled over a redwood fire. This cut is also delicious when roasted. Tri-tip should be cooked whole or slice into smaller individual steaks — this differs from sirloin tips which are either pre-cut into small pieces or cut while cooking. Another key for tri-tip is to make sure to slice against the grain for maximum flavor and tenderness.
If you want the real tri-tip experience, the best place to experience the delicious cut is in the backyard of a bungalow on a palm-lined street in Cali. I know an amateur cook in Palo Alto who often finds that lighting his grill and throwing some oak and hickory into the fire inevitably leads to neighbors and also-rans appearing in his yard — with bottles of red wine or heavy IPAs, of course — hoping for a slice or two of his famous tri-tip. (It is California, mind you. Don’t try showing up in someone’s backyard in Boston, as the response will unlikely be as welcoming.)
If you don’t happen to be located on either coast — or worse, you are on the opposite side of the country from your tip of choice — ButcherBox has you covered. These cuts often are featured in our monthly subscription boxes. In fact, both sirloin tips and tri-tip were both featured in our boxes in December.
Once you try them — or if you are already an expert on both cuts — let us know which coast’s preferred tip cut you enjoy best.