Is there a better way to experience California than by taking a culinary road trip and tasting each region's famous, flavorful dishes? We think not, so pick a place on the map and start your journey.
From fresh oysters and creamy clam chowder to avocado toast and garlic ice cream, there's no shortage of unique delicacies to try in the Golden State. Here are the best foods to savor in each region.
Iconic Dishes in the San Francisco Bay Area
Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl
San Francisco is home to many famous foods, but one of the timeless dishes is clam chowder in a bowl of freshly baked sourdough bread. When the miners relocated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, they brought their sourdough starters with them, giving rise to the beloved bread. Sourdough primarily gained prominence with the opening of Boudin Bakery in 1849. The bakery’s flagship location is at Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can still enjoy some of the best clam chowder in the city.
California is home to numerous top-notch oyster bars. But for truly fantastic oysters, there’s no place better than Hog Island Oyster Co. Take your date on a romantic drive along the coast and hang out on The Boat Oyster Bar in Marshall. If you prefer full-service sit-down restaurants, check out the eatery’s Marshall-based sister restaurant: Tony’s Seafood. (Make a reservation in advance to guarantee your spot.) If Marshall is a bit far out for you, feel free to check out Hog Island’s Napa or S.F. location.
If you love Mexican and Japanese food, this revolutionary invention is for you. The sushi burrito combines delectable sushi ingredients with the shape and size of a burrito. The result? Pure bliss. Head to Sushirrito to try this life-changing dish (but be prepared to wait in line).
With origins in San Francisco’s Mission District, this hearty, rice-free burrito is a local favorite. Get a taste of the S.F. classic at La Taqueria. The mouthwatering Mission burrito here is stuffed with meat, guacamole, refried beans, salsa, and sour cream—and will leave you craving more.
If you’re crushin’ on cruffins, you’ll want to stop by Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. The cruffin—aka the croissant-muffin hybrid—was first invented in Melbourne in 2013 but gained international popularity thanks to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. Aside from cruffins, you’ll also find several other sweet treats here, including crave-worthy donuts. (Mr. Holmes also has a location in Los Angeles, so when you want something sweet to fuel your L.A. explorations, you’ll know where to go.)
Must-Try Foods Along the Central Coast
If you’re a BBQ lover, then Santa Maria is the place for you. Known for serving up some of the best BBQ in California, Santa Maria’s simple style will keep you coming back for more. Cooked over an open fire with red oak or coast live oak, the grilled meat is seasoned with just salt, pepper, and garlic powder—it’s so good, you won’t miss the sauce. Get your hands on some of the tastiest Santa Maria–style barbecue at Jocko’s Steakhouse.
While you’re at it, visit Firestone Grill for the signature tri-tip sandwich. Topped with house-made barbecue sauce and served on a toasted, buttered roll, the juicy tri-tip here will have you looking forward to your next visit. In addition to its flagship restaurant in San Luis Obispo, Firestone Grill has locations in Fresno and Bakersfield.
Garlic Ice Cream
When traveling through California’s Central Coast region, you must make a pit stop in Gilroy. Garlic ice cream (and basically all things garlic) is all the rage in this small town. If you plan ahead, you can time your trip around the Gilroy Garlic Festival, where you can savor everything from garlic-stuffed olives to garlic jelly.
Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Santa Barbara is a coastal gem known for its sandy beaches and gorgeous architecture. But did you know the town is also famous for its delicious spot prawns? The spot prawn, aka pandalus platyceros, is technically a large shrimp and is only found in the North Pacific. To enjoy this delicacy, we recommend you visit Enterprise Fish Co. (which also has a home in Santa Monica).
Popular Foods Grown in California’s Central Valley
California is your one-stop shop for many of the essentials, including almonds, milk, cheese, grapes, lettuce, pistachios, potatoes, olives, oranges, strawberries, and tomatoes. Over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in the Golden State, and the majority of those crops come from the Central Valley. (Seriously, what would the rest of the U.S. do without us?)
Incorporate California’s bounty into your everyday life; whether you want to enjoy fresh strawberries in your pie or sprinkle pistachios and artisanal cheese on top of your salad, you can make a feast from California-grown products.
For a fun experience, grab your girlfriends and head to one of the California U-Pick Farms. You can spend the day picking your favorite fruits and veggies while simultaneously supporting local farmers.
Famous Foods in L.A.
Invented in Hollywood’s Brown Derby in 1937, the Cobb salad is still a popular dish that can be found in countless restaurants around Los Angeles and beyond. As the story goes, restaurant owner Robert Cobb crafted the salad using leftovers in the fridge—lettuce, blue cheese, chicken, tomatoes, and scraps of bacon—and the dish quickly became a hit and a menu mainstay. Though the Brown Derby closed in 1985, the legacy of its invention lives on. For one of the best Cobbs, check out Fundamental LA.
Tacos and Nachos
The vibrant city of Los Angeles is home to varied cuisines, but tacos and nachos are among the most beloved L.A. food staples. So, spice up your life by checking out some of the acclaimed Mexican restaurants such as Velma's Cafe, which is known for its cheese quesadillas and "Los Nachos." If you’re in the mood for a scrumptious chorizo and potato taco, head over to Broken Spanish—a 2019 Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand winner—to satisfy your craving.
Although it's disputed which sushi chef actually invented the California roll, this ingenious, iconic dish became a nationwide sensation in the 80s. While the California roll is pretty simple—containing a bit of cucumber, avocado, and crab—it's a classic that can be found at most sushi restaurants. For a delicious California roll, head to Nomura Sushi in Sherman Oaks or The Sushi House in Studio City.
French Dip Sandwich
It would be a tragedy to skip over Philippe’s while in L.A. Established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu, this prominent restaurant is celebrating its 112th anniversary this year. Philippe’s is famous for its French dip; rumor has it that Mathieu accidentally created the sandwich in 1918, when he dropped the French roll into a hot roasting pan filled with juices. Even if you aren't a big fan of sandwiches, you'll enjoy the restaurant's charming, early 1900s vibe and extensive menu of salads and breakfast fare.
San Diego’s Most Iconic Foods
Though grapes and berries have their place in sunny Southern California, it’s the avocado that takes the spotlight. (Fun fact: The name of this revered fruit, aka the alligator pear, is derived from the Aztec word ahuacatl.) We know Californians love getting avo-control, and since San Diego is the largest grower of domestic avocados, it’s no wonder avocado toast reigns supreme here. Check out San Diego’s Avocado Toast Brothers, which provides several excellent variations of the classic avocado toast.
Cali-Baja dishes combine the cross-border influences of San Diego with those of Baja California to create a unique flavor and cooking style. Cali-Baja cuisine is light, fresh, and all about seafood. If you’re into shrimp and sea bass ceviche, Puesto is definitely the place for you. Puesto has several SoCal locations, including Seaport Village and La Jolla. For fabulous Baja-style tacos, head to Galaxy Taco, where you can enjoy a grilled octopus tostada before digging into the delectable grilled fish and avocado tacos.
If there’s one thing you need to try in San Diego, it’s definitely the California burrito. The brainchild of a San Diegan, this mouthwatering burrito is traditionally stuffed with carne asada, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, and french fries—yes, french fries. That extra crunch, that additional bit of salt, and wonderful potato texture will change your life in just one bite. So, when you’re out and about in San Diego, make sure to check out Mike’s Taco Club and Nico’s Mexican Food for the best California burritos in town.
What’s your favorite Californian dish? Let us know which foods you love most in the comments below.
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