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The Most Popular Ethnic Cuisines in California

The Most Popular Ethnic Cuisines in California

Here are the five most popular ethnic foods in California—and the results may surprise you.

Caroline Williams


3 min read

April 20, 2020

California is famous for its world-class food scene, from its farm-to-table eateries and Michelin-starred restaurants to its rich agricultural lands and renowned wine destinations. Aside from being the country’s largest food producer, California is also the country’s most populous state; its nearly 40 million residents make up more than 10 percent of the entire United States population. With that sizable number comes a melting pot of people and cultures—over 200 languages are spoken in California, including up to 90 indigenous languages, making it one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world. 

Given the linguistic, cultural, and culinary diversity of the Golden State, culinary website Chef’s Pencil set out to determine: What are Californians’ favorite ethnic cuisines? To answer this question, Chef’s Pencil turned to Google Trends data on national cuisines. When gathering this data, Google looks at the number of searches centered on a certain cuisine—such as Japanese food, Japanese restaurantsJapanese ricesushi, sushi recipes—and the names of well-known eateries serving that specific cuisine, and allocates an interest score based on the percentage of people in a state or city that made those searches. 

Chef’s Pencil used the Google Trends data to determine the five most popular ethnic foods in California—and the results may surprise you.

5. Japanese (Interest Score: 16)

Japanese food is integral to the history of California.

The first sushi restaurant in California was Kawafuku, which opened in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood in 1923. Next was Tokyo Kaikan, a popular gathering spot for Japanese immigrants and Hollywood trendsetters—and the birthplace of the famous California roll (supposedly). True or not, the history of Japanese food in California makes the cuisine a favorite among residents; Japanese fare had an interest score of 16, making it the fifth most popular food in the state. Japanese cuisine was most beloved in the cities of San Francisco and San Jose, receiving scores of 37 and 29, respectively. 

4. Italian (Interest Score: 37)

Italian cuisine has become a staple of date nights and casual eats.

Remember when we said California was the largest agricultural producer in the nation? Well, it’s mostly thanks to the Italian immigrants who came to the state in the 1880s. This 19th century influx of Italians may also explain why Italian food is the fourth most popular cuisine in the state, with an overall interest score of 37. Italian fare seems to be most beloved in San Diego, where the cuisine earned a whopping interest score of 82. 

3. Thai (Interest Score: 38)

Thai food is another example of California's diverse melting pot.

Garnering just one interest point over Italian cuisine, Thai fare comes next in Californians’ favored ethnic foods—and it is no wonder, given that Thai is one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet. Many common Thai ingredients have immune-boosting, disease-fighting powers, and given the Golden State’s culture and ethos of healthy eating, it makes sense why Californians would love Thai food. This cuisine is particularly popular in the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles—home to the world’s First Thai Town—Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco. 

2. Chinese (Interest Score: 46)

Chinese food is everywhere in California and the quality is uniformly high.

Californians’ love for Chinese food began in San Francisco, as thousands of Chinese immigrants made their way to the City by the Bay during the Gold Rush, bringing with them the food of Guangdong—then known as Canton, hence Cantonese food. (Fun fact: The fortune cookie was invented in California, too.)

You can now find food from all regions of the China, of course, but California chefs continue to put their own spin on the cuisine, with super-hip fusion dishes highlighting quality ingredients and expert techniques—a movement arguably led by Mission Chinese Food, which went from a humble pop-up in San Francisco to a bi-coastal New Chinese mecca. 

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1. Mexican (Interest Score 80)

Mexican food of all kinds are one of the defining features of California food.

Mexican cuisine holds a special place in California's culinary landscape, enjoying immense popularity with an interest score of 80. This reflects the deep cultural connections between California and its neighbor to the south. The state is dotted with a mix of contemporary and traditional Mexican restaurants, offering a feast of authentic flavors from tacos and chile rellenos to pozole and California burritos. San Diego, in particular, stands out as the epicenter of Mexican gastronomy in the state, boasting an even higher interest score of 86, testament to its vibrant food scene.

What’s your favorite ethnic cuisine? Let us know about your top picks in the comments below. 

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