Golden State Grub: The Best Things to Eat in California

Here are 30 of the Golden State's most-iconic foods — and the best places to try them.
Related To:

Photo By: BILL STRANGE ©BILL STRANGE

©Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

Photo By: Natalie Compton

Photo By: Andrew Stuart ©Andrew Stuart 2013

California Cravings

California is home to a wealth of culinary traditions, thanks to the Golden State’s sunny climate, ocean access, diverse population and agricultural prowess. It may be impossible to try every edible wonder the state has to offer, but here’s a list of must-try dishes to get you started.

Avocado Toast

Californians are fiercely proud of their incredible avocados; they've turned the creamy green fruit into an everlasting fad. Aside from the ubiquitous guacamole throughout the state, avocado shows up in everything from burgers to ice cream, but one of the most-popular ways to enjoy avocados is mashed high on top of toast. There are endless ways to modify avocado toast topped with caviar, feta, radishes and then some, but keeping it simple can be just as delicious. At Dinette in Los Angeles’ trendy Echo Park neighborhood, an order of avocado toast gets you a Texas-toast-size slice of rustic bread topped with a limey, fresh heap of crushed avocado seasoned with chile flakes, parsley and delicate snowflake-like flecks of salt. You’ll need a fork and knife to cut through this toast steak.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Dinette

Cioppino

The waterfront city of San Francisco is a fount of classic seafood dishes, and cioppino is one of its most iconic. The fish stew is usually made with a collection of Pacific-caught fare, including any mix and match of squid, Dungeness crab, mussels, clams and white fish, with a tomato and wine sauce base. It’s only natural to order the Italian-American dish in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy neighborhood, where the stew was supposedly invented. Grab a table at Ferry Plaza Seafood with views of Washington Square Park. The restaurant sources ingredients from vendors who practice environmentally sustainable fishing.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Ferry Plaza Seafood

In-N-Out Double-Double

While In-N-Out may now exist in other states, it remains a cherished piece of California history dating back to 1948, when Harry Snyder opened the state’s first drive-thru burger stand. The Double-Double didn’t come around until the ‘60s (for a whopping 60 cents a burger), but it has become such an institution that it now rocks its own registered trademark. The hefty burger is made up of two American beef patties (free of additives, fillers and preservatives), two slices of American cheese, a slice of tomato, crisp lettuce and some Thousand Island-esque dressing called its “spread” on a freshly baked bun. Don’t forget an order of fries.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: In-N-Out Burger

Fish Tacos

Californians are all about the fish taco, and sunny San Diego is a great place to find out why. The beach city has easy access to the Pacific’s bounty with the culinary influence of nearby Baja. It’s possible to eat fish tacos for every meal, but those with only time or room for one stop should head to Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill. Customers can choose from fresh, seasonal catches like red snapper, jumbo scallops and soft-shell crab to fill a massive, tasty fish taco.

Photo courtesy of Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill

Go to: Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill

Garlic Ice Cream

California grows about 90 percent of the country’s garlic, and Gilroy is at the heart of that production. Once you drive through Gilroy, you’ll understand why it’s dubbed the garlic capital of the world. The town is fragrant with the pungent allium. The city even hosts an annual garlic festival every summer to showcase its star crop. Garlic may usually fall into the savory foods category, but not in Gilroy. The ingredient gets its time to shine in dessert form as ice cream. Try the regional delicacy at Garlic City Cafe.

Photo by Bill Strange, courtesy of the Gilroy Welcome Center 

Go to: Garlic City Cafe

Adobada Tacos

Whether you’re staying in Fresno or just driving through, it’s mandatory to break for tacos. Fortunately, you don’t have to venture far to find a good taco in the 559. The city is teeming with incredible mom-and-pop taquerias like Chinatown legend La Elegante Taqueria. Seating here is limited, but the tacos are well worth the wait for a perch. Post up at the counter for the best view of La Elegante’s master cooks flipping tortas and tortillas on the griddle. Order a few different tacos, but don’t miss the adobada, a chile-braised pork. A horchata comes in handy to cool down the fiery spice.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: La Elegante Taqueria

Oysters

West Coast oysters are a little different from their East Coast counterparts. On the Pacific side, oysters tend to be a little sweeter and creamier, and there are countless places to get freshly shucked samples. Head north from San Francisco an hour to Marshall for oysters at one of their best sources, Tomales Bay. Hog Island Oyster Co. got its start in the oyster game back in the ‘80s and has been a Bay Area staple ever since. What began with a 5-acre lease has become a 160-acre oyster farm complete with a picnic area and an oyster bar for visitors.

Photo courtesy of Hog Island Oyster Co.

Go to: Hog Island Oyster Co.

Apple Pie

It’s probably a good sign that the smell of apple pie wafts through your car in Santa Ysabel before you’ve even rolled down any windows. The tiny town is home to Julian Pie Company, a haven for apple pie enthusiasts and fans of good things in general. The family-owned operation started in 1986 when founder Liz Smothers began staking her claim in the pie business. Three years later, the family bought an apple farm and planted 17,000 trees to call their own. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better apple pie. The most-popular is the crumb-top Dutch Apple, but the signature Original Apple amazes with its simple perfection. Don’t forget to order your slice a la mode.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Julian Pie Company

Korean BBQ

California boasts the largest population of Koreans in America, making it one of the best places outside Korea for Korean food. A traditional Korean barbecue feast — featuring colorful side dishes called "banchan" — will help start the meal with the most bang for your buck. At Hanjip in Culver City, Chef Chris Oh serves a menu that will satisfy various Korean cravings. Beyond barbecue, the seafood pancakes and gooey gochujang-glazed pork belly steam buns are excellent.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Hanjip

Fried Chicken Sandwich

Residents of Oakland are blessed with fantastic fried chicken options, including Bakesale Betty in Temescal. The tiny shop has amassed a cult following, which means there’s likely a line regardless of time of day. Fortunately that line moves quickly, thanks to the Bakesale Betty team’s efficient assembly line. Once you reach the register and get your hands on a chicken sandwich of your own — and a freshly baked cookie too — enjoy your well-earned lunch outside at a sidewalk table. The sandwich is worth the wait. The perfectly breaded chicken is both plump and juicy, with coleslaw balancing the fried flavor. Crisp cabbage, jalapeno, red onion, and parsley add spice and crunch.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Bakesale Betty

Tri-Tip

California’s claim to barbecue fame comes from locals’ mastery of a lesser-known cut, tri-tip. A small but mighty muscle, tri-tip, also known as the Santa Maria steak, may be best enjoyed grilled to medium-rare and stuffed inside a French roll. This is just how you’ll find it at Firestone Grill in San Luis Obispo. The tri-tip sandwich works as a standalone meal, but it’s even better with a side basket of seasoned fries.

Photo courtesy of Firestone Grill 

Go to: Firestone Grill

Cobb Salad

The cobb salad is a delicious compromise for people who don’t feel like eating a salad but still want to get in their leafy greens. Traditionally made up of lettuce, bacon, tomato, hard-boiled egg, avocado, cheese and red wine vinaigrette, the cobb may not be the healthiest salad, but it’s one of the heartiest; the cobb's Los Angeles roots make it a California must-try. Fundamental LA is a quintessential Los Angeles lunch spot flooded with natural light and offering one of the best cobb salads in town. Dubbed the “Cobb,” Fundamental’s iteration of the classic California salad nixes the chicken but offers applewood-smoked bacon, balsamic vinaigrette, blue cheese and a mass of avocado. The restaurant is equipped with a stacked by-the-glass wine list, should you choose to imbibe over lunch or dinner.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Fundamental

Carnitas Burrito

Every Californian has his or her own idea of what city or taqueria makes the state’s best burrito. It would be impossible to dub one spot the best, but La Taqueria in San Francisco’s Mission District may have a pretty good shot at earning the most nods. In 2014, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and statistician Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight released a report on America's Best Burritos that named La Taqueria’s carnitas burrito number one after sampling 84 of the country’s best (based on a pool of 67,391). The Mission-style, foil-wrapped burrito excludes rice but includes plenty of shredded meat inside a chewy flour tortilla.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: La Taqueria

Clam Chowder

When the coastline is blanketed in the thick marine layer and the chilly seaside breeze rolls in, there may be no better respite than a bowl of clam chowder. Throw the chunky, hearty soup into a sourdough bread bowl, and you’ve got another California classic. San Francisco may be the most-obvious choice to dip into a bread bowl, but there are other coastal towns that excel at clam chowder. In Monterey, Old Fisherman’s Grotto sits right on the pier and serves some of the city’s best chowder. The beach and ocean views pair perfectly with the seafood comfort food.

Photo courtesy of Old Fisherman’s Grotto

Go to: Old Fisherman's Grotto

French Dip

Don’t get thrown off by the name: The French Dip sandwich is an American classic that originated in sunny Los Angeles. The sandwich is simple: Thinly sliced roast beef is piled generously inside a French roll that has been dipped in beef jus from the meat-roasting process. Head to Philippe’s on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Chinatown for a taste of history from the source. Legend has it that Philippe’s original owner, French immigrant Philippe Mathieu, invented the sandwich in 1918 by accident. What started off as a mistake has become an LA staple. Just like Philippe’s sandwich, the restaurant itself is simple but solid. Guests order from a long counter, and the food is served on no-frills paper plates. Don’t forget to use some of Philippe’s hot mustard — almost as famous as the dip — available on every table to add an extra kick.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Philippe, The Original

Hangtown Fry

The Hangtown Fry is probably not going to be the most-delicious item on this list, but it is a California classic. The dish dates back to the Gold Rush, when fortune-seeking forty-niners were prospecting out West. Legend has it, as printed on the Buttercup Pantry menu, that one such prospector came into Placerville and ordered the kitchen to make him the most-expensive meal possible. The result was the Hangtown Fry, an egg scramble complete with oysters, bacon and onions. Buttercup Pantry adds melted cheese on top along with a disclaimer to eat the dish at your own risk, as some people enjoy it and others do not. Whether or not the unique blend of flavors suits your palate, you get a taste of history.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Buttercup Pantry

Cruffin

New York may dominate the hybrid-pastry craze, but San Francisco holds claim to the now-famous Cruffin, a mash-up of croissant and muffin filled with a creamy center. Mr. Holmes Bakehouse introduced the creation to the masses in 2014 and continues to draw lines out the door for the photogenic baked good. Line up early; they sell out daily.

Photo courtesy of Mr. Holmes Bakehouse

Go to: Mr. Holmes Bakehouse

Xiaolongbao

California is lucky to have some of the best Chinese food outside of Shanghai, and the San Gabriel Valley is the epicenter of that good fortune. The San Gabriel Valley is nationally renowned for its abundance of high-quality, authentic Chinese food restaurants. SGV is a dim sum mecca, and it’s wise to make a pilgrimage to the Shanghai Dumpling House at least once in your life for excellent xiaolongbao, aka soup dumplings. Shanghai Dumpling House’s juicy dumplings have some of the thinnest skin in the business that require very delicate handling. You’ll enjoy the challenge.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Shanghai Dumpling House

Carne Asada Burrito

Yes, another burrito. You can’t eat around California and not get your hands on multiple burritos — it’s sacrilege. Slide into a booth aglow with colorful strings of lights at Casa Vega, a cavernous 60-year-old SoCal institution in Sherman Oaks. Here, feast on the restaurant’s mammoth carne asada burrito complete with chunky pico de gallo, fresh guacamole and refried beans. Getting your carne asada fix at Casa Vega also checks a box for another California tradition: celebrity spotting. It’s not uncommon to spot reality TV stars in the shadows of this low-key hideout.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Casa Vega

Ice Cream

California’s artisanal ice cream market is very hot right now, but Santa Barbara-based McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams has been churning out a high-quality product since decades before the trend hit. The company got its start in 1949 and has been using local ingredients to make its 22 percent butterfat ice cream from scratch (and preservative-free) ever since. You can stick with old favorites, like Mint Chip and Vanilla Bean, or try something bursting with California flavors, like Eureka Lemon and Marionberries.

Photo courtesy of McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams

Go to: McConnell's Fine Ice Cream

Santa Barbara Spot Prawns

Santa Barbara spot prawns have a special allure. Their availability is sporadic, but the prized seafood is worth the wait for the sweet shellfish, which are best fresh from the Pacific. Housed in a space built by Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s, Republique in Los Angeles is one of the most-beautiful places to find spot prawns on the menu. The cathedral-like restaurant changes the dish’s preparation seasonally, with creations like live Santa Barbara spot prawns with tomato, reed avocado, jalapeno and cilantro.

Photo courtesy of Republique

Go to: Republique

Grilled Corn

If you thought corn was a just a Midwest staple, think again. One of California’s most-cherished street food classics is Mexican grilled corn, or elote. Boiled or grilled corn on the cob gets slathered with butter, cheese, mayo, lemon or lime, and salt for the perfect combination of textures and flavors. Downtown LA’s B.S. Taqueria offers an elevated grilled corn using fresh, local ingredients and touches like guajillo chile butter. The taqueria uses another California must-try, Brentwood corn, when it’s in season.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: B.S. Taqueria

Dungeness Crab

San Franciscans rejoice at the start of Dungeness crab season in April in a way similar to how the French welcome Beaujolais Nouveau in November. The West Coast-dwelling crab offers sweet meat people crave year-round. San Francisco seafood institution Farallon offers Dungeness crab seekers a unique under-the-sea-inspired dining experience unlike anything else. Giant jellyfish hang from the ceiling; a spiral staircase is encrusted with shimmering caviar. With a focus on local produce and sustainably sourced seafood, Farallon is a choice spot to enjoy fresh Dungeness crab whether you get it in a platter or on toast.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Farallon

Lemonade Ice Pop

California is a citrus capital, and the vitamin C-packed produce gets put to good use throughout the state. Up at about 1,200 feet of elevation, Angora Lakes Resort in South Lake Tahoe has been serving fresh-squeezed lemonade and lemonade ice pops, made from California lemons, since it opened in the 1920s. These lemonade pops are not easily obtained treats, as cars are not allowed to drive up the final stretch of winding mountain dirt road to reach the resort. Instead, you have to hike your way to try the famous icy treats. The pops — and experiencing the beauty of Angora Lake — are well worth the steep climb.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Angora Lakes Resort

Maple Bar Doughnut

The maple bar, a rectangular Long John doughnut slathered with maple icing, is the West Coast’s claim to deep-fried breakfast fame. While the sweet delicacy can be found up and down the Pacific coast, Los Angeles is a serious doughnut hub, and the city is credited with changing the spelling from "doughnut" to "donut" in the 1920s. Step back in time by venturing to Downtown LA, where the architecture of the '20s still reigns. Located in downtown’s Historic Core, Downtown Donuts is where you want to go for your maple bar needs. There is nothing fancy about the small establishment, but there’s nothing fancy about a maple bar either. Take your slab of pillowy dough to go and explore the neighborhood.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Downtown Donuts

Crispy Tacos

Crispy tacos are not what you’d call authentic Mexican fare. Nicknamed “Gabacho tacos,” they’re an Americanized taco variety whose popularity may have been proliferated by fast-food joints. Now a Mexican-American staple, the crispy taco can be found all over the country with its beef, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Southern California is home to endless essential crispy taco spots, like Taco Fiesta in Los Angeles. About $4 will get you two hard-shelled beauties at this Highland Park haunt. 

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Taco Fiesta

Fried Pizza

There aren’t many spots outside of Italy to find fried pizza, making A16 Rockridge’s Montanara pizza a must-try California food. Fried dough, with smoked tomato sauce, fior di latte mozzarella and basil, is served whole and piping hot right out of a wood-burning Stefano Ferrara oven from Italy. Diners at this Oakland restaurant are given a pair of pizza shears (basically pizza-specific scissors) to cut slices as ready, which keeps the pie hot as long as possible. The Montanara goes well with some housemade Calabrian chile oil; don't forget a selection from owner and wine director Shelley Lindgren’s 23-page wine list.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: A16 Rockridge

Uni

Uni, or sea urchin, offers a true taste of the Pacific. On the outside, uni looks like an oceanic porcupine. Glowing orange inside, the sea urchin meat is a sea-salty delicacy worshiped around the world. At the Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara, chef and owner David Lentz serves sea urchin in a number of ways, including freshly opened with a garnish of a lemon, topping grilled bread and in ever-changing pasta specials.

Photo courtesy of Hungry Cat

Go to: Hungry Cat

Chicken and Waffles

The South gets a lot of love for its fried chicken, but few places in the world rival Los Angeles for chicken and waffles, specifically at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Founded by a New Yorker in South Los Angeles in 1975, it has become one of California’s most-beloved fried chicken destinations. The sweet and savory meal has attracted the attention of everyone from Hollywood stars who live nearby to dignitaries from around the world. After President Obama visited Roscoe’s for the three-wing Country Boy chicken-and-waffle combo, the restaurant renamed the plate Obama Special.

Photo courtesy of Natalie B. Compton

Go to: Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles

More from:

Restaurants