HOME > Chowhound > California >


Top 10 Tastes of California

I have an interesting request, and hopefullty a fun one that will spark some great ideas...

First, the facts:
-- I have never been to California. I am from San Antonio, Texas, and go to school in New York City.
-- My father and I will be visiting some schools in California from Saturday August 26 to Friday September 1. We fly into LA and out of SF.
-- We will be renting a car, so mobility won't be much of an issue. The plan is to make the drive between the LA area to the SF area along the coastline highway, which I understand is beautiful.
-- The only two places we must go are Pasadena and Stanford, but those will likely be just during the day on Monday (Pasadena) and Wednesday (Stanford). All areas surrounding these cities (say, less than a 2-hour drive one way) and the environs in between are fair game. We are willing to travel for great food.
-- Nothing is set as of yet, although I plan to make reservations at Manresa in Los Gatos and Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And I've already been placed on the waiting list at The French Laundry. Also considering Lucques when in LA, but that one's not as certain, it just happens to be one of the few LA restaurants I've heard of).

Now, the question:

What are the 10 things you think it would be absolutely criminal to leave California without tasting?

-- We love all kinds of food, from fine dining to hole-in-the-wall taquerias and everything in between. That being the case, any and all suggestions are welcome. I wouldn't mind, for example, seeing Oysters and Pearls from TFL on the same list as an In-n-Out Burger. That's exactly what I'm after, in fact. Regardless of price, regardless of location we just the best food, period.

And and all help is greatly appreciated.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I might not have 10 here, and you probably can't do them all because they are all scrunched together.

    1. Fried artichokes at the Big Artichoke in Salinas ... just for the kitsch
    2. Swanton Berry Farm, just North of Santa Cruz
    3. Artichoke soup and ollieberry pie at Duartes in Pescadero
    4. Goat Cheese at Harley Farms in Pescadero
    5. Beans at Phipps Ranch in Pescadero (Pescaderois the size of a postage stamp, but worth a try ... the NY Times said that the tacos at the gas station were the best outside of Mexico ... well, I don't know)

    1. La Super Rica in Santa Barbara. Great tacqueria, made famous by Julia Child's frequent visits there. Ignore the hype, enjoy the food. Search the board for more info on what to get there.

      Try to find a tri-tip cookout in the Lompoc/Santa Maria area when you are passing through. Check the local papers for festivals/fairs where they might be cooking. Tri-tip was invented there, and there is still nothing like it ... succulent beef grilled and smoked over red oak logs, served with santa maria style (saucy) beans, grill-toasted garlic bread, and a simple salad on the side. If you can find it, you must have it.

      1. Some local favorites in Santa Barbara area:

        1. The Number 15 Tocino Special at La Superica in Santa Barbara.

        2. The Chile Relleno ala carte at Rudy's on Montecito Street in Santa Barbara

        3. The antipasto misto appetizer at Ca'Dario in Santa Barbara.

        4. The salmon sushi-teri combo at Sushi Teri on Bath Street in Santa Barbara.

        5. Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls at Mai's - Main Street, Ventura

        6. Seared fois gras any which way at Sage and Onion in Santa Barbara

        7. Brazillian coffee chip ice cream at McConnels in Santa Barbara

        7. Chimmichurri sauce (on beef preferably, but they serve it as a bread dip) at Cafe Buenos Aires in Santa Barbara

        8. Ciabatta bread at Our Daily Bread, Santa Barbara Street, Santa Barbara

        9. Fresh produce at Tri-Counties market, Milpas Street, Santa Barbara

        10. Tri-tip at the Democratic League Labor Day Barbeque in Oak Park, SSanta Barbara.

        1 Reply
        1. re: glbtrtr

          I'm right with glbtrtr on the Super Rica and Ca' Dario recs (although I'd substitute the incomparable ricotta-filled ravioli in brown sage butter or ciotola appetizer rather than the antipasto). But AVOID Sage and Onion, well past its prime! Any decent chef can sear foie gras, either in S.B. or elsewhere in your CA sojourn.

          For a fun and totally enjoyable meal on your way up the coast, think about Monterey Fish House in Monterey. Great fresh fish prepared any way you like and ice cold Anchor Steam beers. In no way a tourist trap - very good food. But not a foodie temple like French Laundry or other high-value targets. Still, get a reservation or get shut out!

        2. For a terrific steak dinner go to Jockos in Nipomo. Its about 3 minutes from the highway and a California landmark institution. But its very crowded, reservations are necessary unless you eat in the bar, like I did last time. Thick, juicy, their meats are grilled Santa Maria-style, outdoors on on a giant oak pit. Breakfast is excellent there too, but for the steaks (& ribs) the outdoor BBQ pit is not fired up until dinnertime. I like the ribeye( mid $20's), but their sandwiches are humongous too (like the tri-tip). Meals come with lots of fixin's such as salad, potato, beans, salsa and big chunks of bread. At this time of year its incredibly popular, so you should call ahead and check out the wait...even WITH a reservation.

          Jocko's Steakhouse
          125 N. Thompson Ave. (Tefft St.)
          Nipomo, CA 93444

          1. Prixe fix dinner at Sierra Mar restaurant at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. Fabulous food and views. Advance reservations recommended.

            1. The Taco Temple in Morro Bay on Highway 1. Cash only- eat from the "what's fresh" board only. It is "California fusion" food and is one of a kind place.

              Also there is the Giant Artichoke in Castroville for fried artichoke hearts- another one of a kind place.

              1. Great query, Tupac17616, however your travel schedule poses some hurdles.

                My first thought was that you'd be missing @ 1/3 of the state, i.e. San Diego area and the N. CA coast. But since you seem to be focussed on "taste" experiences, you should be able to satisfy those between Orange County and the Bay area wine country.

                The limiting factor for places between LA and SF is your Pasadena visit on Monday and Stanford on Wednesday. This is quite a distance to cover in that amount of time. That said, here is a sample timeline that should help you plan, keep in mind it is "high season" and you'll need to book lodging in advance almost anywhere along the coast.

                If you managed to get your Pasadena visit done in the morning, you could be in Santa Barbara for lunch at La Super Rica. SB would be nice to explore for a few hours (one of our prettiest coastal towns).

                A roughly 1 hour drive north on 101 would put you in Orcutt, just south of Santa Maria, for dinner at Chef Rick's (resos a must). Another 45-60 min. north after dinner would put you around the Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, areas on 101, or Morro Bay on Hwy 1 (home of Taco Temple & Windows on the Water).

                Tuesday depends on if you want a scenic drive or wish to get further north ASAP.

                If the scenic route, have an early lunch at Taco Temple and head north on Hwy 1. You might want to stop briefly for a look at Cambria, but plan on 4-5 hours up to Carmel/Monterey (if you get sucked in to touring Hearst Castle add another 2 or so).

                Hwy 1 is gorgeous, stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and take the short walk under the freeway to check out the waterfall, as previously mentioned Nepenthe's (just a few miles north of JFB) is worth a stop for the view and drink, maybe even an appetizer, but I'd skip dining here (<edited>Sierra Mar at Post Ranch and Cielo at Ventana are not much further if you're looking for fine dining). Another hour north will put you in the Carmel/Monterey environs, many options here, Passionfish, Monterey Fish House, Roy's in Spanish Bay if you're after a view or downtown Carmel for more fine dining (Bouchee, Auberge..).

                Assuming you could visit Stanford in the afternoon, Wed. am, breakfast at Toastie's in Pacific Grove (across the street from Passionfish), short scenic drive from Asilomar around Pt. Pinos to Lover's Point then Cannery Row. Continue up Hwy 1 to Watsonville and have lunch at Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo. At this point you're about 1 1/2 hours from Stanford via 101/85/280 or 82). A more scenic but longer route would be on up Hwy 1 to Hwy 17 into Silicon Valley, though I don't recommend this if you're not an experience "mountain" driver, even though it is 4-land highway.

                The alternate (quicker) route would be continue up Hwy 101 from the SLO area, an early breakfast Tues. at Big Sky for example, would allow you to reach Monterey/Carmel by lunch time, or a lunch at Taco Temple then back to 101 (15 min) would get you there in plenty of time for dinner. Be aware that there's not a whole lot of dining destinations in the 2 hours or so between Paso Robles and Salinas (where you'd take Hwy 68 W to Monterey).

                Personally, since you'll be in Palo Alto on Wed., I would have dinner at Manresa in Los Gatos (short drive) rather than deal with N bound Bay area traffic toward the wine country, saving that for Thurs. Manresa gets high marks on the SF Board, better than TFL some say.

                Have a great trip and CA chow experience, please do report back about it.

                1 Reply
                1. re: PolarBear

                  What he said! Great post PolarBear. I haven't been to all of these, but have to some, and those I've been to I also recommend. I look forward to checking out the others listed.

                2. Wow, thanks so much everyone for all the great suggestions (especially PolarBear, that was very helpful!). There are just so many options. I'm working on narrowing down my list of possibilities some, and I'll post it in the next day or two to see what you guys think. Thanks again for the help.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: tupac17616

                    Our pleasure. BTW see correction for Post Ranch/Ventana restaurants in my previous post.

                  2. Swanton Berry Farm just south of Pescadero. Not pick your own, but some of the best berries in the area, organic and sustaiably grown ... in fact, pioneers in this area. The farm on the ocean is over the top beautiful.

                    Duarte's is ok for Ollieberry pie, but FatApples in Berkeley is much better, IMO.

                    I haven't looked at the other boards, but I hope you are posting your narrowed down list on the appropriate boards. You will get a better resposne asking about LA restaurants in LA and SF/Wine Country there. Lots of people from those boards don't visit this board.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: rworange

                      Just saw on the SF board that you were still looking for pick your own berries... Swanton Berry Farm *is* pick your own strawberries. I haven't been yet, but the kids talk to the strawberry guy about it every week at the Berkeley Farmers Market. Here's the web site:


                    2. Here we go again. If this post gets deleted for the fourth time, I give up...

                      Reservations booked so far:
                      (...some LA places Sat, Sun & Mon...)
                      Manresa -- Grand Tasting Menu requested. We have reservations Tuesday August 29 at 6:30pm -- Los Gatos
                      (...famous place in Berkeley on Wed)

                      Any substitutions/additions/deletions you would make?

                      Question marks that remain:
                      Between LA & Los Gatos:
                      - Possible dinner Monday night??
                      - Breakfast/Lunch Tuesday

                      Places that I'm still considering:
                      -- La Super Rica (Santa Barbara)
                      -- Bouchee (Carmel)
                      -- L'Auberge (Carmel)
                      -- Sierra Mar (more for the view than the food) (Big Sur)

                      Still in search of...:
                      -- Olallieberry Pie (Duartes? Linn's Fruit Bin?)
                      -- Date Shake (I understand this is a SoCal thing)
                      -- Pick-your-own strawberries, olallieberries, etc somewhere between LA & Los Gatos. Or just a place to buy some awesome fresh tiny strawberries (there's probably a French name for them that I don't know. Fraises des Bois?)
                      -- Some good artichokes (Castroville the place to go?)
                      -- Some good avocados

                      Thanks again for all the help everybody. There are so many great options. The hard part now is choosing which ones.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: tupac17616

                        Noticed on the SF board that you're dining in LA on Mon. night and have resos at Manresa in LG the next. Looks like you'll have time for lunch somewhere off of Hwy 101 during your 8 hour drive, i.e. forget anything on Hwy 1 (Cambria, Big Sur, Carmel/Monterey).

                        1. re: tupac17616

                          Picking season on ollalieberries is over, but for ollalieberry pie, try Avila Valley Barn, just after Hiway 1 turns inland above Pismo Beach. Be in the outside lane or you'll miss the exit. (if you do, take the next exit and go back south on the west frontage rd) Excellent olalliebery pie, turnovers, cobbler and crisp.

                          Linn's in Cambria is great too. but their store in the village has moved around the corner to Bridge St. or you can go to the farm on Santa Rosa Ck Rd, just east of town.

                          For strawberries, we like the ones at Gold Coast Market (wine and produce) at the Stowell exit in Santa Maria. Great people and wonderful berries. For u-pick strawberries try Kaminaka's in Nipomo. Take the Tefft St exit, go west 2 blks to Pomeroy Rd, turn right. Go about 1 mile (+-) and the farm will be on a wide turn to the right, ON THE LEFT. Turn down the drive into the farm. Rustic sign of a strawberry marks the farm. Other produce available. There is some berry picking at Avila Barn , here's a list of what's available now:


                          15 minutes north of Santa Maria in the town of Arroyo Grande, take the Grand Ave exit, go east one block into the old village of AG to Doc Burn's Ice Cream Lab. Fabulous ice cream made there. I love the Coffee chip. so richly flavored! A great old ice cream parlour. Watch it being made in the back room.

                        2. There is Swanton Berry farm for Strawberries on highway 1 in Davenport. As I mentioned on another board and I don't know if that got deleted, but your drive is ambitious. So, it would be a choice of going for the coast highway (big sur/carmel) or Manressa.

                          If you go for Manressa, then Swanton is not doable. There is an ollieberry farm a few miles up from Swanton and alot of little farms in that area along route 1.

                          Yes Castorville is the place for artichokes. Go to the Giant Artichoe for fried artichokes. It might not be the most amazing food, but ... well, you gotta have a fried artichoke.

                          Ooh .. tomato place ... a recent post mentioned a great heirloom tomato farm. if you are driving over the hill from the Pacific Coast highway to Los Gatos, it would be a place to stop. Search down the California board for it. It's at most it was within the past two weeks.

                          1. Ok, I got deleted for some reason, but as I was saying In-N-Out is wonderful, I recommend getting your burgers animal style, as they're far superior to the regular burgers, check out their website, they have a locator you can check out. I'll have to get moving on the restaurants you have listed myself, as I live in CA and haven't been to most. Thanks for the great post, and have fun in Napa

                            1. I was going to suggest a date shake, so can help you out. My favorite is from Shields in the desert. If you don't want to drive that far, the Orange Inn in Laguna Beach (town is well worth a visit - don't come to Calif & miss Laguna!), does a nice version - I prefer banana-date with nutmeg sprinkled on top.

                              Another don't miss is the Happy Apple in Grass Valley, 1 hr N of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills. Both Nevada City & Grass Valley are charming gold rush towns, but the Happy Apple serves Apple Hamburgers & makes some of the best pies in the world - white peaches should be in season, but any of their apple or berry pies are great.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: torta basilica

                                I hate adding a question to this long post, but could you tell me about those apple hamburgers. Are they hamburgers with apple slices on them?

                                1. re: torta basilica

                                  there also used to be a stand on Santa Claus Lane in Carpenteria years ago that served date shakes. Is that place gone, anybody know? You could see it from 101.

                                  1. re: toodie jane

                                    Date shakes in Carp are gone, along with our grinning Santa Claus on the roof top - though he did get adopted by Oxnard and can still be seen from the freeway. There is still the Padaro Grill under new management, and a rib place called "Smokin Jacks" at the Santa Claus Lane exit. But the kitsch of Santa Clause Lane with the Candy Kitchen and snowman are gone the way of most of all highway "art".

                                2. I'm begging you to do just ONE thing on each board. For this board, I'm begging you to PLEASE take Hwy 1, at least after your Santa Barbara destination. Hwy 1 from LA to SB isn't anything to brag about so for that you can just take 101. But, you MUST take Hwy 1 through Big Sur. You can NOT miss this drive. You won't regret it.
                                  There are lots of places to eat along the way. We took the same drive and stopped in Castroville for giant fried artichokes... YUMMM!!! We also stopped at the Post Ranch Inn's restaurant in Big Sur for lunch. Make lunch in Big Sur a destination.

                                  1. Ok, you seem overwhelmed with Santa Barbara things to do, so i won't give you many more, i'll agree with the santa barbara restraunts, but to your shake...if i were you after La Superrica in Santa Barbara go to a Blenders in the Grass...most every type of shake is there...There are many of them throughout town, if i were you i'd just go down to state, near Paseo Nuevo and go to that one, and righ next to that Blenders is jamba juice. So you've got two shake places in that area, and one must have a date shake...though i don't think i've ever had a date shake and i've lived in California all my life. Now i think the one thing you're missing in this trip is wine tasting. I gues you may not be old enough, but if you are the Santa Ynez valley would be a place to do that...take the 154 out of Santa Barbara, and it'll detour you through the mountains, and if it's dinner time you can go to this place that's a nice little place...Cold Springs Tavern...when you're up in the mountains after Camino Cielo road east and west, you'll see Stagecoach rd. and a sing that says this way to Cold springs tavern...most people don't leave town to go there, because it's a little bit out of the way, but it's an interesting place and must hae tri-tip. If it's not dinner time thenstop at a winery...now if you still havne't had trip tip when you're in pismo beach, get off at I think mattie Rd., or maybe it's shell beach rd., but if you see niether, then just go until you se a huge cowboy on your right...the best atmosphere of any restraunt in California, it's called F. mclintocks. Its the only F. Mclintocks that has that atmosphere all the others are just regular restraunts but that one is an experience. Something you will have never seen before. You should stop by if you can...earlier evening is best because there's usually after 5:30 a wait of about an hour to two hours to get in...as they don't take reservations...

                                    1. Help
                                      cannot find where to start a new post here..
                                      am trying to find info on Padaro in Carpenteria, I see in 2006 it was under new management, how is it now??
                                      looking for fun, cheapish beach food!??

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: nikibigmouth

                                        niki, sorry can't help you with your question, but if you go to the "california" board and right under the "california" title will be a button that says "new topic", click it and you can enter a new title and start a new thread with your question. I think your question is getting lost in this thread.

                                      2. Since you're looking for particular California tastes, I would not miss the dungeness crab. Find a good seafood establishment, (not hard to do in this part of California) and dig in. Since you're driving up Hwy 1 and going to the Carmel area, in Pacific Grove there is a particularly fine restaurant I am fond of. Passion Fish does a wide variety of fresh fish dishes, and the wine list is resonable at retail plus a dollar (they have a web site) It's also near the Monterrey Bay Acquarium (not to be missed).