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California's Food History and Iconic Dishes?

Hello Chowhounds! I'm interested in some classic, iconic Californian dishes, and how they came to be that way. I know about Hangtown Fry, Green Goddess dressing, Baja cooking, etc. but I'm curious as to any other dishes or cuisines that have roots in the state's past - whether they're really obscure, local-knowledge only types, or dishes that came from California that now appear on menus across the nation... Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance - CF

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  1. Hi! I know I'm going to sound like a tourist (cause I am! Native New Yorker who's only been to California 4 times), but I love geographical gastronomy. Some iconic California dishes/treats that come to mind are:

    sourdough bread (invented in San Francisco)
    dungenous crab
    Mission burritos

    Date shakes
    fish tacos
    fried artichokes

    49 Replies
    1. re: Sra. Swanky

      Dungeness crab is decidedly Northwestern.

      I agree with everything else on your list but I would also point out that California revolutionized pizza in the US.

      1. re: jpc8015

        Dungeness is named after a town in Washington

        1. re: Alan408

          It is actually the Dungeness Spit near the town of Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula.

          1. re: Alan408

            California may not have been the originator of the Dungeness crab menu item, but they're an avid adopter and dishes like Crab Louis are decidedly Californian.

              1. re: ferret

                It is likely that Crab Louie came from Oregon or Washington.

              2. re: Alan408

                True, but the crabs do live around San Francisco so I'll take them (or would, if they weren't so expensive this year)

              3. re: jpc8015

                I'm a native New Havener and I'd like to point out that California bastardized apizza...............

                1. re: c oliver

                  Some might call a clam pizza a bastard :)

                    1. re: c oliver

                      Some might, but when Frank Pepe started serving them in the 1920s they were to be in compliance with Roman Catholic Church rules regarding no meat on Fridays or during Lent.
                      This non-Christian isn't affected, but doesn't eat them. I eat a traditional New Haven Apizza, dough, sauce, grated Pecirino Romano and spices...............

                    2. re: bagelman01

                      New York style, Chicago style, California style...they are all good.

                      1. re: jpc8015

                        Spoken like a true non-tristater!

                        Mr Taster

                        1. re: Mr Taster

                          Bred, born, and raised on the West Coast.

                        2. re: jpc8015

                          why settle for good, when New Haven Apizza is Great?

                          1. re: bagelman01

                            You can get a thin crust pizza anywhere.

                              1. re: jpc8015

                                New Haven apizza is so much more than just a thin crust. While this is the truly great pizza, I do like the outside the box toppings that California popularized. I also enjoy many of the Italian toppings that were never as popular in NH.

                                1. re: melpy

                                  I'm sure it is great pizza but to discount every other pizza because it isn't New Haven pizza is a bit short sighted.

                                  1. re: jpc8015

                                    Especially since this IS about CA food history. AND it's not about there never having been a version of a food or dish anywhere else in the world.

                                    1. re: jpc8015

                                      I don't think I discounted every other kind. I think I said that NH is not just about a thin crust.

                                      I also stated that I enjoy the CA revolution of toppings.

                                      Are you sure you meant to respond to me?

                                      I live in Central PA and I enjoy the style of some of the pizza here too. I just wouldn't say that NH is about the thin crust. All the major chains sell a thin crust but I wouldn't take Papa John's over Pepe's or Modern given the choice.

                                      I like to make pizza at home using the super screaming hot oven crust style of NH with the unique toppings popularized by CA.

                                      1. re: melpy

                                        >> I like to make pizza at home using the super screaming hot oven crust style of NH

                                        And how do you simulate coal oven temps with a home oven?! I'd love to know!

                                        Mr Taster

                                        1. re: Mr Taster

                                          Outdoor pizza oven

                                          At home without this I can get close with oven on 550 for an hour with the stone in there, pizza just takes a little longer see second image.

                                          1. re: melpy

                                            That's a thing of beauty. That's not a coal burning oven though, is it? It looks like wood to me.

                                            Mr Taster

                                            1. re: melpy

                                              The crust is to die for in that pic!

                                            2. re: Mr Taster

                                              I read a blog once from a guy who moved from NY to somewhere in the south.... he spent an enormous amount of time and brain power trying to re create NY pizza (which is really the only pizza worth re-creating :-) )

                                              what he finally did was brilliant- he disabled the lock on his self cleaning oven - set the oven to self clean and cooked the pizza in the oven at about 900 degrees - maybe a good plan to have a fire extinguisher on hand....

                                            3. re: melpy

                                              I did not necessarily mean that you had discounted every other type of pizza...there are those that do though. This isn't only true for New Haven. there are fans of every style of pizza who love to tout there respective favorite as the "only real pizza".

                                      2. re: bagelman01

                                        Ha! No way. So, sorry....
                                        Some folks prefer the California style pizza! Some Chicago...etc. different strokes, for different folks! I like it all, but California style is my favorite, every time.

                                        1. re: sedimental

                                          Agree. Since this is about CA food, I think that stands for itself. ::)

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            Yes, I think the base of California cuisine is to remake, redo, reinvent. I have several favorite California cookbooks. Love them all.


                                  2. re: jpc8015

                                    Thank you, jpc8015! For dungeness crab, do you mean decidedly Northwestern California, or the U.S. region as a whole? And agreed, California pizza is wonderful.

                                    1. re: CF52787

                                      The center of the Dungeness crab universe is Washington State, not California.

                                  3. re: Sra. Swanky

                                    Fish tacos are from (Baja) California, aka Mexico

                                    1. re: Alan408

                                      Ok - that's what I thought. I know California was close! I had some awesome ones in San Diego. (Keep in mind, I'm a Western US turista!)

                                      And the fish tacos here in NY are disgraceful, of course.

                                      1. re: Sra. Swanky

                                        From Ensenada, Fishermen from Japan cooked some fish tempura style

                                    2. re: Sra. Swanky

                                      Thank you, Sra. Swanky! Those are great suggestions - I'll add them to my list!

                                      1. re: Sra. Swanky

                                        What's a "date shake" please?

                                        Probably even steamed artichokes.

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          Milk Shake flavored with dates, from a place in the desert

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            There's a region along Highway 111 that's a big date producer. Shield's Date Garden is a popular rest stop that has them That's where I tried my first date shake. Like Alan408 said, it's a milk shake flavored with crystalized dates. They're rich and yummy.


                                            1. re: Sra. Swanky

                                              Not that it has to do with anything, but I'm not a huge date fan - however, put anything into a milkshake and I'm pretty much sold! Sounds delicious, also thanks for the tip about the producer.

                                              1. re: CF52787

                                                Personally, I find date shakes far too cloying.

                                                Mr Taster

                                            2. re: c oliver

                                              Drop everything right now and make this!!!!

                                              (I use almond milk and non dairy ice cream and its still awesome....)

                                              1. re: Ttrockwood

                                                Sorry, kids. I don't drink ANY milkshakes and dates sound TOO sweet.

                                              2. re: Sra. Swanky

                                                I realize there's plenty of discussion of "San Francisco sourdough" but I just want to point out that "sourdough bread" was not "invented" in San Francisco. "Sourdough" is simply flour and water that has been allowed to be colonized by wild yeast -- it's the original yeast dough!

                                                As others have noted, it's the strains of wild yeast in San Francisco that give the local bread its unique flavor profile.

                                              3. If you are doing research vs chatting, try Sunset Magazine

                                                Welcome to Chowhound

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Alan408

                                                  Hi Alan408 - thanks for the tips, and the welcome! Just getting used to the discussion format so pardon any missteps there... I am doing a bit of research, and I really appreciate everyone taking the time to respond! I'll try Sunset Magazine; I'm looking for the origins of these foods, so maybe some back issues will help...

                                                2. Garlic Fries?

                                                  French Fries seasoned with garlic, from the Gilroy Garlic Festival

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: Alan408

                                                    That trend has made its way north to Seattle. I do not love it.

                                                    1. re: Alan408

                                                      And don't forget, no Dodger game is complete without a basket of garlic fries.

                                                      Mr Taster

                                                    2. I believe the fortune cookie is a California invention. Don't know that it qualifies as iconic Californian, but it's a product of the Chinese migration.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                          As a youth, there was an older Woman from Japan in the neighborhood, she usually had flat cookies that tasted like fortune cookies.

                                                          According to one of her daughters, they were the same as fortune cookies but were imported from Japan. They came in a can, probably 5 gal size

                                                          A cup of her tea and some of those cookies (wafers), a fond memory

                                                          1. re: c oliver

                                                            I think they are just a term for beef ribs.

                                                            1. re: jpc8015

                                                              Beef ribs that have been marinaded in something that tastes of honey. I had the impression that they were an original Californian concoction but I'm darned if I can find a reference.