The Essential Guide to Eating California

July 11, 2018

In the American imagination, California has always been viewed through a haze of fantasy. Early on, it was dreams of fist-sized gold nuggets lying in wait. Then a generation of Okies schlepped West, to eventually populate the pages of Steinbeck and the photos of Dorothea Lange, looking for a utopian land of plenty. More recently, it’s reveries of glamour and fame. Of in-ground pools. Of cheap avocados and convertible road trips to Coachella. Of picnics beside granite waterfalls. Of another gold rush, but made out of code. Of palm trees and beaches and children riding surf boards to school.

This is all mostly the stuff of California’s well-marketed mythology: There are swaying palm trees, but no public guacamole fountains. There are uncannily good-looking people and overnight millionaires, but few top-down joyrides (hello traffic). And then there’s the food. The beautiful idea that pretty much anything you can put in your mouth is better in California? That part, it turns out, isn’t a fantasy.

Obscenely wonderful produce is abundant year-round, but there are also peerless sushi bars and Sichuan restaurants and kebab shops and beach burger shacks and prix fixe palaces and pho specialists and bread bakeries and chaat shops and French bistros and tacos — lo, the tacos! This is where even toast sparked a national obsession.

In the course of putting together Eater’s first-ever guide to the entire state of California, we shipped our national critic out West for two months, recruited more than a dozen local experts, ate hundreds of meals, and drove just about every imaginable strip of highway to help you live our favorite version of the California dream. From the definitive list of the state’s 38 essential restaurants to a Central Valley taco crawl to an artist’s statewide search for a Beijing specialty, here’s Eater’s entirely true guide to the totally fantastical state of California — palm trees optional.

The real California dream:

From Chez Panisse to Taco María, here are the restaurants that define the state. Also, mapped.

Sorry, New York…

And here is just a taste of why:

One of the country’s best Mexican food scenes is on the road between Bakersfield and Sacramento. Taco expert Gustavo Arellano hits the Central Valley’s State Route 99 in search of it. Here’s what he found, mapped.

From barbecued tri-tip to peppery pinquito beans, the flavors of the old West are alive and well in the scenic coastal hills between Santa Barbara and Big Sur.

A little sweet, a little hot, a little smoky, the Fresno chile is a favorite of big-name chefs nationwide. Here’s the fascinating story behind the Central Valley’s star pepper and the unsung town that birthed it.

The Southern California cities of Westminster and Garden Grove became a home away from home for a generation of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s. Over piles of garlicky lobster and sticky-sweet che, one writer’s grandfather reflects on the neighborhood’s roots and marvels at how the community has grown.

It’s been eight years since artist Angie Wang had shui zhu yu (water-boiled fish), and she’s been dreaming about it ever since. Her illustrated search takes her through America’s most comprehensive collection of Chinese restaurants.

Jollibee, Zankou Chicken, El Pollo Loco — fast-food chains from around the world thrive in the City of Angels, while serving as some of the city’s most democratic dining rooms.

Everything else you need to take on California:

Northern California

An Eater’s Guide to San Francisco | SF’s Best Bars | Where to Eat in Coastal Marin and Sonoma | Marin’s Best Oyster Shacks | Where to Eat in Monterey and Carmel | Where to Eat and Drink in the Russian River Valley

Central California

Where to Eat Between SF and LA | The Best Restaurants in Santa Barbara | The Best Restaurants in the Central Coast | Where to Eat Barbecue in the Central Coast | Central Coast Roadhouse Cuisine

Southern California

An Eater’s Guide to Los Angeles | LA’s Best Bars | Malibu’s Best Restaurants | The Hottest Restaurants in Orange County | Where to Eat in Palm Springs | Where to Eat Between LA and San Diego | San Diego’s Best Tacos | San Diego’s Best Bars

Where to stay and what to do (besides eat)

Things to Do in SF | Where to Stay in SF | The Best Things to Do with Kids in SF | Curbed’s Guide to the California Desert | Things to Do in LA | The Best Things to Do with Kids in LA

See more Eater travel guides:

Editor: Lesley Suter
Art Director: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Contributors: Bill Addison, Farley Elliot, Gustavo Arellano, Oriana Koren, Ryan Bradley, Angie Wang, Chrissy Curtin, Cathy Chaplin, Andrea D’Agosto, Stephanie Stiavetti, Meghan McCarron, Bill Esparza, Matthew Kang, Amanda Kludt, Carl Chu, Ellen Fort, Stephen Satterfield, Candice Woo, Hillary Dixler Canavan, Greg Morabito
Copy Editor: Rachel P. Kreiter
Fact Checkers: Dawn Orsak and Pearly Huang
Thanks to Amanda Kludt, Matt Buchanan, Sonia Chopra, Meghan McCarron, Milly McGuinness, Adam Moussa, Patty Diez, James Park, Manami Takashina, Julia Shapiro, Emma Alpern, Daniel Vaughn, Ellie Krupnick

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