You're Not a True Californian Unless You've Tried These 11 Foods

California Foods Cover

Cheapism / Mai N. / Yelp / Philippe the Original / Yelp / Jerri K. / Yelp

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California Foods Cover
Cheapism / Mai N. / Yelp / Philippe the Original / Yelp / Jerri K. / Yelp

California Eats

Many things define California, from beachy skies and snowy mountaintops to evergreen forests and vast stretches of desert. But one of the state’s most vibrant characteristics is its culinary identity, which, believe it or not, consists of more than just sticking an avocado in every dish. From red meat to cocktails, here are 11 foods that are distinctly Californian.

Tri-tip by Ernesto Andrade (CC BY-ND)

1. Tri-Tip

Santa Maria-style barbecue, which has roots in California’s central coast, is only defined by a few things. It’s often grilled as well as smoked, always over red oak, and seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and garlic. The other defining characteristic is that tri-tip is often the star of the show. The triangular cut comes from the bottom sirloin area, and in California you see it everywhere, from big restaurants to tiny sandwich shops to grocery stores. Next to an avocado, this is one of the most Californian things you can eat.

Related: Holy Smokes! Bucket-List Barbecue in Every State

Philippe's French dip sandwich
Philippe the Original / Yelp

2. French Dip

Two different Los Angeles restaurants claim to have invented the French dip over 100 years ago. There’s Cole’s who says they did it in 1908, but there’s also Philippe the Original who states they started making them in 1918. Angelenos have picked sides over their favorites forever; this is one of those chicken-egg situations where the battle will never end. 

If you’re asking me? (You’re not, but this whole story is my opinion and I’m an Angeleno, so you have no choice but to hear it.) Better mustard at Cole’s, better sandwich at Philippe’s. 

Related: How Many of These Bucket-List Sandwiches Have You Tried?

Mai Tai

3. Mai Tai

In 1944, a guy named Victor J. Bergeron opened a tiki bar called Trader Vic’s in Oakland. You’ve probably heard of it; there are Trader Vic’s all over the world. He claims to have invented the Mai Tai there, though Donn Beach (who is widely regarded as the father of American Tiki bar culture) says it was inspired by his own creation from a decade earlier, the Q.B. Cooler. Whoever created it, it's the quintessential California cocktail.

Related: History in a Glass: Fascinating Legends Behind 20 Famous Cocktails

Mission Burrito

4. Burritos

Depending on where you are along the California coast, you’ll find tacos and burritos as some of the biggest cornerstones of an entire city. In the Bay Area, particularly San Francisco, burritos are essential. Mission-style burritos are right up there in the Mt. Rushmore of San Francisco foods, and in San Diego, they’re famously stuffed with french fries. 

Related: Discovering California's Best Cheap Eats: A Guide to Affordable Dining

Jerri K. / Yelp

5. Cioppino

Invented by Italian immigrants in San Francisco on Meiggs Wharf (which was destroyed in the famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906), Cioppino is a hearty fish stew built from a base of tomatoes and wine. In fisherman’s stews like these, you’ll usually land whatever the fresh catch is, but a true bowl of San Francisco Cioppino probably has Dungeness crab. And definitely some sourdough to sop it up with.

Related: The Best Spot for Comfort Food in Every State

Slices of Goat cheese with fresh thyme

6. Monterey Jack and Humboldt Fog

Two towns, two cheeses. Jack cheese, the mild cheese known for its perfect meltiness in quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, hails from Monterey in the 1700s and has become one of the most well-known cheeses we’ve got. Much farther up the coast, in true northern California, sits Humboldt County, the home of a cheese manufacturer called Cypress Grove. If you’ve ever eaten at any sort of farm-fresh restaurant in California, you’ve probably seen Humboldt Fog goat cheese. It’s a spectacular goat cheese, and though it originally comes from the Middle East thousands of years ago, it feels distinctly Californian. 

Tasty taquitos with chicken and two sauces close-up. horizontal

7. Taquitos

There’s simply no way rolled up, fried tacos were invented outside of Mexico, but Ralph Pesqueira, Sr. claims to have invented them in the 40s at his restaurant, El Indio Mexican Restaurant in San Diego. No matter who made it for the first time, taquitos are an important part of San Diego’s gastronomical lifeforce. 

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Fish Tacos
Franklin P. / Yelp

8. Fish Tacos

If you took fish tacos out of Southern California, there’d be a gaping hole that few things can fill. From Orange County all the way to the ports of Long Beach, all across San Diego and even the east side of Los Angeles, fish tacos are treated with reverence. For my money, there are few things more deserving of being eaten by California’s coastal waters.

Hangtown Fry at Tadich Grill San Francisco Comfort Food
Diana B./Yelp

9. Hangtown Fry

The Hangtown Fry was invented during the Gold Rush, in a town called Placerville. As the legend goes, a prospector struck gold and rushed over to a hotel, demanding a dish made of the most expensive ingredients they had. At the time, bacon, eggs, and oysters were exactly that. Thus the Hangtown Fry was born: a fried plate of all three.

Related: Unique Comfort Food From Every State

Pastrami Burger, B&D Burger
B&D Burger

10. Pastrami Burgers

There are simply so many things that make up L.A.’s food scene. Tacos, sushi, and burgers come to mind immediately. 

You can find those things in nearly every city, but there’s a type of Los Angeles restaurant that is rarely duplicated. This is the fast-food diner, and at most of these places you’ll see some variation of a pastrami burger. We’re talking about a griddly burger patty, dressed with standard ingredients like lettuce, tomato, and onions, and topped with a generous portion of thinly-sliced pastrami.

Bacon-wrapped hot dogs
Bacon-wrapped hot dogs by Masa Assassin (CC BY-NC-ND)

11. Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dogs

If you’ve left a bar or concert venue late at night in any of California’s major cities, you’ve probably seen (or at least smelled) a bacon-wrapped hot dog. This probably started in Tijuana, but the supremely popular late-night dish is everywhere now. And damn, they hurt so good.