California is known for its massive cultural, political, and economic influence on the rest of the United States. It’s no surprise, then, that the most famous foods in California are popular throughout the entire country.
Pulling inspiration from multiple cultures, much of the state’s cuisine is often fresh, fun, and iconic. A great way to experience more of what the Golden State has to offer, in no particular order, here are 10 of the most well-known foods in California:
While sourdough bread wasn’t actually invented in California, as it dates back to ancient Egypt, the bread as we know it today was popularized in San Francisco. During the Gold Rush of 1849, miners ate sourdough a lot, thanks to the availability of yeast. Some miners even kept sourdough starter in their backpacks because it was so durable.
Within just a few years, bakeries had popped up all over San Francisco offering sourdough. Baking techniques evolved, and the airy, thick-crusted bread we are used to today was born. Over the next century, California grew in population, and the sourdough craze spread throughout the state.
Some of the original Gold Rush-era bakeries are still open. Boudin Bakery is San Francisco’s oldest continuously operating business. The company has 29 locations throughout the city, some of which offer casual meals and specialty bread while others have full-service dining.
California has no shortage of burritos, and the state helped popularize many different iterations of the Mexican wrap. The Mission burrito, in particular, got its start in the 1960s in the Mission District of San Francisco.
What sets the Mission burrito apart is often its sheer size. The dish includes a large flour tortilla, rice, beans, veggies, cheese, and various condiments, like sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo. There is no single recipe for a Mission burrito– every restaurant will make them slightly differently.
While the exact origins of the Mission burrito aren’t clear, it’s widely accepted that El Faro, a taqueria just off Mission Street, served the first one in 1962. Still in business today with an extensive menu, they still proudly proclaim themselves the home of the original Mission burrito.
Unless sushi is part of your cultural background, you may have been introduced to the dish with the very mild California roll. It is a type of uramaki, or “inside-out” sushi. This means the outside of the sushi is wrapped with vinegared rice instead of seaweed. Meanwhile, the inside of the California roll often includes cucumber, crab, and avocado.
The story of the Cali roll begins in the 1960s in Los Angeles. Legend has it that chef Ichiro Mashita was looking for a substitute for tuna in sushi rolls. He added avocado and crab, then wrapped the roll with rice to appeal to Americans, many of whom were somewhat averse to eating seaweed.
Popular in restaurants across the United States, there’s undoubtedly something special about trying them in the state where they were invented. Additionally, California avocados are in a league of their own, making the rolls particularly fresh and delicious.
The story behind the classic Cobb salad is open to debate, but the most accepted version is a charming one. In 1937 in Hollywood, it’s said that Bob Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant, was poking through the refrigerator, pulling out various leftover ingredients.
Throwing together bits of lettuce, hard-boiled egg, tomato, cheese, avocado, and bacon, before topping it off with French dressing, he apparently enjoyed it so much that he served it at his restaurant the next day. Variations of the dish include grilled chicken, ham, or wedges of lettuce (as opposed to a bed of greens).
The Brown Derby is no longer in operation, but Cobb salads are available at many restaurants. Highly-rated Cobb salads can be found at the Getty Center Restaurant in Los Angeles and Katella in Los Alamitos.
When you think of fortune cookies, you may immediately associate them with Chinese food. And you wouldn’t be wrong as they are typically found in Chinese restaurants across the US. However, the original fortune cookies were from Japan, and later, California.
In the 1800s in Japan, crackers with a similar shape to modern-day fortune cookies were sold in sweet shops. The general consensus is that Japanese immigrants brought them to California in the early 1900s. They were then made sweeter and lighter, turning into more of a cookie than a cracker.
The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park claims to have served the first fortune cookies in California. Still serving guests today, the cookies come with every dish. Of course, if you’re not visiting San Francisco, you can find them at Chinese restaurants throughout the state, especially in LA’s Chinatown.
Although it’s now something of a social media star and a symbol of the millennial generation, avocado toast has been around much longer than Instagram. Exactly where avocado toast was invented is unclear– some sources say Australia, others say Mexico. Most likely, the first civilizations to consume some version of the dish didn’t document it.
Now a brunch staple in California, this fairly basic meal is now served with a variety of toppings. From balsamic vinegar and sesame seeds to fried eggs and pickled carrots, the dish can be just about anything you want. California has arguably some of the tastiest (and most photogenic) avocado toast out there, thanks to the availability of fresh avocados.
Popular brunch spots include Sqirl in Los Angeles, Bartavelle Cafe in Berkeley, and Avotoasty in San Francisco.
Fast food giant In-N-Out has spread throughout the western United States in recent decades, but it started in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948. Hamburgers, of course, already existed at the time. What didn’t exist, though, was the double-double. Featuring two patties and two slices of cheese, the then-monstrous sandwich was first advertised by In-N-Out in 1963.
While other burger chains offered burgers with two patties, many of them included a third bun in the middle. In-N-Out’s double-double didn’t contain the extra bun, allowing the taste of meat and cheese to shine through. Since the advent of the double-double, many burger joints have created their own versions of the sandwich.
Today, most double burgers are even bigger than the original, sometimes containing bacon, mushrooms, or specialty cheese. Still serving its original double-double, this burger is one of the most popular items on In-N-Out’s menu. There are more than 250 In-N-Out locations in California, so if you’d like to try the nation’s first double burger, it won’t be hard to find.
Garlic Ice Cream
If you’re a fan of garlic, don’t miss a chance to visit Gilroy, California, about 60 miles south of San Francisco. Known as the “Garlic Capital of the World,” the town hosted an annual Garlic Festival until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Restaurants and shops throughout the town sell dishes made with garlic. Garlic soup, fries, olives– they have it all.
Perhaps the most unique (and maybe controversial) is garlic ice cream. The Garlic City Cafe serves both chocolate and vanilla ice cream infused with garlic. It’s generally a popular dessert. Some customers, though, complain that after having a garlic-centric meal, they can’t taste the garlic in the ice cream.
In addition to a wide variety of garlic-flavored fare, you can also find themed souvenirs and gifts in town. There’s even a garlic mural on Monterey Street if you’re looking for a photo op.
French Dip Sandwich
Surprisingly, the French dip sandwich has no ties to France– the dish is purely American. While it’s well-established that the sandwich was invented in Los Angeles, two restaurants in the city claim to be the first to serve it. Both Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and Philippe the Original call themselves the home of the original French dip sandwich.
Typically, French dip is served on a baguette or French bread. The inside often consists only of hot roast beef, though some top it with grilled onions, Swiss cheese, or spicy mustard. Before each bite, the sandwich is dipped in a cup of broth or au jus.
Both Philippe the Original and Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet are still in operation, and both still serve French dip. They have slightly different versions of the sandwich; Philippe’s is served pre-dipped, while Cole’s comes with a side of beef juices. Philippe’s menu features beef, lamb, pastrami, pork, turkey, and ham as meat options for their French dip sandwiches.
Maple Bar Donut
Nearly every culture in every period in history has consumed some manner of fried dough. The French have beignets, the Spanish have churros, and Americans on the West Coast have maple bars. For those unfamiliar with the dessert, maple bars are rectangular-shaped donuts topped with a maple glaze.
Also known as Long Johns or maple Bismarcks, they are usually unfilled but sometimes contain custard or cream. Some bakeries take it a step further and top the donuts with small pieces of bacon. Maple-glazed donuts exist all over the United States, but the bar-shaped pastries are particularly popular in California, Oregon, and Washington.
It’s unclear why maple bars are so prevalent in California, but they can be found in bakeries and cafes throughout the state. The Donut Man in Glendora is open 24/7, and many guests have left rave reviews about their maple bars.
California is home to 40 million people of all cultures and origins, so it’s no wonder some of their most famous dishes are American twists on foods from all over the world. While many of these iconic meals are popular nationwide, they’re often the freshest and most authentic in the Golden State.