Skip to content

Famous Foods California is Known For

Let’s take a look at the origin stories behind some of the iconic recipes and foods California is known for.

Food, like wine, is often shaped by its environment. Wine lovers think of this in terms of terroir – the soils, climate and other regional features that ultimately affect the way a wine tastes. In the same way, the landscape, history and people of California have also influenced the creation of many iconic California dishes. These recipes are a delicious reflection of California’s history and diversity. Let’s take a look at a few popular recipes that can be traced back to the Golden State, and what makes them uniquely Californian. 

Note: Californians are a colorful bunch, and some of these origin stories have alternate retellings. We’ll share some of the most popular tales here, but just keep in mind that it might not be the only one out there! 

animal fries

 

Los Angeles – Animal Fries 

Surfer/skater culture is synonymous with Southern California. In the 1960’s, a small Los Angeles burger joint called In-N-Out Burger was the late-night hangout for a group of rowdy surfers. The surfers always had the same order – a mustard grilled burger, covered with a “special sauce”, cheese and grilled onions. Eventually, the manager told them to just ask for their orders “animal style” – a nod to their wild antics.  

In-N-Out exploded in popularity and spread throughout the state…and beyond. Those rowdy surfers also left their mark on the now-iconic chain. Animal style burgers and fries are part of their not-so-secret menu.  

Try pairing animal fries with your favorite California sparkling wine.  

Hollywood – Cobb Salad  

No matter where you go in the world, when you say “California” most people associate it with movie stars, palm trees and (of course) the Hollywood sign. Back in 1926, a restaurant called “The Brown Derby” opened on Wilshire Boulevard. It was within walking distance of the movie studios and soon became the darling of the Hollywood crowd. You would often find the likes of Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart and Charlie Chaplin tucked away at a table. 

One night, in 1935, after the crowds had cleared out, Chef Robert Cobb decided to whip himself up a late-night snack. As he rifled through the fridge, sifting through the day’s leftovers, he pulled out some hard-boiled eggs, some bacon, a little roasted chicken and some avocado. He decided to turn this mish mash of ingredients into a salad and shared his late night snack with his friend Sid Grauman. Apparently, this kitchen sink-style salad was pretty delicious. Sid showed up at lunch time the following day and requested the same dish, which he christened the “Cobb Salad”.  

We don’t know if Sid ordered a drink with his salad, but we imagine that if he did, he would have chosen a California Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir.  

California Cobb Salad
hidden valley ranch dressing

Santa Barbara (Hidden Valley) Ranch Dressing 

You might have guessed that Ranch dressing is the nation’s most popular salad dressing, but did you know that its roots can be traced back to Santa Barbara, California? Santa Barbara is well known for its beaches, but not far from those sandy shores are fertile fields and rugged cattle ranches. It was on one of those ranches, Hidden Valley Ranch, that ranch dressing was created.  

Over 70 years ago, Steve Henson and his wife Gayle opened a dude ranch outside of Santa Barbara. Steve could be considered a jack of all trades. He had started his career as a cowboy in Nebraska, then found work in Alaska as a plumber before finally landing in California. Clearly, Steve was a man of many talents – and it turns out that recipe development was another trick he had up his sleeve. Ever heard of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing? Steve Henson is the man behind the buttermilk dressing recipe that is now the nation’s most popular salad dressing and dip.  

Each evening, guests at the ranch were served a hearty meal – think steak and potatoes. Steve’s buttermilk dressing was a standout at those dinners. After countless requests for the recipe, he began to sell his dressing to guests and then to local supermarkets. From there, Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing exploded in popularity.  Ranch became an American sensation and the Hensons ultimately sold the recipe – and name – for 8 million dollars. Talk about “cool ranch”.  

Our favorite way to enjoy Ranch dressing is drizzled on top of an avocado salad and paired with a California Grenache Blanc or Chenin Blanc (which also happens to thrive in the vineyards near Santa Barbara).  

Santa Maria – Santa Maria Tri Tip 

Not far up the coast from Santa Barbara, you’ll find Santa Maria. This small town’s claim to fame is another iconic California dish – Santa Maria-style tri tip. In the 18th century, Spanish missions had begun to pop up all along the coast. These newly established missions required vaqueros, or Spanish cowboys, to tend to their livestock. Around this same time, many of the local missions and ranchers started to host Spanish-style community dinners. Vaqueros grilled large chunks of meat in an open air pit, which was served with traditional Spanish side dishes. Over time, these community dinners led to the creation of a distinctly Californian recipe.  

In 1953, a one-armed local butcher named Bob Schultz introduced the tri-tip, a triangular bottom cut sirloin steak, which had more marbling than the traditional sirloin. This particular cut of beef would have typically been ground, but Schultz had the brilliant idea to keep the piece intact, season it and grill it over a rotisserie instead. There are many ways to cook a tri-tip, but Santa Maria-style tri-tip stays true to the region’s vaquero roots. It is rolled in salt, pepper and garlic salt and cooked in a pit over native red oak coals.  

For an authentic experience, serve it with pinquito beans and salsa….and don’t forget the California Cabernet Sauvignon.    

Santa Maria Tri Tip
Garlic-Stuffed Sourdough Bread

Gilroy – Garlic-Stuffed Sourdough Bread 

About 20 miles inland from the coast, you’ll find Gilroy, the self-proclaimed Garlic Capital of the world. Gilroy is situated at the southernmost tip of the San Francisco Bay Area. It boasts a warm Mediterranean climate and early Italian settlers found that it was the ideal place to grow many familiar crops, including garlic.  

Today, over 90% of the nation’s garlic is grown in California. Gilroy is famous for celebrating all things garlic with great gusto. Until recently, this small town of only 60,000 people was home to the Gilroy Garlic Festival. This annual 3-day event was considered one of the most popular food festivals in the nation. At the festival, you’d find booths hawking everything from garlic ice cream to the famous Gilroy Stuffed Sourdough Bread.  

To be clear, Gilroy can’t lay claim to the invention of garlic bread (that was compliments of the Romans hundreds of years earlier), but they did add their own twist. Traditional garlic bread is made by slicing a French loaf in half and slathering it with butter, garlic and seasonings. The bread is then wrapped in foil and allowed to heat through. Gilroy Stuffed Sourdough Bread boasts the ingenious additions of mayo and parmesan. It’s irresistibly creamy and cheesy with just a hint of a kick from the pungent garlic. 

What would one pair with this deliciousness? That’s a no-brainer. California Chardonnay is the perfect match for this masterpiece.  

San Francisco Bay Area – Cioppino 

As you make your way north through the Santa Clara Valley, you’ll continue to pass through fertile farmlands until you reach San Francisco. It’s a peninsula, meaning it is surrounded by water on three sides. This accounts for two things that San Francisco is famous for – a heavy layer of fog and the abundance of fresh seafood. San Francisco is home to a number of iconic California dishes (including Crab Louie, Fortune Cookies and Chicken Tetrazzini). However, Cioppino is arguably the truest reflection of the city’s history and location.  

Cioppino was developed in the late 1800s by fishermen in the North Beach area. If a fisherman came back from a day at sea without any fish, he would walk down the port with a pot asking his fellow fisherman to “chip in” some of their haul. The most common way to cook up the resulting assortment of seafood was to a tomato-based stew – now known as Cioppino. Even today, the type of seafood used in Cioppino often varies but it always features a tomato-based broth and spicy peppers – with lots of locally grown garlic and wine.  

California Chardonnay or Dolcetto are perfect pairings for this iconic California dish. Be sure to serve your cioppino with a crusty loaf of sourdough bread (which to be fair wasn’t invented in San Francisco, but they’ve definitely perfected it).  

 

Cioppino
popsicles

Oakland – Popsicles 

Across the Bay from San Francisco, you’ll find the city of Oakland which has some of the most temperate weather in Northern California. It rarely, if ever dips below freezing, even during the coldest months of the year. Why does this matter? Well, because Oakland is home to one incredibly famous invention – the popsicle – and weather has everything to do with this story.  

On an uncommonly cold night, around 1905, a young local boy named Frank Epperson accidentally left out a pitcher of a sugary drink with the stir stick in it. When he went outside the next morning, he was shocked to find that the drink had frozen solid with the stick firmly set in the middle. Frank was quite pleased with his accidental invention. He excitedly shared his creation with his friends and eventually, as an adult, with his children. Frank called his creation an “Epsicle”, a combination of his last name and the word icicle. His children, however, coined a catchier name – Popsicle.  

Sure, you could definitely pair a fruity popsicle with wine, but we’ve got a better idea. Actually, we’ve got two better ideas. Add a splash of California rosé to your popsicle mix and make an adults only frozen treat, or dunk a popsicle into a wine cocktail. Sorry, kids – no sharing here! 

Lodi – Grilled Pork Chop and Cherry Sauce 

As you head inland from Oakland towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you’ll pass through California’s San Joaquin Valley. Stretching from Bakersfield to Stockton, this is the Golden State’s largest agricultural region. The city of Lodi is near the valley’s northern tip. 

If you’re a fan of Zinfandel, you’ve probably heard of Lodi. It’s home to some of the state’s oldest Zinfandel vines and the oldest Cinsault vines in the world. While Lodi is probably best known for its wines, countless other crops grow nearby.  

As in most agricultural communities, farm to table dining isn’t a trend – it’s simply a way of life. Farmers and locals enjoy creating delicious dishes with all of the bounty that’s right at their fingertips. These simple dishes prove that “what grows together, goes together”- and are a classic example of California cuisine.  

One example would be a Grilled Pork Chop with Cherry Sauce. The majority of the nation’s cherries are grown in and around Lodi. Cherries pair beautifully with Zinfandel, which is often served with grilled meats. How would you combine these ingredients? A creative home chef might top a grilled pork chop with a Zinfandel-spiked cherry sauce. Keep things local and pair with an Old-Vine Zinfandel or Cinsault. 

Grilled Pork Chop and Cherry Sauce
Hangtown fry

Placerville/El Dorado – Hangtown Fry 

To the east of Lodi, near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you’ll find Placerville – the heart of the Mother Lode. The Gold Rush played a pivotal role in California history, spurring a population boom and paving the way to statehood.  In 1848, gold was first found at John Sutter’s mill. Granted, this was not the first time that gold had been struck in what is now known as “The Golden State”. Rumors of gold in the hills had swirled for years. John Sutter tried to keep his discovery on the down low, but word traveled fast. By March of 1848, a San Francisco paper had spilled the tea on Sutter’s find. Almost immediately, people flocked to Placerville to find their fortune. It was a dangerous journey and many would-be miners never made it to the Golden State. Of those who did, only a few were richly rewarded.  

Early California was a wild, lawless place. Some of the men who flocked to Placerville in search of gold sought to find riches through more devious methods. Often, miners were robbed or even killed for their gold. After three back-to-back murders, local residents had had enough. All three defendants were found guilty and a jury decided to hang the lot of them. Placerville, consequently, became known as Hangtown.  

This gory tale sets the scene for another iconic California recipe – the Hangtown Fry. When one of those early prospectors struck it rich, he headed to a popular Hangtown restaurant to celebrate. The miner asked the chef to whip up the most extravagant meal he could think of. The most expensive ingredients that the chef had on hand were eggs, bacon, and oysters (which had to be shipped on ice from San Francisco, over 100 miles away). The chef quickly fried up the oysters and bacon and tossed them up into an omelet – now known as a Hangtown Fry. Try pairing an oyster omelet with Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine from the Sierra Foothills.  

Southern Central Valley: Roasted Grape Wine Cocktail 

Recipe courtesy of CA Grown

If you head back down from the foothills towards the Central Valley, you’ll be treated to views of farmland for as far as the eye can see. Small towns dot the map, but in this region, farming reigns supreme. Fresno County, located near the center of California, is one of the leading agricultural producers in the state. While places like Napa and Sonoma may carry more clout in the wine world, around 75 percent of the state’s wine production actually takes place in the Central Valley. And winegrapes aren’t the only kind of grapes that the San Joaquin Valley grows in abundance. California as a whole is responsible for 98% of the Nation’s commercially grown table grapes – and the vast majority of those table grapes are grown in the Southern Central Valley.  

For this reason, the Rosemary + Roasted Grape Wine Cocktail is the perfect reflection of this region. Jammy roasted grapes, woodsy rosemary, and bright fresh lemon mingle with the effervescent bubbles of sparkling wine. This refreshing wine cocktail may not be an iconic California recipe quite yet, but it should be.

grape cocktail
Image courtesy of CA Grown
Iconic California Recipes

Free E-Book

Ready for even more Iconic California goodness? Check out the “Iconic California Dishes for California Wine Month” ebook we’re sharing in partnership with Visit California & CA GROWN.

Sign Up Here To Get Yours!

About the Author

Hilary Rance is part of the digital team for California Wines and works closely with several California commodity boards and influencers. As a seventh generation Californian, she enjoys sharing stories about the people, places and products that make our state so incredibly special.

follow us on instagram @california.wines