Road trips are action-packed. You have towns to explore, scenery to admire, photos to snap, and bucket lists to check. Inevitably you'll get hungry, so don't neglect your food planning. What you eat along the journey is half the fun—a great meal keeps you satisfied and cruising along in high spirits. Strategize your itinerary to include these roadside eateries.
Tacos worth the drive
Fish tacos may be the state's signature dish, but true taco fans can't pass up al pastor, beef tongue, or even cauliflower. Regardless of the filling, folded tortillas packed with deliciousness can be found in every Golden State city and far-flung hamlet.
Cruising I-10 from Los Angeles to Palm Springs? Stop for nopales tacos smothered in cilantro at Rancho Cucamonga's El Tio Alex. While beach-hopping in Orange County, pull over for blackened fish tacos served seaside at Laguna Beach's Lost Pier Cafe. After wine-tasting in Paso Robles, swing by downtown for short rib and halibut tacos at Fish Gaucho, or taste black bean and zucchini tacos at Órale Taqueria.
In Santa Barbara, steer in to East Beach Tacos for ahi poke tacos with wasabi aioli, or pop into Corizón Cocina for octopus and shrimp tacos. Meat lovers will prefer Lilly's Taqueria, which cooks up authentic beef tongue and cheek tacos.
Burgers to brake for
Everybody loves hamburgers (or their meatless equivalent). Not surprisingly, California puts its own twist on this timeless item. Every Big Sur road trip should include a Famous Ambrosiaburger—ground beef on a French roll slathered in a secret sauce—at Nepenthe's lofty coastal perch. In the Napa Valley and San Francisco Bay Area, Gott's Roadside reigns as burger royalty, spiffing up the traditional patty-on-bun with its California burger layered with fried egg, bacon, and arugula.
The Central Valley produces much of the state's beef, so it should come as no surprise that burger joints dominate. You'll find Kosmo's hefty burgers at Stockton's food truck park, Stocklandia, plus live music or a DJ spinning beats. Squeeze Burger in Stockton, Galt, and Sacramento serves Instagram-ready burgers adorned with melted cheese "skirts." Bakersfield gets burger-creative at Moo Creamery, where its PB&B features grass-fed beef, bacon jam, peanut butter, and crunchy potato chips. Farther north in Dunsmuir, Yak's on the 5 dares your taste buds with Melt Your Tongue, a sweet-hot burger with pickled jalapenos and lime aioli.
Jerky, the crumb-less car snack
There are two times when jerky tastes like the best snack you ever ate: on a long hike and on a road trip. Headed to Lake Tahoe? Turn your wheels toward Truckee's Jerky Junction—housed in a red caboose—for thick, cowboy-style beef and Hawaiian-style pork jerky. On your next trip to Disneyland Resort, stop in to Anaheim House of Jerky for western tri-tip and chipotle bourbon beef jerky. For a Mojave Desert sojourn, stock up at Baker's Alien Fresh Jerky. In addition to tasty dried meats, the shop offers a huge array of bottled hot sauces and weirdly wonderful alien kitsch. (It's right next to the World's Tallest Thermometer, so you can't miss it.)
Travelers exploring the eastern Sierra via U.S. 395 hit up Bishop's Mahogany Smoked Meats, jerky masters since 1922. Grab a quarter-pound of peppered elk or teriyaki buffalo jerky, and maybe throw in some spicy wild boar, too. If you devour your entire purchase too quickly, replenish your supply at Gus's Fresh Jerky, 80 miles south in Olancha.
When cruising north on I-5, you face a sandwich conundrum: Stop for lunch at Granzella's in Williams or Olive Pit in Corning? Less than 60 miles apart, both long-standing institutions have conquered the olive muffuletta. (Possible deciding question: Olive Pit's awesome olive tasting bar or Granzella's mounted polar bears?)
North of San Diego in Leucadia, Moto Deli knows its way around a Cubano, banh mi, or tuna salad sandwich. A Del Mar visit cries out for a super-stuffed corned beef Reuben at Milton's. Highway 1 drivers steering the winding two-lane between San Simeon and Carmel shouldn't bypass the Ragged Point Inn, where the outdoor snack serves a tasty grilled cheese, and you can't beat the Pacific view.
Fruit pies to remember
Californians are crazy about pie, and rightfully so. Peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, and berries are some of the state's most important agricultural products, and they taste like heaven on a buttery crust. Pick up a strawberry rhubarb pie at Stockton's The Fruit Bowl. Try a slice of Fruit of the Forest, a five-fruit mashup, at Casa de Fruta in Hollister. Join the legion of road-trippers who've scored a juicy peach pie at Ikeda's in Auburn, conveniently located en route to Lake Tahoe. Or head into the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Highway 108 through Sonora, making a side-trip to Cover's Apple Ranch to sample mile-high apple pie.
For a true California specialty, dig your fork into olallieberry pie, made with a deep purple berry that's a cross between loganberry and youngberry. On Highway 1 in the Central Coast, find the coveted "o-pie" at Linn's in Cambria, the historic Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero, and Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport.