California has always been a trendsetter when it comes to the culinary arts—from its extraordinary array of ethnic fare to its cutting-edge, vegetable-forward, local-leaning food habits started decades ago. And the Golden State continues to push the boundaries. (Want to sample some of the state's best eats while on a Highway 101 road trip? Try these options.) Here are eight trends that still make California the place to eat.
Born in San Diego and Baja California, Cali-Baja marries the north-of-the-border emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients with south-of-the-border flavors like those of Baja-Med cuisine, a flavor profile that has taken on a life of its own. Around San Diego, you can experience this distinct cooking style with inventive dishes like Michelada-steamed mussels at Galaxy Taco or the Mexican Street Bowl—an in-season produce salad topped with spicy chili—at Puesto.
Japanese noodle soup continues to heat up in the Golden State. It’s the perfect meal: hearty and warming and rib-sticking good. Combine pork belly, noodles, and a deep, flavorful broth in a bowl and it is no wonder ramen has created an entire West Coast state of soup slurpers. But the ramen joint has recently evolved: Santa Clara’s Orenchi Ramen continues to draw lines for its traditional noodle soup, but it also serves up new concoctions like a soup with pine nuts, miso broth, baby bok choy, and pork. And Oakland’s new Itani Ramen takes a spin around the regional ramen world of Japan, offering more than the usual noodles-and-pork-belly soup.
Poke with a spin
This sumptuous raw fish dish has spread from the Hawaiian Islands to California like a delicious tidal wave. Pronounced “poh-keh,” these cubes of raw fish are seasoned with garlic, soy sauce, and onion, and are sometimes sprinkled with rice or quinoa. Naturally, California has put its own spin on it, such as topping nachos with poke at Spin Fish in Los Angeles or adding plenty of gluten-free and low-carb options at Ohana Poke Co., which has locations in the Silverlake and Downtown sections of L.A.
Veggies as a main dish
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to take delight in all things fresh and veggie. At least not in California. Chefs in the state have recently shifted their menus to a more vegetable-forward approach, sometimes inverting the usual formula by making meat a side dish and vegetables the star of the plate. What started at legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971 has fully grown up and is lauded at restaurants like Al’s Place in San Francisco, an acclaimed spot popular with carnivores and veggie lovers; first timers shouldn’t skip the hearty yellow eye bean stew to warm up on a chilly San Francisco night. Down south, Corona's Blackburns Farm to Table uses spaghetti squash to create its hearty vegan bolognese spaghetti dish.
A couple of years ago, the mention of matcha would have been met with blank stares. Today, it inspires tea-sipping glee. This Japanese green tea has become all the rage in California as awareness of its health benefits and perky deliciousness have spread across the state. Even matcha-themed cafes have popped up everywhere from Shuhari Matcha Café in Venice to Matcha Love, the retail shops in Costa Mesa and San Jose.
The cuisine of the Philippines has long lagged behind other Southeast Asian nations, like Thailand and Vietnam, in popularity in California. But it’s quickly emerging as a new favorite. And why not? From the unctuous porky lechon to slow-cooked garlicky adobo, diners are finally discovering that Filipino fare is saliva-inducing delicious. Case in point: Check out RiceBar in Los Angeles, which focuses on heritage grains from the islands, or Gina’s Filipino Kape in Sacramento to find out for yourself.
Gastropubs go global
It’s not a coincidence that the craft brewery phenomenon and gastropubs—bars that serve inspired pub grub—both can be traced back to the early 1990s. And now that California is overflowing with its own great craft beer and the state is sprinkled with great gastropubs, it has never been a better time to visit your local spot. Especially because California has put its own organic spin on the gastropub. The new Dan Gordon’s in Palo Alto, for example, serves up fork-tender barbecue to go with its booze. Broken Spanish in Downtown L.A. is leading the way for the Mexican-accented gastropub movement, serving up Mexican craft brews with its menu of oxtail quesadillas and masa dumplings.
Döner Kebab craze
Southern California’s newest food trend comes from Turkey by way of Berlin. Meet the döner kebab. Think of it as a Middle Eastern version of the taco al pastor. Combine fresh Golden State-grown veggies, lamb or beef shaved off a rotating spit, and chili sauce—and then stuff it all into a piece of slightly toasted pita bread. The recently opened Berlins in Venice serves kebabs that overflow with Teutonic and Turkish goodness. Meanwhile, SpireWorks—just a pita’s throw from the UCLA campus—shaves off tender meat from a spit and serves it up to hungry college students and fans of Turkish cuisine.