From sleek new speakeasies coming out from their shadowy history to the elevation of tacos beyond street food status, California is cooking-up a whole slew of genre-bending food and cocktail trends.
Speakeasies Emerge from the Shadows
During Prohibition, California was awash in illicit underground bars and speakeasies, especially in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco with their access to ports. Today, a new breed of speakeasy is on tap: hip, highly-stylized venues that pay homage to past eras but add a decidedly modern twist with creative interiors and inspired cocktails. Great examples include LA’s Eighties-themed Break Room 86 (featuring a wicked cool entrance behind a vending machine) and San Francisco’s The Wilson Bar, a speakeasy within a speakeasy that riffs on a private eye’s office circa 1930s.
Loco for Locavore
California was one of the earliest adopters of the local food movement. The term “locavore” was coined here and local has long been on the menu in the Golden State. California is once again the incubator of the latest innovation in the locavore movement – this time it’s making local ingredients and wholesome foods accessible at fast food prices to serve a wider community. Loco’l is a groundbreaking collaboration between two of California’s most revered and renowned chefs, , Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. Their . Their respective pioneering influences range from the guerrilla food truck movement (Choi) to haute, hyper local Californian cuisine (Patterson). The first two restaurants in their Loco’l chain are set to open in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Brewtails on Tap
Free-spirited California is at the forefront of mixing things up on the cocktail scene with malty mash-ups called brewtails. The genre-bending quaffs mix quality craft beers with cocktail ingredients to produce striking new libations with names like the Tijuana Matinee (mezcal, Cointreau, orange, Almanac Golden Gate Sour Wheat beer) served up by San Francisco’s Barrelhead Brewhouse.
IPA’s on A Roll
California is a craft beer powerhouse always refining and reinventing the category with new interpretations. Lately, hoppy IPAs have surged in popularity and the state’s top brewers are right in step, producing award-winners like Racer 5 IPA crafted by the Napa region’s Bear Republic Brewing and San Diego trophy beer Sculpin India Pale Ale, brewed by Ballast Point.
California-Native Spirits Soar
Home to more craft distilleries than anywhere else in the country, it’s only natural that California should be a hot-bed of artisanal spirits makers. Increasingly, the state’s agricultural bounty is being transformed into inventive, spirited expressions like the newly launched California Citrus vodka infused with San Joaquin Valley citrus and bergamot made by Alameda-based St. George Spirits. Organic California Red Winter wheat is used to produce the craft gin now being distilled by Sebastopol-based Spirit Works Distillery, which also adds California botanicals into a traditional Old World recipe.
Pubs used to be famous for lackluster “pub grub.” That’s all changed in California with a new wave of gastropubs that mix top quality brews with elevated fare you would expect to find at a top-shelf restaurant. Case in point, Oceanside’s Flying Pig, where menu items like parmesan truffle fries are paired with some of San Diego county’s top craft beers. Near Sacramento, Boneshaker Public House in Rocklin is loved by locals for platings like chicken pesto flatbread and the Blind Pig mac and cheese (add bacon, bratwurst and pulled pork). It’s all paired with a prodigious rotating list of tap craft beers primarily from California.
Ramen, that tasty, casual and healthy category of quality fast-food style noodles imported from Japan has found a huge fan-base here in California and the result is a delicious selection of ramen shops statewide. LA’s westside Japanese enclave of Little Osaka is where you’ll find Tsujita LA, serving ramen, tasty dipping sauces and sashimi. Oakland’s Ramen Shop is where to savor Californian twists like veggie shoyu Meyer lemon ramen paired with an impressive whiskey and bourbon list.
Declining fish populations globally have resulted in decisive action by Californians involved in the food industry’s entire chain from fishermen to restaurateurs. Many menus are deliberately devoid of threatened species and offer planet-friendly alternatives instead. A prime example includes Santa Monica-based Border Grill restaurants, which only uses seafood approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. The renowned California aquarium acts as a global watchdog, monitoring fish populations for the industry and consumers alike. The Seafood Watch program is also available as a downloadable app.
Tacos on Top
Tacos are easily one of California’s most loved and prevalent foods. Fish tacos by the beach are a winning Californian combo, be it San Diego’s Taco Surf Taco Shop in Pacific Beach or Ruddell’s Smokehouse in the tiny Central Coast town of Cayucos. The long legacy of Mexican history and culture here paired with the wide availability of tacos of all types – from food trucks to upscale iterations served at fine restaurants like LA’s Bar Ama – signal that tacos have made it big with new respect and status. Case in point: for three years running now, the Tacolandia festival, a taco-palooza which showcases an international field of taco pros, has sold out its venue at LA’s historic Olvera Street location.
Decadently Healthy Desserts
In California, dessert artisans have figured out a way you can have your cake and eat it, too. The current trend is decadence with a dollop of healthy ingredients, such as beets, coconut meat and dates. Examples abound, from the gluten-free smores cheesecake served at Sinners and Saints Desserts in Venice and the baklava made with pomegranate molasses, bee pollen, pistachio, mint and sumac offered at Santa Barbara’s Mesa Verde restaurant.