Top 100 culinary voyages in the West
We've combed the West for the very best flavor experiences, all worthy of a culinary pilgrimage
Have you ever noticed how food tastes best when you eat it on its home turf? How all the small details of a place, its sounds, its smells, even the way the air feels against your cheek—all become part of the flavor? A cold date shake is good at home but transcendent when you're slurping it up on a broiling day in Indio, California, within sight of the palm trees that produced the fruit. A fragrant, tender homemade pork tamale from a stand in rural Arizona, under a big desert sky, will stick with you the rest of your life. The truth is, food is always about more than just what's on our plates; it's connected to land and history, to the people who made or grew it, and to our sense of ourselves. We invite you to explore the West with us, through restaurants, markets, and farms, food trucks, brewpubs, and wineries—places that define what it is to eat and drink like a Westerner. Our list of 100 choices is in no particular order. They're all equally delicious adventures, and they're waiting for you.
—Margo True, Food Editor
For those not drawn in by the idea of deep diving without oxygen, there are a few places to buy farm-raised abalone, such as the Abalone Farm in Cayucos, California, and Monterey Abalone Company in Monterey.
Whether steamed, grilled, or tossed in pasta, artichokes are prized both for their delicious edible buds as well as their rugged beauty in the garden. These gorgeous vegetables were first brought stateside by Italian immigrants who planted them just south of San Francisco in the 1890s. A few decades later, they made their way down the coast to Castroville, where they thrived in California’s coastal climate—so much so that the city now produces 75 percent of the nation’s supply. To celebrate this perennial crop, Castroville holds an annual festival where artichoke lovers from around the world can savor their favorite vegetable in all the tried-and-true ways, as well as many you’ve never thought of. To enjoy ’chokes at home, try some of these tasty recipes:
You can add the cemita poblana to the list of Mexican delicacies that make eating here an endless adventure. This superstar sandwich from Puebla is taking the streets by storm with its fluffy egg bun piled with marinated pork or beef, jalapeño chiles, herbs, cheese, onion, and avocado. Is your mouth watering? Make a trip to Southern California to taste our favorites:
- Taqueria La Poblanita (714/520-9481), Anaheim: The beef cutlet for the milanesa de res is pan-fried before landing in a hot, crusty roll.
- Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita (323/881-0428), Boyle Heights: The slow-roasted pork carnitas is like the best Southern barbecue—but better. 3010 E. First St.
- Angelica’s Cemitas Originales Truck (213/909-4027), Venice: The milanesa de pollo is the best fried chicken sandwich in SoCal.
Every restaurant worth its salt seems to be serving its own housemade charcuterie these days, and Seattle’s Salumi helped launch the trend. The artisanal-cured meat purveyor resurrected the handmade traditions of the Italian salumeria in 2002 when it expanded its Pioneer Square deli into a full-blown charcuterie, supplying local restaurants and consumers with high-quality gourmet meats that adhered to modern-day sanitation requirements.
Before long, restaurants all over the West were building curing rooms into their restaurant designs and touting the merits of charcuterie on their menus. Get your fix with some of our favorites:
One look at the green hills of Marin and Sonoma Counties, and you begin to see why this place has the most cheesemakers per capita in the West: cows (and sheep and goats) + grass = good cheese. Farms in these lush hills have been supplying dairy products to the San Francisco Bay Area since the Gold Rush days. Now, San Francisco’s obsession with exceptional local food is giving cheese an even bigger boost. The result? Spectacularly good cheese. Some cheesemakers welcome visitors (usually by appointment), so map out your cheesetasting trail today!
Over time, Sicilians replaced the Genoese on the fishing boats, and in their cooking pots cioppino as it came to be called, acquired peppers and tomatoes, and the fish was left in chunks. Today cioppino is a sumptuous, garlicky, tomatoey stew brimming with several different kinds of available fish, shellfish, wine, herbs, and olive oil–transcending its origins as a poor man's dish.
- Sausage and bean Dutch-oven stew
- Dutch-oven braised beef and summer vegetables
- Dutch-oven peach cobbler
You can also check out one of the many World Championship Dutch Oven Cook-Offs, most of them in the West (plenty in Utah). Or sign up to compete!
A curiosity 20 years ago, the farmers’ market is now a weekly part of life for many of us. It’s where we discover new ingredients, find the freshest local and organic fruits and vegetables, and learn from the farmers about their produce (including what’s in season when) and how to cook it. Increasingly, it’s where we socialize with friends and nosh on handmade food as we browse the stalls. To soak up the scene and sample local flavors, spend a day at one of these can’t-miss markets around the West:
Can’t get to San Diego? Try our own Baja fish taco recipe.
To see fortune cookies being made expertly by hand, pay a visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the cookies have been mixed, baked, and folded in this tiny shop since 1962. Feeling inspired? Try making your own with the homemade fortune cookies recipe in The Sunset Cookbook.
Satisfy your off-season hankerings with these ballpark-inspired recipes.
The pretzel supposedly has religious roots—many believe monks invented the doughy snack—but most of us know it as the ultimate companion to beer, whether at Oktoberfest celebrations, ballparks, or gastropubs, where they’ve been getting gourmet upgrades around the West:
- At the Brave Horse Tavern, in Seattle, hand-twisted rounds with bubbly brown shells, an authentic tang, and a just-right chewy interior are dipped in spreads like smoked PB&B (as in bacon!).
- Denver’s Park & Co. has a salt-speckled pretzel with ideal yeastiness, crunch, and springiness.
- Röckenwagner Bakery, in Los Angeles, offers one of our favorite new carb categories—the pretzel-croissant—as well as regular pretzels in flavors like jalapeño and classic German.
- The new menu at Absinthe, in San Francisco, has a pyramid of super-soft pretzel buns with a healthy rub of garlic and a touch of thyme.
Grenache just might be the most widely planted red wine grape in the world that almost no one knows about. That's because it's usually buried in blends with Syrah and other red Rhône varieties, so until recently its lush red fruit and lively spicy character were totally unknown. The good news is that West Coast winemakers are fixing that now—bottling Grenache all on its own. With bright cherry fruit, velvety textures, layers of mocha, and a hit of black pepper, the wine is an instant crowd pleaser. Taste some of our favorites:
In the bright, sparkling-clean facility, you’ll watch workers turn soybeans into soymilk and coagulate and press the curd into sweet, delicate-tasting blocks of tofu (the process is similar to making cheese). You’ll also see them make yuba—the prized, tender skin that forms on top of heated soy milk—and hang it from racks like handkerchiefs on a clothesline. Best of all, you’ll get to taste these and ready-to-go salads and other products and buy them to take home if you like. So bring a cooler!
For a moment, the parade rolling down Oasis Street in Indio, California, could be any hometown extravaganza. Here come the high-school bands in their furry shako hats, the drill teams in sequined magenta, and the local politicos in flag-bedecked Cadillacs. Then comes a float bearing a mariachi band that plays a sweet, sorrowful song, and there, waving from the back of the float is … a giant tamale. The Indio International Tamale Festival, held every December in this desert town east of Palm Springs, celebrates the cornhusk-wrapped masa-dough and savory-filling concoction that is Mexico’s gift to the mouths of the world. Hundreds of vendors sell hundreds of thousands of tamales to more than 160,000 attendees over the festival’s two days. And prizes are given to tamale cooks in categories of traditional and gourmet (those chocolate, strawberry, or pumpkin numbers). The winners are different, but they have one thing in common: All are made with care and love. Try our tamale-inspired recipes at home:
It’s official: Izakaya is the new sushi. The small-plates Japanese cuisine popping up all over is casual, big-group sharable, and easy on the wallet. Started back in 1700s Japan as cheap sake bars for workmen, it’s now a tapas-style craze organized by food type (veggies, meat, rice), or cooking method (grilled, fried, or simmered). Grab a group of friends and head to Little Tokyo, L.A.’s izakaya central.
- Aburiya Toranoko: We love the homemade tofu with uni (sea urchin), and arugula and heirloom-tomato salad with mackerel sashimi.
- Honda-Ya: Japanese eggplant with sweet miso and yakitori is the specialty here.
- Haru Ulala (213/620-0977): Try the slow-braised black pork belly (kakuni) and the classic okonimiyaki pancake with squid, pork, and other surprises in every bite.
- Raku Plus (213/625-1751): The Korean-influenced menu pairs tuna carpaccio with kimchi, but also has Euro fusion twists like prosciutto with eggplant.
Lava Lake supplies their free-range, grass-fed lambs to a number of restaurants and retail stores in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and California. Seek out one of these restaurants and let a chef do the cooking for you, or make your own Lava Lake Lamb burger using their lamb and our recipe for the ultimate Idaho lamb burger.
Surprisingly, some fancy (and pricey) cheeses are easy to make, even for beginners—especially if you have a good teacher. Each November and May, one of the West’s finest cheese shops, Foster & Dobbs in Portland, hosts a DIY cheesemakers group. Open to newbies and more experienced cheesemakers alike, the event always features a knowledgeable cheesemaker demonstrating a quick-to-make fresh cheese—such as ricotta, paneer, feta, mozzarella, fresh goat cheese, or crème fraîche. You’ll get the recipe, learn about equipment and resources, and meet fellow cheese fans. A modest donation may be requested.
Until you get to a class, here are some of our favorite recipes to try at home:
Every spring in L.A.'s Persian neighborhoods, markets and stores take on a festive buzz. Westwood, Glendale, and the San Fernando Valley together have the highest concentration of Iranians in the U.S., and during the two-week celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, you'll see ceremonial symbols of rebirth and abundance all over the place: goldfish in shop windows and shelves full of potted wheatgrass and hyacinths. Local restaurants serve a New Year’s menu of noodle soups, fish, and rice with greens and herbs, plus meat or vegetable stews with pomegranates. Stop by some of our favorite places along Westwood Boulevard, the epicenter of Nowruz festivities, to soak up the celebration:
Grains are a relative newcomer to the list of great artisanal foods produced in the West. Our shimmering fields of wheat, corn, and oats are mainly commodity crops, planted by huge growers. But one producer has been raising and milling delicious artisanal whole grains for more than three decades now: Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, with headquarters about 10 miles outside of Portland. They don’t rely on the latest machinery—instead, they use old-school quartz millstones that you can check out during the daily tour.
Bob’s Red Mill has produced just about every kind of whole grain you’ve ever heard of, from barley to teff, and on top of that, they’re just good people. On founder Bob Moore’s 81st birthday in 2010, Bob announced that he was turning over ownership of the company to his employees, and they’ve donated millions toward health education at Oregon State University and the National College of Natural Medicine for its “Ending Childhood Obesity” project. Makes you feel even better about eating their whole grains. Learn more about local grains:
With no permanent address and no phone number, Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoBites was the West’s first important pop-up restaurant. The mad rush for reservations supposedly crashed OpenTable, and seats for the first “tour” were gone in less than a minute. When news of the next tour surfaces, get ready to pounce for a reservation. In the meantime, stop by LudoTruck, which serves fried chicken so good that people stand in line for hours to get a plateful—or cook up one of these inventive recipes from the L.A. chef sensation:
Follow the foot traffic into any authentic Mexican carniceria (meat market) in the West and it'll lead directly to the blood-and-spice-spackled tub of carne asada. Butchers from Tempe, Arizona, to Tacoma have risked repetitive stress injuries slicing mounds of the marinated Mexican ambrosia, and for good reason. The whisper-thin cuts of beef steak—tenderized and soaked in everything from orange juice, cilantro, lime, chile, garlic, even beer—occupy that glorious intersection where easy and addicting meet. Easy in that five minutes on each side over an open flame and a couple of warm tortillas and you've got yourself a meal. Addicting in that, well ... try these out and you'll know what we mean.
- Pacheco Carniceria y Taqueria (831/678-0914) in Soledad, California
- San Francisco Carniceria (503/582-1690) in Wilsonville, Oregon
- Pro’s Ranch Markets in Phoenix
Burritos are a fiercely defended food in California, defined by where they’re made. Los Angeles loves slender, pared-down burritos. The opposite is true in San Francisco’s Mission district, where a burrito is a foil-wrapped behemoth: a tortilla the size of a manhole cover bursting with rice, black beans, meat, and an unending list of ingredients that would empty the shelves of most Latino markets. Buried in a blizzard of guac, sour cream, and salsa, these giants bear little resemblance to anything you’d find in Mexico—but are recognized as a flagship innovation of the Mexican-Americans who settled in this neighborhood.
Experience it for yourself—sharing not allowed—in any one of these delicious (and dirt-cheap) taquerias:
For the King of Reds, Napa's warm days and cool nights, combined with more different soil types than any other West Coast region, produce lush, ripe layers of blackberry and cassis, wrapped in cedar, spice, tobacco, and espresso, with a core of firm but smooth tannins.Taste a few of the best at these Napa tasting rooms:
Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the restaurant was built from local redwood and adobe bricks and has been run by three generations of the same family since 1949. Over the years, Nepenthe has welcomed writers and artists as well as day-trippers for lunch and dinner. The menu includes soups, salads, and steaks, but the “ambrosiaburger”—a good beef patty topped with a spicy tomato mayo—remains a favorite. Come prepared to wait on weekends (after all, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world to eat, and the restaurant takes reservations only for large groups). While you wait, sit at the bar and check out appetizers like the California cheese plate.
- St. Helena Olive Oil Company in Napa Valley offers tastings and private sensory evaluation classes.
- The Olive Press in Sonoma allows you to make your own estate olive oil with fruit from your own trees on Community Days.
In the grocery store, look for a seal from the California Olive Oil Council, which guarantees that the oil is indeed extra-virgin. One of our widely available favorites: California Olive Ranch EVOO.
Stop by Omnivore Books on Food for an author reading (held several times a week) or just to browse the treasure trove of tomes ranging from restaurant cookbooks to 19th century home-entertaining manuals.
They said it couldn't be done—getting Pinot Noir grapes ripe in Oregon's cool Willamette Valley. But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a handful of slightly crazy winemakers saw the valley's similarities to France's Burgundy, home to the world's best, and they planted anyway. As it turns out, great Pinot comes from places where the grapes don't fully ripen until the last possible day of the growing season—a nail-biting proposition. And Oregon's Willamette Valley is such a place. Look for lean and earthy Pinots, driven by a sense of place (terroir). Their red cherry and berry flavors are generally cloaked in tobacco, loam, and spice, with bright, juicy acidity that creates long finishes. When visiting Oregon, be sure to stop at these tasting rooms:
With its first event—held in September 1999 at Mariquita Farm in Santa Cruz County—the Outstanding in the Field program quickly became iconic. Its dinners bring our region’s values to life in so many ways: Taking place literally out in the fields, they celebrate the farms and farmers producing the food from the earth that’s under your feet. Since 2003, founder Jim Denevan and his crew have taken their show all around the U.S. and much of Europe. (Find the schedule here.) Wherever it goes next, we’re proud the idea started in the West, and proud to share it with the world.
Find more farm dinners:
To taste what chefs are creating in your region of the West, grab a slice at some of our other local favorites:
Or try your hand at one of our 14 homemade pizza recipes.
Ready to give it a try? Go to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife to learn more, find a good location, and get a license. Or take a class with author and forager Langdon Cook. As for the eating part, you can’t do better than beer-battered razor clams.
When Spanish settlers came to the Santa Maria Valley, on California’s central coast, the rancheros—owners of huge cattle spreads called ranchos—cultivated a new tradition in outdoor cooking. After the annual calf branding, they hosted Spanish-style cookouts to feed those who had helped with the work. Besides beef, the menu included salsa, grilled bread, and tiny local pinquito beans. These dishes are still the heart of Santa Maria–style barbecue—a quintessentially Western meal served at restaurants and at churches, schools, and even grocery store parking lots in the region. The meat is either a thick cut of top sirloin or tri-tip—the pointy bottom end of the sirloin—seasoned (usually) only with salt, garlic salt, and black pepper, and grilled over local red oak. Here’s where to get a taste:
- Far Western Tavern, a century-old building decorated with cowhide curtains. (It’s due to relocate next spring from the town of Guadalupe to nearby Orcutt.)
- The Hitching Post II, made famous in the movie Sideways or its sister restaurant, the original Hitching Post I.
- Jocko’s (805/929-3565), where the steaks are mighty good, especially the massive Spencer steak.
- At home, with our Santa Maria barbecue recipe.
Another urban food tour we love: Portland Walking Tours’ Epicurean Excursion.
That sweet smell wafting through Denver’s Platte River Valley neighborhood—could it be Tasmanian pepper berries? Honey powder, perhaps? At the Savory Spice Shop, you’ll find wooden shelves stocked to the rafters with more than 300 jars and bins holding a dizzying assortment of herbs, seasonings, and spices—from potent peppercorns and curry powders to countless kinds of sea salts. Sniffing’s encouraged, and you can leave with as little—or as much—as you need. If you can’t get to Denver, you can order online. Here are a few of our favorite spice-driven recipes:
The Sonoran hot dog can be found in various spots throughout the Southwest, but it attains perfection at joints like Tucson’s El Güero Canelo and Phoenix’s Nogales Hot Dogs (602/527-0208).
For the best places in the West to nab a sustainable catch and tips on navigating the fish counter, visit our Western seafood guide.
To find more dock-to-fork restaurants and fisherman who sell directly to the public, go to ifrfish.org.
Most of the world’s vanilla, the second most expensive spice after saffron, grows in exotic places like Madagascar and Tahiti. But a little bit of it—America’s only commercial crop—thrives on Hawaii’s Big Island, raised by the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in Paauilo. If you visit, you can tour the farm and see the gorgeous vanilla orchids that produce the pods we use as spice. Raising them is a painstaking process, since the orchids are hand-pollinated and only bloom one day per year—and just for a few hours. To enjoy a full-on immersion in vanilla, sign up for the Hawaiian Vanilla Experience Luncheon, which includes a tour of the farm and a multi-course lunch highlighting vanilla in every dish. While you’re waiting, here’s one of our favorite recipes using Hawaiian vanilla:
Good oysters grow elsewhere in the West, but on pristine Tomales Bay, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas)—a plump, briny-sweet beauty with a cucumber-melon finish—seems especially delicious. That’s in large part because there is a constellation of great local places, on the water or nearly, where you can eat oysters that are just hours out of the water. The best spots for oyster picnics include:
- Hog Island Oyster Co., a rustic but gorgeous waterside picnic spot with reservable wooden tables and grills to barbecue your just-bought Pacifics—as well as delicate, minerally Atlantics and quarter-size Kumamotos.
- Tomales Bay Oyster Company, the oldest continuously run oyster farm in California (since 1909), specializes in Pacifics, and also provides tables and grills for picnickers.
- Drake’s Bay Family Farms, where a fascinating tour takes you from tanks of oyster seed to the growing racks. Buy the farm’s excellent Pacifics whole; shucked and packed in a jar; or on the half-shell, to slurp down at the outside table.
The storied Asian mega-market is the best place in the Northwest to put together an authentic meal inspired by the cuisines of China, Hawaii, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam. With over 20,000 items, you’ll find literally everything you need to cook your mama’s specialties or try something new in the kitchen. Pick up produce like lemongrass and makrut (kaffir) limes; staples like noodles and sauces; and delicacies like fresh sashimi, live shellfish, and locally raised Kobe beef. Uwajimaya also has a huge selection of candies, snacks, and sake. Go wild and order a whole seasoned suckling pig or thinly sliced meat plates for shabu-shabu. Locations in Bellevue, Renton, and Seattle, WA, and Beaverton, OR. What to do with those amazing ingredients? Try our recipes:
Vegan offerings have become a permanent fixture all over the West, but if you’re worried about any sacrifice in taste and indulgence, try these especially sweet vegan spots in Southern California:
- KindKreme in L.A. is the world’s first raw, vegan “ice cream” shop, and even though they’ve axed the cream, it’s the best we’ve ever tasted. Raw cashews, almond milk, and coconut take the place of dairy.
- We love the “I Am Bliss” chocolate-hazelnut cream torte at L.A.'s Café Gratitude—chocolate-hazelnut mousse with whipped cream on a chocolate chip–pecan crust.
- In Tustin, try the slushy Earl Grey granita at Freesoulcaffé with a mini carrot cake, and grab a seat on the patio.
- Sensitive Sweets is tucked in a nondescript strip mall in Fountain Valley, but you’ll be glad you found it when you try the lemon blackberry cupcake.
For specific winery recommendations, visit sunset.com/okanagan.
For most of human history, we ate the odd bits of animals—the tails, the organs, the feet—because that was what we had. And now we're back to that place, out of renewed appreciation for a well-raised animal and out of our deepening realization that wasting parts of it is a shame. Specialty butchers now offer parts we haven't seen in decades: trotters, livers, even heads. And dozens of chefs around the West pride themselves on using every bit of the animals they order. Some of our favorite restaurants for whole-animal cooking:
Northern California is one place that's leading the way, with taps in great eateries like San Francisco's Out the Door and Zero Zero, Oakland's Chop Bar, and St. Helena's Brassica (Cindy Pawlcyn's new place).
A tootling drive around California's Humboldt County takes you through ancient redwoods, over remote forested mountains, along an endless coast—and to a couple dozen wineries (19 with tasting rooms, if you count a garage). A Syrah made here recently garnered 90 points from Robert Parker (not that we're rabid chasers of Parker scores; still …). The region also produces Pinot Noir, sparklers, and even an Arneis (Italy's "little rascal" of a grape). That 90-point Syrah? Cabot 2006 Kimberly's Vineyard. Here are our favorite stops for other Humboldt wines:
- In Southern Humboldt, visit Persimmons Garden Gallery & Wine Tasting, Riverbend Cellars, and Elk Prairie Vineyard (by appointment).
- In Northern Humboldt, go to Robert Goodman Wines or Moonstone Crossing.
- In Eastern Humboldt, stop by Dogwood Estate, Sentinel Winery, and Winnett Vineyards (all by appointment).
Ease yourself into a booth at El Coronado Family Restaurant (at left) in Safford, Arizona,two hours northeast of Tucson. Dip a crisp chip into the impeccable homemade salsa and soak up the friendly warmth of a quintessential Mexican family restaurant. Like so many such places all over the West, the food is fresh and homemade, nothing fancy but nothing like Taco Bell, either. At El Coronado, you should order a green-chile quesadilla with tender, luscious cubes of beef, or the chorizo and egg plate, smoky-tasting and hot. And leave a big tip, because the service is fast and nice.
Other must-try family-run Mexican restaurants in Safford, a gateway to hiking Mt. Graham or exploring the Coronado National Forest, include:
- Chalo's (928/348-9941), where hundreds of chiles rellenos are made by hand every week
- Casa Mañana (928/428-3170), specialists in chimichanga—slow-roasted shredded beef
Explore more outrageously good ice cream shops around the West, too.
Our historic buildings were designed in the early 1950s by Cliff May, known as the “father of the modern ranch house,” and his design is one of the first embodiments of California’s indoor-outdoor living style. The sprawling gardens have distinct areas representing the major climate zones of the West, from the deserts of Arizona to the cold, wet areas of the Northwest. Stop by for a self-guided tour on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.