We've combed the West for the very best flavor experiences, all worthy of a culinary pilgrimage
Photo by Shelly Strazis; Edited by Margo True with Julie Chai, Stephanie Dean, Sophie Egan, Peter Fish, MacKenzie Geidt, Gina Marie Goff, Elaine Johnson, Haley Minick, Loren Mooney, Anna Nordberg, Nino Padova, Kelley Plasterer, Sara Schneider, Erin Shitam
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
Photo by Leigh Beisch
If we were to pick a single icon of Western cooking, it would be wild salmon. For millennia they’ve journeyed from ocean to rivers—in some cases traveling more than a thousand miles—to spawn and die where they were born. And along the way, they’ve sustained both wildlife and humans. Salmon was once plentiful from California all the way to Alaska, but today Alaska is the one remaining Western fishery whose salmon populations are relatively healthy and abundant.
Want to try hooking your own salmon in Alaska? Get started at travelalaska.com. Then give one of our favorite recipes a try--pick up some salmon at your local fish market. Alaska fillets are not hard to find at most good grocery stores.
MyLoupe / Getty Images
You’ll be hard pressed to find these extra-sweet gems outside of Hawaii. And even on the Big Island, they’re farmed not by a corporation, but only by a small but growing number of local farmers who grow them in addition to other crops like coffee, mangoes, and bananas and sell them at farmers’ markets. Depending on which farmer you’re talking to at which market, the low-acid, white-fleshed pineapples may be called Kona Sugarloaf, Big Island White, or simply White. If you’re lucky, they’ll offer you a sample before buying, so you can taste for yourself how the whites retain all the floral aroma and taste of their yellow brethren but without the sharp tartness. (This also means you can devour vast quantities without mouth sores or a stomachache!) We’ve found them at the Hilo Farmers Market, the main Kona market (where tourists roam and prices tend to be higher), and the tiny, hyper-local Pure Kona Sunday Green Market in Captain Cook. They never last long, but remain a favorite only-in-Hawaii treat.
Creative Commons photo by Emily is licensed under CC BY 2.0
A state with its own cookie? That’s right. After trying bizcochitos from Albuquerque’s Golden Crown Panaderia, you’ll understand why. Flaky like shortbread, scented with anise, and coated with cinnamon, this cookie was declared New Mexico’s state cookie by the 1989 legislature. It’s thought to have traveled from Spain to Mexico (and by extension New Mexico) centuries ago. Traditionally it’s served with wine, but we think it’s best with a cup of rich hot chocolate or a good old cup of joe. If you can’t get to the Golden Crown Panaderia, you can have the cookies shipped to you—they’re especially good for the holidays, which is when they’re typically served. Be sure to try their other flavors too, including cappuccino and chocolate.
Creative Commons photo by Kenton is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Remember the Frappuccino? Yeah, neither do we. Once tapioca drinks exploded onto the scene about a decade ago, the midday sugar-fix-through-a-straw got a lot more interesting. Bubble (or "boba") teas originated in Taiwan before moving east to the Asian communities and micro-communities of the West. Now you can't walk ten city blocks, it seems, without drifting into a Quickly, Tapioca Express, or any of a thousand other pearl shacks where you'll be greeted by a freakishly long list of exotic juices (sour plum, wax gourd), slushes (kumquat-lime, red bean), and milk teas (almond, litchi)—none of which is complete without a handful of gummy tapioca beads dropped in. So pick a flavor, grab a fat straw, and say goodbye to Starbucks.
Photo by Alex Landeen
If subbing corn for wheat tortillas is your idea of stepping it up at the corner taco joint, it's time for a meal at Cafe Poca Cosa. Chef Suzana Davila's soulful homage to regional Mexican cooking—that's shorthand for the 98 percent of a cuisine that rarely makes it north of the border to your local taqueria—is the best restaurant in Tucson, and perhaps the entire Southwest. We're talking complex sauces like the smoky-tangy Oaxacan mole, whose ingredients you can't quite put your finger on, but never mind because, oh look, here comes corn-sweetened tamale pie topped with spicy curried carrots and Yucatan-style fish cradled in steamed banana leaves. Or dark chocolate mousse infused with cinnamon shavings. The menu changes twice a day. The quality and creativity, never.
Photo by David Fenton
It used to be easy to find abalone off the California coast, and anyone could wade out at low tide and nab a couple of plate-size beauties without much effort. Now the mollusk is extremely scarce, collecting them is a sport for the brave, and regulations are extremely strict, with just a small portion of the Northern California and Southern Oregon coast open to sport divers. Only free diving is permitted, which means you hold a single breath—no scuba tanks allowed—and dive down to find, measure (using a gauge to ensure the abalone is larger than the legal minimum size), and harvest the abalone. While there are a few schools and instructors who offer formal training, it’s most common for people to learn from friends who are already divers themselves.
For those not drawn in by the idea of deep diving without oxygen, try the Monterey Abalone Company in Monterey--it's one of the few places to buy farm-raised abalone.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
To enjoy ’chokes at home, try some of these tasty recipes:
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.
Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero
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:
- The Mole Salame, spiced with chocolate, cinnamon, and chiles, at Salumi Artisan Cured Meats in Seattle
- The Sicilian, a seductive blend of orange zest, garlic, anise, and chiles, at Fatted Calf in Napa
- The elk-juniper salami at Oyama Sausage Company in Vancouver, British Columbia
These suggestions are just a starting point. Sample many on your travels through the West and find your own favorite.
- Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station
- Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Point Reyes Station
- Achadinha Cheese Company, Petaluma
- Bleating Heart, Sebastopol
- Marin French Cheese Company, Petaluma
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!
Creative Commons photo by Adam Norwood is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Alice Waters did for California cuisine what Julia Child did for butter, so it’s no surprise that her Berkeley restaurant has survived for decades in the ultra-competitive restaurant industry. (Chez Panisse was founded in 1971.) Waters’s long list of accomplishments stretch beyond the best salads you’ll ever taste, though. In the 1970s, she began sourcing ingredients exclusively from local farms, dairies, and ranches, nearly 20 years before the Slow Food movement became popular—and it remains a passion of hers (she is Vice President of Slow Food International). In the ’80s, she helped revolutionize pizza in the then-new Chez Panisse Café by bringing in a wood-burning pizza oven and popularizing toppings like duck sausage and goat cheese. In the 1990s and 2000s, she delved into community outreach by founding programs like The Edible Schoolyard, which encourages students to learn about and love fruits and vegetables by growing and preparing ingredients from school gardens. What’s next for the West’s patron saint of fresh and local? Hard to say, but a trip to Chez Panisse is a delicious way to look for clues.
Photo by Jen Judge
The tiny town of Hatch, New Mexico (pop. 1,600), has a retro burger joint, a shoebox-size bar owned by a Texas country singer, a historic B&B, and chiles. Lots and lots of chiles. Red, green, yellow, they dangle from strings (called ristras), dry on tin roofs, and in September, the air grows thick with their smoky scent as thousands of heat-seekers hit the Hatch Chile Festival, two days of chile-roasting, chile-eating contests, and of course the crowning of the Chile Queen. Can't make it to New Mexico? That's OK, there are plenty of ways to savor the fiery fruit—yes, it's a fruit—right at home.
Creative Commons photo by Christopher Paquette is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Wine tours can be found all over the West, but how about taking a hard apple cider tour? Cider was colonial America’s alcohol of choice, and it’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days. Snowdrift Cider Co., in Washington’s sunny, orchard-thick Wenatchee Valley, grows some 15 different heirloom varieties of French, English, and American cider apples. Every one of them—from hard, tannin-rich Arlington to crisp, bright Calville Blanc d’Hiver—play a part in creating the company’s balanced, complex ciders. On the tour, you’ll have a chance to sample the apples, see the steps in the cidermaking process, get food-and-cider pairing tips, and, of course, sip the ciders.
Great dishes are often born of memory and whatever ingredients happen to be on hand. Such was the case with cioppino, the emblematic fish stew of San Francisco. During the mid-1800s, the city's immigrant Genoese fishermen used what was left of the day's catch to cook a thick purée of fish and vegetables. They called it ciuppin, a dialect for "little soup."
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.
Try it at San Francisco's oldest still-operating restaurant, Tadich Grill, which has been making the stew daily since 1849, or make this version from the Sunset Cookbook at home. Either way is worth the effort.
Photo by Bruno Medeiros
You know that urban farming is big when patches of vegetables start popping up under freeway overpasses and alongside suburban housing tracts. It sometimes seems that community farms—professionally run, with farmstands selling produce—are appearing in every cranny of our urban landscape. Places like San Jose's Veggielution, Portland's 47th Avenue Farm, and Albuquerque's Rio Grande Community Farm are eager for volunteers (even those with no gardening experience) to start seeds, mulch, compost, weed, and plant. What's in it for you? Free advice you can use to tend your own plot; fresh air and exercise; a chance to meet friendly fellow gardening fans; and the satisfaction of knowing you're helping bring sustainably grown produce to the neighborhood.
Photo by Alex Farnum
Eighty percent of dates produced in the Western Hemisphere come from around the town of Indio, in California’s Coachella Valley. This date palm paradise is the result of dry, hot weather matched with abundant irrigation. Rows of handsome palms, loaded with clusters of ripening fruit, give a welcome lushness to the arid landscape. And you can saver honey-sweet dates by the bagful at stops like Oasis Date Gardens, Shields Date Garden, and Flying Disk Ranch, which uses biodynamic techniques to produce delicious dates (visit by appointment). Oasis and Shields serve incredibly thick, rich date shakes, especially welcome on a hot Indio afternoon. Don't miss the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival if you’re a lover of dates and camel racing. It happens every February, rain or shine. (It's a desert, so it's pretty much always "shine" there.)
Thomas M. Barwick
Just south of Vancouver, the town of Richmond is home to Asian supermalls, multilane boulevards, and Canada’s largest population with Chinese ancestry. It’s not picturesque, but it’s nirvana for adventurous eaters. There is a dizzying number of dim sum places in Richmond, but the best of the best may be Empire Seafood Restaurant (604/249-0080). The translucent har gow (shrimp dumpling) is elegant, with the sweet, springy bite of shrimp inside. The barbecued pork bun comes topped with a crackling sugar crust. And while dim sum dessert can be forgettable, it isn’t here: Eat the three bite–size golden egg tarts while they’re still hot and quivering.
Photo by Paula Watts
Portland has 37 microbreweries, more than any other city in the world, but it's also the nerve center of the microdistillery trend in the West, with several clustered around Distillery Row in the Lower East-side Industrial District, including Eastside Distilling, House Spirits, New Deal Distillery, and Stone Barn Brandyworks. Folks here are innovating everything from vodkas and gins to sake, absinthe, and vermouth—at least 20 spirits in all—and giving Portlanders a worthy small-batch option for premium liquors. Grab a Distillery Row Passport to sample them all, and to receive exclusive tours of the facilities.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
This sturdy, incredibly versatile cast-iron pot, prized as far back as colonial times, traveled West with the pioneers and explorers and was indispensable to cowboys on the range. It’s still used constantly in campsites and kitchens across the country, and is especially beloved in Utah, where, as a reflection of proud pioneer history, it’s the state symbol. (There’s even a Utah State Cooking Pot website.) To soak up the spirit of Dutch oven cooking, take it with you next time you hit the trail—and try one of our favorite Dutch oven recipes:
- 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!
Photo by Dave Lauridsen
- Bellingham Farmers Market, Bellingham, WA
- Santa Fe Farmers Market, Santa Fe
- San Joaquin Certified Farmers’ Market, Stockton, CA
- Capital City Public Market, Boise
- Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market, Honolulu
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:
The Washington Post / Getty Images
The latest food trend has its roots in the ancient act of fermentation, using living cultures—colonies of beneficial microorganisms—to convert raw ingredients into alcoholic drinks, cheese, yogurt, leavened breads, and pickled foods of all types. See how it’s done at the Sonoma County Fermentation Festival in September. Among the activities: tasting artisanal pickles, learning the medicinal benefits of fermented foods, and voting in the People’s Kombucha Award. Keep your eyes peeled for Michael Pollan and other food luminaries.
Photo by Jeffery Cross
Fish tacos are the Steve McQueen of Western foods: casual and cool. Born in Baja, Mexico, they were brought north of the border by surfers who’d discovered just how delicious deep-fried or grilled fish could be when wrapped in a corn tortilla and served with a mayonnaise-based sauce, salsa, and a most vital spritzito of lime. Today a good fish taco, a cold Corona, and the beach are the three essentials of a California summer. Prime spots for tempting tacos include Malibu’s Reel Inn, Ruddell’s Smokehouse on the San Luis Obispo County coast in Cayucos, and San Diego’s South Beach Bar & Grille.
Try our own Baja fish taco recipe if you can’t get to San Diego, Malibu, SLO, or a Baja surf shack.
Creative Commons photo by Foodie Buddha is licensed under CC BY 2.0
While the taco truck has been around for decades, it was not until late 2008 that an enterprising L.A. chef added two twists to the art of bringing mobile food to the masses: Twitter (to summon fans to the truck’s real-time location) and culinary novelty (in this case, quesadillas with kimchi). Roy Choi and his Kogi truck sparked a fanatical following, and a slew of other gourmet food trucks have been popping up every month around the West, with super-appealing fare: artisanal hot dogs made from grass-fed beef, an entire menu devoted to riffs on grilled cheese, farm-fresh pub food, quirky ice cream sandwiches (candied bacon flavor!), and ultra-fresh sushi, just to name a few. And now we live in a world where a common answer to the question, “What’s for dinner?” is “Check Twitter.”
In the beginning, foraging sounded sort of weird—why would people actually volunteer to root around the woods looking for mushrooms and wild herbs? But as DIY food fever has swept the West, it’s caught on as a way to get fresh ingredients and get out into nature. Hard-core fungi clubs have sprung up like, well, mushrooms; neighborhoods are launching foraging clubs and backyard fruit swaps; and you have to work hard in places like San Francisco and Portland to find a menu that doesn’t include, say, a soup with wild, hand-gathered nettles. For guided forage walks in the Bay Area, visit foragesf.com, or find a mushroom club near you at namyco.org.
Creative Commons photo by Ksayer1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The fortune cookie as we know it came into being in California sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s, but its origins are not actually Chinese. In fact, the cookie is probably a variation on the Japanese tsujiura senbei, a fortune-stuffed cracker made of unsweetened sesame-miso batter.
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.
Photo by Lisa Romerein
- Satisfy your off-season hankerings with these ballpark-inspired recipes.
We’ll always have a soft spot for hot dogs and Cracker Jack, but now that there are so many local concessions, you may as well go gourmet. Seattle’s Safeco Field recently upgraded its offerings, which include poutine made with Beecher’s cheese curds and Oregon Kennebec potatoes as well as Washington coast Dungeness crab sandwiches. Consensus among baseball’s cognoscenti is that San Francisco’s AT&T Park takes the, uh, edamame when it comes to local, gourmet ballpark food. You can get a big bowl of fresh strawberries or other seasonal grown-nearby produce, a garlic chicken sandwich from North Beach’s The Stinking Rose, or a glass of wine from carts featuring some of California’s best bottles.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
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 menu at Absinthe, in San Francisco, has been known to include a pyramid of super-soft pretzel buns with a healthy rub of garlic and a touch of thyme.
Photo by Carmel Zucker
If we had to pick just one microbrewery to rep the West’s spirit of blending tradition with innovation, it would be New Belgium Brewing Company. Home of top-selling Fat Tire amber ale and Blue Paddle pilsner, this craft brewer also makes creative brews like tart Frambozen Raspberry Brown Ale (available only during the holiday season), made with fresh fruit in the Belgian monastery tradition, to the Skinny Dip, a “light” summertime beer with serious flavor, thanks in part to a skillful dose of kaffir lime leaves, of all things. Even higher-alcohol brews, like the hoppy Trippel IPA, retain incredible balance. Taste the whole library of New Belgian’s brews (seasonals aside) or fill your growler at their Liquid Center tasting room and shop, open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Better yet, book a spot on the 90-minute brewery tour (don’t worry—it includes tastings, too!); don’t dawdle, though, tours book up weeks in advance.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
- Paso Robles, California: Austin Hope Winery
- Prosser, Washington: Milbrandt Vineyards
- Cupertino in the Santa Cruz Mountains: Ridge Vineyards
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.
Creative Commons photo by bionicgrrrl is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Nothing quite compares to moles—those rich, smooth, complex Mexican sauces made of chiles, spices, fruits, nuts, and sometimes chocolate that are used in all kinds of dishes. Outside their Oaxacan birthplace, you can try fantastic moles at Guelaguetza, an early standout among L.A.’s Oaxacan restaurants—now dozens strong—and arguably still the best. At their original Koreatown location and second spot on Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, the smoky mole negro—jet-black from several different dark dried chiles, plus chocolate—comes ladled over chicken, a tamale, or as one of four festival de moles (the others are rojo, with red chiles; coloradito, with roasted chiles; and estofado, with raisins and olives). Beyond the moles, be sure to try the clayudas: crisp, platter-size tortillas topped with black beans, asiento paste (a Oaxacan seasoning made from pork fat), and Oaxacan cheeses.
Photo by Annabelle Breakey
You’d head to a bakery for one-of-a-kind breads and a charcuterie for fine cured meats, so why not a beanery for amazing handmade tofu? At Hodo Soy Beanery in West Oakland, you can take a tour to learn about the process from bean to block—and blast away any concepts you might have about tofu being dull or bland.
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!
(Please note that tours are temporarily suspended. They are expected to resume before the end of 2017.)
Photo by E. Spencer Toy
To visit a farmers’ market in the West is to fall in love with fresh, seasonal produce. How to keep the flame burning once the season ends? Enter Happy Girl Kitchen Co., whose workshops on canning and pickling show you how to safely preserve your favorite seasonal fruits and vegetables. Class topics range from marmalades and tomatoes to sauerkraut, kimchee, and kombucha, and are held in three different Northern California locations: the Victorian House, Oakland’s last surviving barn; Live Earth Farm near Santa Cruz; and Happy Girl Kitchen’s new café and production facility in Pacific Grove. The one-day, hands-on workshops include a healthy organic lunch and a take-home goody bag of the recipes made in class.
How simple is this? A paper cone, some finely shaved ice, a sweet cascade of brilliant syrup splashed on top. Those are the essential ingredients of Hawaii’s most refreshing treats: shave ice. Yes, shave ice is not unlike the snow cone you used to lick at the county fair. What makes it different—and, well, better—is the finely shaved ice (no sharp, tongue-grating chunks) and the range of tropical flavors. Those can include litchi and guava, along with some Hawaiian additions like azuki beans, mochi balls, and maybe a little condensed milk on top. One classic North Shore Oahu shave ice stop is Matsumotos. In Honolulu, we also love Waiola Shave Ice (808/949-2269 or 808/735-8886).
Creative Commons photo by Chris is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Boulder, Utah, a sleepy farming community 4½ hours south of Salt Lake City, is home to roughly 150 Mormons—and Hell’s Backbone Grill, run by two practicing Buddhists devoted to fresh, sustainable cooking. The owners, Jen Castle and Blake Spalding, fell in love with the incredible beauty of Boulder on a visit and opted to stay and create one of the West’s most improbably located gourmet restaurants. The locally sourced menu and sophisticated wine list have been hailed by critics as far as New York and London, and by just about every traveler who comes through Boulder. But the traditional community was initially skeptical. To warm things up after opening in 2000, Castle and Spalding threw an ice cream social. Practically the entire town showed up, and the event has been an annual tradition ever since. If you can’t make the schlep to Boulder yourself, give their Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream recipe a try.
Photo by Tom Kelsey
Try our tamale-inspired recipes at home:
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.
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.
- 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.
A few years ago, the Korean taco—a stupendous combination of garlicky charred beef and chili-soy shredded cabbage folded up in a corn tortilla—broke open what was possible for Korean-American food. Now, at their two Seattle restaurants, Joule and Revel, Rachel Yang and her husband, Sief Churchi, are pushing the boundaries in their own way. Both are alums of Alain Ducasse in New York, and at Joule the menu blends French technique with scintillating Korean flavors. Surprises are everywhere—ribeye with kimchi butter, lamb with sesame-leaf emulsion, red grapefruit on lime-scented tapioca pearls. Over at Revel, the room is big, bright, loud, and fun, with a vast seat-yourself counter around the open kitchen. Korean street food is the inspiration here, and you can eat yourself silly ordering short-rib dumplings, smoked pork-belly noodles, slabs of barbecue from whole wood-roasted lambs and pigs, and divine kale-and-walnut skillet pancakes. Yang and Churchi have caught the Korean-fusion torch, and it's blazing.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
In recent years, downtown Scottsdale’s Canal District has erupted into a cosmopolitan hot spot. Its most sizzling draw? Kazimierz World Wine Bar, a wine cave that showcases 250 kinds of grapes grown in more than 45 countries. Enter through the back, speakeasy style; claim a sofa by the candle-filled fireplace; and travel the world via wines from the U.S., Australia, France, and Italy, plus a few from less obvious wine countries such as Algeria and Romania. Choose from 100 wines by the glass, 3,200 by the bottle, and pair them with snacks like Egyptian flatbread pizza or pretzel sticks served with housemade Dijon mustard or cheese fondue.
Photo by Glenn Oakley
Sustainability, land preservation, friendliness toward wolves and coyotes—these are not things you associate with a sheep ranch. But at Lava Lake Lamb, a conservation-obsessed, almost million–acre ranch near Sun Valley, Idaho, they’re cornerstones. Even better, what’s good for the land is good for business: The lambs graze on everything from sagebrush to alpine herbs, which makes them lean and flavorful.
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.
Creative Commons photo by Rakka is licensed under CC BY 2.0
We’ve never had a problem rationalizing a visit, while on Oregon’s central coast, to the Tillamook Cheese Factory. There’s the eye-in-the-sky observation area overlooking the factory floor, where big wheels of cheddar glide along on conveyor belts like a setup for the I Love Lucy show (only without the inevitable wacky mishaps). There’s the history-of-Oregon-cheesemaking display, the sample section, which lets you compare everything from fresh curds (which really do squeak) to aged cheddars, and there’s the ice-cream scoopery, which on a hot summer’s day is our first stop. But our real goal is to, if possible, buy a wedge of the limited-edition extra-sharp white cheddar, which turns up, sometimes, at groceries and specialty foods shops in the Northwest, but your best bet is to check here.
(Please note that the visitors' center is currently under renovation, and tours may be disrupted until somtime in 2018.)
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:
- Shamshiri Grill: Go for the warm, freshly baked breads and grilled kebabs.
- Saffron & Rose Ice Cream: Don’t miss the saffron-scented, rosewater-pistachio ice cream
- Jordan Market (310/478-1706): Find eight kinds of lime juice, seven kinds of rose water, frozen sabzi (herbs and greens), and a full deli.
Learn more about local grains:
- Oliveto Grain Project
- Bluebird Grain Farms
- Shop for grain at Local Harvest
- Read Sunset’s The One-Block Feast
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.
Photo by Nate Hoffman
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, cook up one of these inventive recipes from the L.A. chef sensation:
Don’t have airfare to Maui? Never mind—get a sweet taste of the islands just by sipping that most alluring of tropical drinks, the mai tai. Despite its Polynesian aura, the mai tai was first served in the 1940s in Oakland at restaurateur Vic Bergeron’s Trader Vic’s. His original recipe remains the classic: aged rum, lime juice, and orange liqueur, with a guest appearance by orgeat syrup. But you can find lots of tasty variations at places like Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai Bar or Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, which does a delectable sparkling version (for the recipe, click here).
- Pacheco Carniceria y Taqueria (831/678-0914) in Soledad, California
- San Francisco Carniceria (503/582-1690) in Wilsonville, Oregon
- Los Altos Ranch Markets in Phoenix
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.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
Experience it for yourself—sharing not allowed—in any one of these delicious (and dirt-cheap) taquerias:
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.
When star chefs Nancy Silverton (La Brea Bakery founder) and Mario Batali (Iron Chef warrior) got together to make pizza in Hollywood, we knew it was time to book a ticket to L.A. The blistered, raised pies at Pizzeria Mozza are of no particular Italian style, but are so good they deserve a region of their own. The wood-burning oven makes magic with super-fresh tomatoes and mozzarella—not to mention broccoli rabe, burrata cheese, and guanciale (cured pork cheek), for starters. If it’s on the menu, don’t miss the squash blossom pizza, and for the grand finale, let the butterscotch budino (pudding) rock you back on your heels.
Creative Commons photo by Phil Romans is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The signless pub opened in 1873 in Denver’s Lower Highlands neighborhood, near what is now Confluence Park. It still boasts the original pressed-tin ceiling and walnut bar, plus a staircase to nowhere ever since the second floor burned years ago. My Brother’s Bar has 18 draft beers and a jalapeño–cream cheese burger that’s almost as legendary as Jack Kerouac’s regular patronage during the ’50s. Try the popular honey brown ale from Boulder-based Twisted Pine Brewing Company, and park yourself in the shaded beer garden.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
Taste a few of the best at these Napa tasting rooms:
If there's one splurge in your wine-drinking future—one expensive bottle you'd be willing to spring for, to taste before you die—it has to be a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. Sure, there are yummy, sexy wines the West over now, but it was Napa Cab that put us on the international wine map, that made even the French take the West seriously as a wine region.
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.
Creative Commons photo by Matt Malone is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Go to a Native American powwow anywhere in the Southwest and odds are good—like 100 percent—that the Navajo taco will be the star of the concession stand. Its origins are shrouded in mystery—some culinary historians trace it back to the mid-19th century—but its components are clear. Start with fry bread—flat dough fried in oil. Pile on ground meat, lettuce, tomatoes, beans, cheddar cheese, maybe some green chiles. Roll it all up like a burrito or lay it flat like a tostada. Either way, it’s delicious. A great place to try the tacos is the annual Navajo Nation Fair, held each September in Window Rock, Arizona. And, if you’re in Phoenix, stop by the Fry Bread House (602/351-2345).
Photo by Douglas Merriam
Ask anyone from Utah—the best raspberries in the world grow on the rolling hills around Bear Lake, up by the Idaho border. Hot summer days and cool nights nurture berries of unparalleled sweetness, which is why, starting in mid-July and running to mid-August, roadside stands along Highway 89 trumpet the annual raspberry renaissance. Looking for an even more richly decadent way to enjoy the harvest? Head to berry capital Garden City, and hit one of the drive-ins— LaBeau's and Quick 'n' Tasty are two classic stops—that blend Bear Lake raspberries into sublime milk shakes. Be there the first week in August and you can celebrate at Garden City’s Raspberry Days.
Courtesy of Spot
Imagine yourself in an aerie atop the jutting cliffs of the green, oak-studded Santa Lucia Mountains, with the sparkling Pacific Ocean 800 feet below. Now imagine that the view includes a fine burger and a glass or two of California wine to enjoy as the sun goes down. That’s the dreamy reality at Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur, California.
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.
Creative Commons photo by grrlscout224 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
For a prime example of the blending of low- and high-end all in the name of good taste, look no further than Phoenix’s Nobuo at Teeter House. When James Beard award–winning chef Nobuo Fukuda closed his beloved Sea Saw restaurant in 2009, area food lovers were aggrieved by the loss of the Tokyo-born chef’s prized, high-end Japanese fare. They needn’t have worried, though, because the acclaimed chef’s new project in historic Heritage Square was about to deliver them Fukuda’s signature mad-genius pairings of fresh local and traditional Japanese ingredients in two forms: omakase and izakaya. The reservations-only omakase (chef’s choice) menu often includes mind-boggling concoctions such as fois gras–infused egg custard and Wagyu short ribs with miso butter. And those longing for what can perhaps be described as the best pub grub in Arizona can enjoy izakaya gems like okomiyaki (a seafood-and-pork pancake) and pork-belly buns.
Some of the best olive oil in the world is made in California, which has the kind of Mediterranean climate that olives (and grapes) love. The first trees planted in the state were brought by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, and it’s an enduring legacy: One of the most common varieties is still the Mission olive, descended from those original trees. California now has more than 200 producers, plus dozens of tasting rooms and shops with well-edited selections of certified extra-virgin olive oils.
- 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.
Creative Commons photo by Edsel Little is licensed under CC BY 2.0
You don’t have to go to Tuscany to experience the kind of rustic Italian meal that feels, in a word, significant. Oliveto, which sits demurely at the foot of the Oakland hills, makes ingredient-driven food and honors its farmers without restricting itself only to what is local, organic, and sustainable. Quality is at the forefront of every decision—whether it comes to hand-selecting white truffles in Piemonte or repeatedly testing egg varieties to get richly flavored, perfectly yellow pasta. So is the excellent, warm service, which makes even first-time diners feel like friends of the restaurant. Oliveto’s kitchen has also been the site of many culinary innovations and was among the first to embrace whole-animal cooking, housemade salumi, sustainable seafood dinners, and many other now-trendy practices. One of the newest: Co-owner Bob Klein’s local grains project. Dinner any night is a worthwhile trek, but you can join the Oliveto extended family simply by signing up for its engaging, info-packed newsletter.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
Eschewing the idea that independent bookstores are an antiquated notion—and that a recession is a bad time to open a business—Celia Sack followed her rebellious instincts in 2008 when she opened this niche bookstore in an old butcher shop in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Against all odds, Sack’s little bookshop thrived during the height of pink-slip handouts and going-out-of-business sales across the country. The recipe for success? A well-edited selection of new and vintage collectible books that appeals not just to cooks but to anyone who eats. Throw in a dash of social-media savvy and a dollop of events featuring local and national authors, and a told-you-so story was born.
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.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
Extravagantly wild with an intensely tart, almost bittersweet flavor, these tiny berries pack a flavor punch. Often mistaken for dwarf blueberries, Montana’s huckleberries are much more robust than your standard blueberry—and much more prized, due to the inability to cultivate them. And in pies and milkshakes, they become something transcendent. From June through August, it feels like every diner and roadside shake shack worth respect serves the beloved berry: Try The Park Café in St. Mary, at the east entrance to Glacier National Park, for a scrape-your-fork-good slice of huckleberry pie.
Photo by Pulse/Corbis
When visiting Oregon, be sure to stop at these tasting rooms:
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.
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.
Does a peach get any better than this? We think not. The peaches in and around Palisade, Colorado, are smooth, fine-grained, and gushingly juicy, with great acidity and a round, complex sweetness with hints of mango and even strawberry. In her book At Mesa's Edge, local author Eugenia Bone described them this way: "Miles of bright orchards produce peaches so excruciatingly good, so powerfully sweet and fresh, that before you know it, you are on the verge of weeping and singing at once." For more than 40 years, Palisade has held an annual peach festival to celebrate its signature fruit, and it's jam-packed with cooking demonstrations, history exhibits, farm tours, a peach-eating contest, and, of course, peaches and peach products for sale—everything from pies to cocktails. If you miss the festival, pick up your fruit at Stahl Orchards (970/527-3100), in nearby Paonia; the ladies there are as sweet as their peaches.
Photo by Brown Seely
Pho, the beloved meat-and-noodle soup of Vietnam, has firmly established itself in the West, where large numbers of Vietnamese have settled. You’ll find these huge, fragrant, steaming noodle bowls in urban areas like L.A., Seattle, San Jose, and San Francisco. The best pho (pronounced fuh) starts with beef bones simmered for hours with ginger, onion, fish sauce, cloves, and salt to develop a rich, umami flavored broth, which is then poured piping hot over thin rice noodles and sliced beef. Fresh herbs, typically basil, plus bean sprouts and lime are added to taste by the diner. One of the best bowls is at Pho 79 (714/531-2490) in Orange County, California’s Little Saigon.
Photo by Peter Fish
Yes, you’ve got to snap a photo of the famous fish throwers, the world’s first Starbucks, and the 600-pound bronze pig at Pike Place. But to fully take it all in, stash the camera. Sniff down the trail of just-baked croissants and piroshkies. Listen to the creaky old floorboards, ferry foghorn, and street musicians’ medley, and inhale the salty Puget Sound air that gives your hair a little frizz and your skin a little shine. Indulge at classic arcade restaurants with worn booths and mountain views. Chat with farmers offering chin drip–juicy peach wedges and craftspeople selling handmade everything. And don’t leave without taking home the most spectacular armful of fresh flowers you’ll ever buy for $5. So go—soon and often—because the rows at Costco will never look the same, and because, as one of the first farmers’ markets in the West, Pike Place pretty much wrote the book on the feast of the senses.
Creative Commons photo by Swetlana P. is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Are they the tastiest nuts in the world? Arguably, yes. Buttery, creamy, a little sweet, piñon (also spelled “pinyon”) pine nuts add their elegant flavor to cookies and pastas, and are just as good for devouring in greedy handfuls. They’re the products of the piñon pine, the state tree of New Mexico; a closely related Nevada tree, the single-leaf piñon, produces delicious, slightly more pine–flavored nuts. (Pine nuts from China and Italy are different varieties.) And while the New Mexican piñon nuts cost a bundle in your local supermarket, you can get around that. You can harvest nuts on national forest lands, then roast them yourself, but it’s sticky, time-consuming work. Better is nosing around New Mexico or Nevada in fall harvest season to find roadside stands that offer nuts at bargain prices. Or get them by mail order: One reliable source is New Mexico Piñon Nut Company. And pinenut.com sells both the New Mexico and Nevada piñon varieties.
Thomas J. Story
To taste what chefs are creating in your region of the West, grab a slice at some of our local favorites:
It’s official: Pizza is the new night out, and hand-stretched pies with locally sourced toppings have become haute cuisine. In San Francisco, Gialina’s chef-owner Sharon Ardiana makes ethereally thin crusts adorned with ingredients like Niman Ranch pork belly, and across the bay in Oakland, Charlie Hallowell quit the Chez Panisse kitchen to open Pizzaiolo, where he serves up a smoky Monterey Bay squid pizza with slightly charred cherry tomatoes and garlicky aioli.
Photo by John Clark
Sure, you can buy clams in the shell at the market. But those clams, while perfectly fine, barely hint at the rich oceanic flavor of the razor clam, one of the West’s premier shellfish—and one that’s at its best when you dig it up yourself. Razor clams—so called because they look very much like old-fashioned straight razors—live on sandy, storm-tossed ocean beaches from Alaska to California, and are especially loved in Washington, where clammers head to the coast during open season (a weekend per month, from fall into spring). To catch them, go out at low tide and look for the “show,” a quarter-size dimple in the sand. Then plunge a tube-shaped clam gun into the dimple and quickly pull it out, capturing (you hope) the clam in the plug of sand inside the gun.
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.
Photo by Annabelle Breakey
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.
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.
Photo by Barbie Hull Photography
Started by a Midwest transplant bored of the corporate grind, Savor Seattle food tours are a must for newcomers and a chance for locals to brush up on their city’s delectable restaurant scene. Taste your way through Pike Place Market while learning about its history and meeting vendors, experience the kooky culture of Capitol Hill in between chef talks and coffee pairings; or take the chocolate tour and try everything from truffles and white chocolate raspberry cheesecake to salted caramels and the best cookies in town. If you’re more of a wilderness type, check out the gourmet kayak tour through the San Juan Islands. Guides prepare Northwest meals while you ogle wildlife and sip Washington wines.
Creative Commons photo by Brule Laker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Try baharat in stuffed kabocha squash with Arabic lamb stew.
- Try ras el hanout in Moroccan spiced lamb meatballs.
- Try zaatar in zaatar puff-pastry straws.
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.
Photo by Chris Leschinsky
We’re suckers for all that is coastal, but when it comes to dining, we want more than just a good view. The Sea Chest Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Cambria, along California’s Central Coast (one of our favorite stretches of coastline), more than delivers on the scenic beauty, but also has super-fresh seafood and a wine list that highlights favorites of the region. Don’t miss the sweet, plump Morro Bay oysters, served on the half shell with just a spritz of lemon or in one of the restaurant’s many oyster dishes. try the delicate Curran Grenache Blanc with your briny bites.
Photo by Alex Farnum
This stacked dog traces its ancestry to northern Mexico, but it has cult status in Arizona. A loaded twist on the classic hot dog, the Sonoran starts with a beef frankfurter, but the bun is bigger and denser, swaddling the dog in a doughy embrace. There’s bacon, pinto beans and grilled onions, and a fireworks-burst of condiments: chopped fresh onions and tomatoes, jalapeño sauce, mayonnaise, mustard, and often a grilled yellow chile on the side.
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).
Creative Commons photo by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY 2.0
It’s not just that Spago, which opened in 1982 on the Sunset Strip and moved to Beverly Hills in 1997, blazed a brilliant new path for California cooking with chi-chi, radical pizzas and commitment to fresh, local ingredients. It’s that chef Wolfgang Puck did it all with such flair that he became as popular as many of his high-powered Hollywood guests, launching the concept of the modern-day celebrity chef and creating a glittering sphere of comfort for the rich and famous. Spago remains perhaps the only place where old glamour (Tony Curtis, Zsa Zsa Gabor) as well as current celebs (Courtney Cox, Kim Kardashian) have dined. As for the rest of us, dining there is as much about the experience as it is the food—although the cooking is every bit as scintillating as the stars.
Photo by Dwight Eschliman
Responsible seafood has become a part of the Western DNA—if you doubt that, just try serving swordfish at your next dinner party. Restaurants lead the way, with top honors going to chefs in Vancouver, B.C. Go Fish (604/730-5040), a little blue shed on Vancouver’s False Creek, fully embraces the dock-to-fork mantra, buying fish right off the boats for its divine scallop sandwiches, salmon tacos, and fish and chips. This cuts out the middleman, which means more money for fishermen and a fresher catch for you.
For the best places in the West to nab a sustainable catch and tips on navigating the fish counter, visit our Western seafood guide. Go to ifrfish.org to find more dock-to-fork restaurants and fisherman who sell directly to the public.
Jeff Overs / Getty Images
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:
Tim Graham / Getty Images
Basque immigrants began arriving in the West in the 1850s, drawn first to the California gold fields and then to the West’s wide-open ranges, perfect for herding sheep. Far from their homeland in France and Spain, the newcomers re-created the most delicious part of their culture in the restaurants that still welcome diners in Basque-settled regions like California’s Central Valley, parts of Idaho, and Northern Nevada. To share dinner at a landmark like Fresno’s Santa Fe Basque Restaurant; Bakersfield’s Wool Growers; the Star Hotel in Elko, Nevada; or Epi’s Restaurant near Boise is to become part of the extended family. You sit at a common table enjoying heaping plates of lamb stew, beans, and salad, toasting your tablemates with strong red wine.
Photo by Jeffrey Cross
Although it really explores only a few foods, The Meadow in Portland delves into them with such passion and extravagance that it’s almost baroque. This is the place to go if you want to learn about sea salt—you’ll find 145 different kinds and co-owner Mark Bitterman wrote a whole book on it, Salted. You can also find the ultimate dark chocolate bar for a hostess gift or restock your home bar with artisanal bitters and locally made vermouth. In keeping with the DIY food craze that basically started in Portland, the shop also offers classes on cooking with salt blocks and making chocolate and handcrafted cocktails.
Andrea M. Gómez
Step away from the lime. Dump out that salt. There will be no licking, sucking, or referee-shirted bartenders cheering as you guzzle swill like a frat boy with a GPA lower than your blood alcohol level. This is a tequila bar—a modern, sophisticated tequila bar—and that means one thing: You come here to sip. Take Tommy's Mexican Restaurant (415/387-4747) in San Francisco or L.A.'s El Carmen. They're not much to look at (kitchy decor, scant lighting), and the food is passable at best, but both are holy temples to agave spirits, stocking hundreds of rare bottles and hand-mixing margaritas so good, and whose flavors are so clean, you'll be ruined for life (bye-bye Chevy's). These bars, and so many others like them in the West, are institutions of higher drinking, where you're touched by the realization that good tequila, like really good wine, can be complex and nuanced and enjoyed one sip at a time, without the bells and whistles.
Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero
Maybe you remember the Brady Bunch luau episode and think that this Hawaiian feast is strictly for tourists. You are so wrong. Said to have been created by Hawaii’s King Kamehameha II, the luau is the world’s most joyful dinner party, where ukuleles strum, Polynesian dancers swivel their hips, and you get to eat almost everything, from pig to poi, with your fingers. Good luaus abound on the islands. One stellar example on Maui is Lahaina’s five-course, three-hour Feast at Lele. It doles out food from all over the South Pacific, like breadfruit with taro leaf in coconut cream from Samoa and Maori-style fish cake with shrimp, scallops, and seasonal fish. Music and dance—hula from Hawaii, a Maori war dance—are paired with each course, and are equally inspiring.
Walk through Cole's sandwich shop to a door at the back, marked only with a picture of a cocktail glass. That's your entry to The Varnish (213/622-9999), the stylish standard-bearer for L.A.'s cocktail scene. Soft jazz drifts out of the sound system. The lights are low but not crepuscular, so you can still actually see. Bartenders wear vests and rolled-ups shirt-sleeves, a uniform that, somehow, instantly communicates competence. Fresh ingredients are on display—citrus, berries, herbs, and rows of flasks with carefully prepared syrups. The cocktail menu presents just a half-dozen excellent and serious cocktails, and when there's ice, it's hand cracked. Or opt for the bartender's choice—actually more of a bartender-customer collaboration, with your pick of spirits and style—and you'll learn about parts of the cocktail universe you hadn't known existed.
For a peak locavore experience, head to tiny Lummi Island (population 816) just two hours and a 10-minute ferry ride north of Seattle. There, chef Blain Wetzel—who worked at Copenhagen’s Noma (named top restaurant in the world according to the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list)—has turned the Willows Inn into a destination restaurant. Using impeccable ingredients—sockeye salmon caught nearby by Willows Inn owner Riley Starks, for instance, and just-picked fruits and vegetables from Nettles Farm, run by Starks and his wife, Judy—Wetzel crafts meals of supreme elegance and intense flavor. If that weren’t enough, the views are gorgeous: From the main dining room, you can see Rosario Strait and the San Juan Islands, and—if you’re lucky—a pod of spouting whales.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
Outside Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, California, it’s all about straw hats, local gossip, and live bluegrass music. Point Reyes’ low-key, all-organic farmers’ market (late June through early November) has only a handful of booths, but in a teeny, never-too-touristy town, it’s a prime example of how quality trumps quantity. Look for a simple white banner in back that says G.B.D. That stands for Golden, Brown, Delicious: Osteria Stellina organic bread oozing with Cowgirl Creamery cheese, a fried egg, and a fat, juicy tomato slice if you choose. There’s also a deliriously good cheese-and-smoked brisket option. Grab a hay bale and enjoy.
Photo by Eric Kunkel
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.
Thomas J. Story
Navajo churro lamb cassoulet; bread pudding with prickly pear; shatteringly crisp, dark-blue Hopi piki bread with tepary-bean hummus. The Turquoise Room serves some of the most inventive Southwestern cuisine in the nation, drawing extensively on Native American ingredients and traditions. That’s even more impressive given the restaurant’s location: not in some urban foodie hotspot but alongside Route 66 in Winslow, Arizona, a few miles from Petrified Forest National Park. But then the Turquoise Room was never ordinary. It opened in 1929 as part of La Posada Hotel, perhaps the grandest of the Santa Fe Railway hotels designed by legendary architect Mary Colter. For the last decade, Allan Affeldt and his wife Tina Mion have been restoring this gracious Spanish Colonial hotel to its 1920s glory. They and chef John Sharpe have made La Posada’s Turquoise Room a must-stop for anybody interested in great architecture and great regional food.
Creative Commons photo by jpellgen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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.
- 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.
Creative Commons photo by Michael Kappel is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Bellagio’s fountains, the mesmerizing magic of Cirque du Soleil, the thousands betting at the blackjack tables—Las Vegas doesn’t do anything small. So it makes sense that the most lavish, over-the-top, and stupefyingly satisfying hotel buffets in the world can be found on the Las Vegas Strip. Today’s high-end buffets—at the Bellagio, the Wynn, and the Rio—dazzle with showmanship and superb food. Vegas buffet history began in the 1940s, when hotel owners used them to keep high-spending gamblers inside the casino, but now they are destinations in their own rights.
Carlos Chavez / Getty Images
Nothing says Sonoran summer like frozen fruit on a stick. Paletas Betty uses family recipes from owner Betty Alatorre de Hong’s native Michoacán to make densely flavored, traditional Mexican fruit pops by hand. Behind the counter of the generously air-conditioned yoga studio turned sweet shop in Chandler, Betty tinkers with new flavor combos in small batches. We love the lavender blackberry, but prepare to be surprised by inventive seasonal (and delicious) pops. Stop by the shop for a fresh treat, even after the summer heat is gone.
Photo by Alex Farnum
We take our coffee seriously in the West. Decades after Starbucks hit the scene, our coffee artisans are still raising the bar, roasting their own beans sourced from exotic (but ethical) locales, pushing the envelope with brewing techniques that use siphons and single-cup pour-over drippers, and teaching their customers to appreciate the coffee as more than just a caffeine fix. Take Verve Coffee Roasters: This tiny roastery-café, just blocks from the Santa Cruz surf, buys only green beans and dedicates significant effort to sample roasts, refining along the way to get that perfect flavor profile. On Friday afternoons, drop by for a public cupping (think wine tasting, but for coffee). Sniff the brew and slurp as noisily as possible to aerate the coffee and spread it evenly over your palate; it’s the best way to taste those subtle hints of apricot and passion fruit in a cup of single-origin joe.
Thomas J. Story
The wine scene in Canada's Okanagan Valley, an achingly gorgeous place with a long chain of lakes gleaming down the center, started heating up in the late 1980s, when Okanagan winemakers began replacing musky hybrid grapes (think jug wine) and replanting with high-quality European varietals. They tried everything, because of the unusually large range of temperatures and soils in the valley: In the south, it's desert-like; in the north, more like chilly Alsace—and there are 100 miles of microclimates in between. Nearly 60 varietals grow in the Okanagan now, making wine tasting there a whole lot of fun (visit sunset.com/okanagan for specific winery recommendations). Where else will you find South African Pinotage, German Riesling, Swiss Chasselas, Italian Sangiovese, and French Mourvèdre growing in such close proximity—and for the most part done well?
Creative Commons photo by djjewelz is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Ned Ludd, Portland
- Animal, Los Angeles
- Perbacco, San Francisco
- Sitka and Spruce, Seattle
- Frasca, Boulder
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.
“Pull you a glass of wine?” may become the offer of choice in restaurants and wine bars, as more wineries opt to deliver their Cabs and Chards in kegs that can be tapped, instead of in bottles. That means better prices for wine by the glass, less waste (no more pouring away the dregs in a bottle), and fresher wine—too many glasses are poured from bottles that have been open a little too long. It also means a smaller carbon footprint for the wine (no heavy bottles to ship) and less glass in landfills: a win-win for wine lovers and the Earth. Northern California is one place that's leading the way, with taps in some of the Bay Area's great eateries.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
- In Southern Humboldt, visit Riverbend Cellars and Elk Prairie Vineyard (by appointment).
- In Northern Humboldt, go to Robert Goodman Wines or Moonstone Crossing.
- In Eastern Humboldt, stop by Sentinel Winery and Winnett Vineyards (all by appointment).
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.
Photo by Ashley Davis Tilly
Chef Hugo Matheson wants every child to love greens—and beets, carrots, and broccoli. The pioneering eco-chef at The Kitchen, in Boulder, Colorado, recently opened an annex called The Kitchen (Next Door) that serves farm-to-table food with a twist: Every sandwich, salad, and snack costs less than $9, and $2 from every kids'-menu order goes to help plant local school gardens. The veggie fun starts right away, with mustache stickers shaped like eggplants and carrots and a magnetic wall at the back with huge vegetable magnets (at left), where kids can create their own cornucopias during the (very short) wait for lunch or dinner. On top of that, the kids' menu is simple and tasty (garlic smashers, sweet roasted carrots, fluffy quinoa), and all of it is fresh, organic, and local.
Photo by Carmel Zucker
Spend a day in Walden, Colorado, doing the sorts of things one does when surrounded by 12,000-foot mountains—fly-fishing, hiking steep trails, hunting for moose—and by dinnertime, just about nothing will sate your appetite as well as a Moose Creek Café burger. Grab a table on the front sundeck, breathe in the fresh mountain air, watch the foot traffic along historic Main Street, and savor one of the very best burgers in the West. The Wild One is a housemade mixture of beef, elk, and pork served on a pretzel roll with a blend of cheeses, and it will blow your mind.
Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero/Sunset Publishing Corp.
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:
- Casa Mañana, specialists in chimichanga—slow-roasted shredded beef
Photo by Daniel Chavkin
People often buzz through Williams, Arizona, on the way to the Grand Canyon, but this charming small town is worth a linger—if not for Sycamore Canyon, its own geological standout with majestic vistas, then for a meal at Pine Country Restaurant. Go easy on the fried chicken and save room for pie, Pine Country’s real draw. The family-run restaurant offers more than 45 flavors every day, from classics like coconut cream, double chocolate, and cookies and cream to the signature Hawaiian Delight, a 6-inch-high slice packed with apples, peaches, coconut, pineapple, and walnuts. One bite and you’ll be sure you’ve discovered the eighth wonder of the world.
With the cocktail craze at full tilt (think boutique distilleries, speakeasies, Mad Men), Evan Faber, head mixologist at Salt bistro in Boulder, Colorado, has created a mix-and-match drinks menu that speaks to the wannabe bartender in all of us. His Cocktail Element program lets patrons choose a spirit, a style (say, a fizz, sour, or rickey), and an infused simple syrup to assemble their own drinks. Faber knows that the most important part of crafting a cocktail is playing off the flavor of the spirit: tequila’s salty lime notes are great with fruity pomegranate, for instance; bourbon’s caramel richness begs to be cut with a little lemon juice and enhanced with vanilla simple syrup; and vodka’s clean, clear palette makes it a canvas for anything. His menu makes it easy to create a winner.
Photo by José Mandojana
If you are a) itching for a break from your too-fast life and b) a locavore at heart and c) someone who loves to cook, book yourself a spot at Foxglove Farm's culinary boot camp. On its lush, woodsy 120 acres in Salt Spring Island, B.C., Mara Jernigan—a longtime leader in the organic and Slow Food scenes—takes students through a five-day, hands-on, intensive field-to-plate program. In the morning, you'll pick dewy fruits and vegetables (at left) and then start cooking. Learn to make fresh tagliatelle by hand; top pizza with just-picked eggplant and heirloom tomatoes and bake it in the wood-fired oven; bone a free-range chicken; and forage for mushrooms. Then sleep like a baby in one of three simple but cozy accommodations, including an 1880s log house with a claw-food tub and hand-stitched quilts.
We live in an ice-cream-crazy world. Salted caramel is the new vanilla. Ice cream trucks have gone gourmet. Every cup, cone, shake, and sundae seems to be organic and ultra-local—and we're so glad! One of our favorites, Little Man Ice Cream in Denver serves up silky ice creams and gelatos in flavors that change daily (some of our favorites: pumpkin chip, Mexican chocolate, and old-fashioned hard-to-find butter pecan). We also like how, on hot days, the front patio turns into a de facto town square—and the fact that for every scoop of ice cream sold, Little Man donates the equivalent weight in rice to a village in Ethiopia or Myanmar, bought from local farmers there.
Thomas J. Story
We’re honored to have been a part of Western lives for more than a hundred years, and we welcome visitors to beautiful Cornerstone Sonoma every year for Sunset’s Celebration Weekend, a two-day festival that brings the magazine to life with celebrity chef demos, wine seminars, and samples from our favorite artisanal food, wine, and beer producers. Tour our outdoor kitchen, take a gander at our famous test garden, home to all the latest plants and projects we're evaluating for coverage in Sunset, and stroll the beautiful grounds.