California's Central Coast region is, unsurprisingly, known for its excellent seafood. Each city on the Central Coast has it's own specialty (like Pismo's clams and Santa Barbara's spot prawns). The coast also has an abundance of excellent land-based fare. From Santa Maria-style tri-tip to aebleskivers in Solvang, here are the 10 must-try foods of California's Central Coast and where to try them.
Santa Maria BBQ
Tri-tip, also known as triangle steak, is a three-tip cut of beef that comes from the bottom sirloin. The cut has been a part of the U.S. diet since at least the early 20th century and is often oven-roasted. However, in Central California, there's no better way to enjoy tri-tip than as Santa Maria-style barbecue.
The tri-tip is grilled over red oak coals to produce a tender-on-the-inside, crisp-and-browned-on-the-outside steak. This smoky, dry-rubbed dish is traditionally served with pinquito beans, green salad, salsa fresca, and garlic bread. The best place to try it is in the Central Coast's Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys. There's Buellton's Hitching Post II, conveniently located just east of Highway 101 close to Solvang, and F. McLintocks Saloon & Dining House in the Shell Beach neighborhood.
In this land of taco trucks, taquerias, and eateries serving up tortillas stuffed with everything under the sun, tacos are a California mainstay and the Central Coast is no different. Two great places to try are Santa Barbara's Lilly's Taqueria and Taco Temple in Morro Bay. While the former serves up tacos both grilled and steamed topped with items such as chicken fajita, adobada (marinated pork), and beef head, cheek, or tongue, the latter is known for its seafood-stuffed tacos, ranging from crispy lemon garlic calamari to tempura beer-battered cod fillets.
New England may be most associated with white clam chowder, but for thick and creamy clam chowder served in a bread-bowl of sourdough, only California will do. While travelers often swing by Boudin Bakery in San Francisco, this delicious concoction of clams, white broth, potatoes, and onions is available all along the Central Coast.
Those in-the-know head straight to Pismo Beach (once dubbed the “Clam Capital of the World”), where the landmark Splash Café serves up a legendary bread-bowl clam chowder. They make their bread on-site, and use three different types of clam. You can even get it topped with bacon and cheese. Clam chowder is also easy to come by on Monterey's Cannery Row, though you'll want to swing by Schooners Coastal Kitchen and Bar, where their bread-bowl chowder is made with Manila clams, potatoes, sherry wine, celery, and plenty of cream—and served complete with waterfront views.
While these sweet sea creatures are actually shrimp, they taste more like the lobsters they resemble. You'll often hear them referred to as “Santa Barbara spot prawns” and they're well associated with the Central Coast city, though you can really find them anywhere along the Pacific Coast. Still, to taste them fresh from the sea (when they're best), visit Santa Barbara's Saturday morning fish market at the City Pier, where you can purchase them directly from the fishers who caught them. Although the heads of spot prawns contain the most flavor and are often fried up, the bodies can be eaten raw, so grab your own waterfront perch, peel them and enjoy! Another way to try them is as nigiri sushi, which is available at Santa Barbara's Arigato Sushi as “sweet shrimp.”
You'll find plenty of red sea urchins in the waters around Santa Barbara and Ventura, though they exist up and down the Pacific coast—especially in the sea's kelp forests. Uni is a versatile (and somewhat sensual) ingredient that can be served atop spaghetti, baked into soufflés, or more often than not, eaten raw. At Goshi, a Japanese restaurant in San Luis Obispo, it's served as nigiri, while at Santa Barbara's Bibi Ji it's incorporated into a biryani.
Artisanal Ice Cream
If you're strolling along a beach on a warm summer night or savoring some outdoor time along California's Central Coast, having an ice cream cone in hand is the perfect accompaniment. It may not be a regional dish per se, but there are definitely some ice cream shops that are must-stops while in the area.
McConnell's Fine Ice Creams has been a Santa Barbara fixture since 1949, serving up cones of artisanal all-natural ice cream flavors like eureka lemon and marionberries, double peanut butter chip, and dutchman's chocolate. In downtown Monterey, the tiny Revival Ice Cream offers small-batch flavors such as the honey lovers Bee's Knees, eucalyptus, and vanilla & mint.
There's nothing like a good, juicy burger to make your California dreamin' complete. While the Central Coast by no means has a stronghold on the beloved dish the quintessential California burger comes with avocado or guac (and sometimes bacon), and typically replaces mayo for the standard ketchup-and-mustard combo you often see back East.
In Paso Robles, J's Burgers serves up straight-forward hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and veggie burgers with a twist: their own secret sauce. Avocado and bacon are both available extras, though lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles already come piled high on top. Or head on over to Wooly's Beach Bar and Grill in Pismo Beach for black Angus burgers on brioche buns with grilled onions and American cheese, not to mention prime ocean views.
It's not right to visit California's Central Coast region and skip over one of most beloved culinary imports: Danish food, namely in the town of Solvang, a slice of Denmark smack in the middle of the state. Stop into any local bakery and you're sure to find aebleskiver, delicious balls of fried dough, resembling tennis-ball-sized donut holes but more like spherical pancakes, cooked in a special pan (for sale readily throughout town) and often served with fruit jams in flavors like strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry—or even maple syrup and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. They're typically made during the holiday season, but you can sample them anytime in Solvang. One place in particular is Solvang Restaurant, where they suggest pairing them with medisterpolse—a slightly sweet sausage—for an added treat.
Move over Maryland, California has its own prized crab and you'll find it in the waters all the way down to Santa Barbara. Dungeness crab is an esteemed favorite around these parts, and the tender and meaty crustacean tastes great however you cook it—be it as crab legs, crab cakes, or served as a Crab Louie salad.
At the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach, you can try it served on a roll or steamed alongside spicy cajun sausage, while Flaherty's Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar in Carmel makes a mean Dungeness crab cocktail appetizer, as well as offering it whole or integrated into their own mouthwatering seafood Louie salad.
Pink Champagne Cake
The kitschy and over the top Madonna Inn is one of the California Central Coast's most Instagramable wonders. Each and every one of the property's 110 guest rooms is unique, all of them as iconic and quirky as the on-site bakery's most celebrated masterpiece, the pink champagne cake. The chocolate shavings on this edible-ribbon-topped dessert are as bright pink as a 1980s prom dress hide a delicate white cake with layers of Bavarian cream and whipped cream.