Central Coast, CA: Tour the Tastes

From the foot of Big Sur to the coastline of Santa Barbara, California’s Central Coast boasts stunning scenery and an array of compelling flavors that tantalize the palate. Let’s go.

Published: 6/27/2017


California’s Central Coast is a wonderful place to discover the distinctive flavors of wild mushrooms. Foraging has always been a popular pastime in the hills and forests here and this year, after a winter of heavy rainfall, the region is enjoying a delectable bumper crop. Chanterelles are a favorite of many local chefs. The beautiful orange gems have a mild aroma and texture similar to that of an avocado. In Paso Robles, try Cello Ristorante & Bar’s Wood-Fired Mushroom Flatbread.

Pacific Gold oysters

Home to multitudes of birds and other wildlife, Morro Bay is a natural treasure. Oyster farming began in Morro Bay in the early 1900s. The bay is unique because it is set in a convergence of cold ocean waters and streams from old volcanic aquifers. These conditions are ideal for the Pacific Gold oyster, which tastes buttery, sweet, with fruit or vegetable flavors to finish. In Pismo Beach, try Lido Restaurant’s Pacific Gold Oysters with Pink Peppercorn Mignonette and Cocktail Sauce.

Fresh greens

The farmlands of the Central Coast yield an amazing array of leafy greens such as romaine, butter lettuce, and arugula, plus carrots, fennel, beans, orchard fruits, and rosemary, cilantro, and dill. Inventive salads are born from these ingredients. Rich, dark Balsamic vinegars add a signature sweet-sour taste when drizzled around the plate. In Arroyo Grande, try Mason Bar + Kitchen’s 5-Farm Salad, an assortment of mixed greens, roasted fennel chips, walnut praline, grated empire apple, Manchego, and caramelized shallot vinaigrette.

Tri-tip steak

Often called Santa Maria-style steak because it originated here, tri-tip is a thick triangle-shaped cut of beef from the bottom sirloin. The meat is traditionally rubbed in a mixture of salt, cayenne pepper, garlic, and other seasonings and barbecued over a fire of red oak wood, which gives it a smoky rustic flavor. The meat is sliced across the grain into thin-to-medium slices and traditionally served with pinquinto beans and salsa. In Orcutt, try Far Western Tavern’s Oak-Grilled Tri-Tip.


The region’s rich sandy soil and temperate coastal climate provide ideal conditions for growing strawberries. In fact, California is the nation’s leading producer. To some degree, strawberries grow here all year long, but the season officially starts each April with the Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival. Throughout the rest of the year, strawberries are a mainstay in local farmers’ markets and roadside fruit stands. In Santa Maria, try Santa Maria Town Center Farmers’ Market’s fresh strawberries by the carton.

Corn tortillas

In many crossroad villages of the region, the scent of corn tortillas wafts through the air, reminding visitors of the region’s rich Mexican heritage. The recipe is simple and so is the secret—the fresher the tortilla, the better. Find a restaurant that makes its tortillas fresh to order and you’ve discovered gold. In Los Alamos, try Vallefresh’s Taco Flight with Legit Homemade Tortillas.


It looks like mayonnaise, but it’s not. Born in Provence, France, it has adapted beautifully to California’s Central Coast because, at its base, it’s a blend of two local signature crops: garlic and olive oil. Sometimes other ingredients such as egg yolk and herbs are added. Aioli is a delicious creamy emulsion spread often used in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches or as a dip for shellfish or raw vegetables. In Santa Ynez, try The Lucky Hen Larder’s Smoked Bacon Sandwich with Herbed Aioli or Fresh Roasted Turkey Breast Sandwich with Rosemary Aioli.


Nutrient-dense and virtually the only fruit that contains monounsaturated fat, the avocado is a staple in most homes and restaurants of California’s Central Coast. Its rich, buttery flavors offer endless possibilities at any time of day in countless ways: sliced alongside an omelet, cubed in a salad, crushed for guacamole, puréed for avocado salsa… the list goes on! In Los Olivos, try Sides Hardware and Shoes’ Pork Belly Tacos with Avocado Salsa.

Sea urchin roe (uni)

The sea urchin (uni) from the deep waters surrounding Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands boasts dark yellow to pumpkin orange hues and rich creamy flavors that melt in the mouth. Considered to be some of the finest in the world, Santa Barbara uni is often savored in its purest form: as sushi. In some restaurants, it is the main ingredient in a raved-about appetizer or a key ingredient in a specialty sauce. In Santa Barbara, try Santa Barbara Fish Market’s Uni, sold by the tray.

As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2017 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.