Each coast thinks they do it better — make amazing food, that is. Raised in California, I have a deep-rooted West Coast bias, but I moved to New England and I'm now torn as to who cooks my favorite All-American foods.
So, I thought I'd settle it with this super informal and highly unscientific throwdown. It's taken a summer-worth of taste testing, but here's who wins the culinary contest of the coasts.
First things first: the best ice cream is fresh and uses 100% real ingredients. I’m talking milk from the cow that’s churned into creamy, dreamy sweetness within hours. I can name over a dozen artisanal farm-to-table creameries in Los Angeles alone (just choosing between Sweet Rose and Carmela could incite its own debate), but in most cities, you can rarely (if ever) visit a farm that produces ice cream on site.
Here in New England, you can walk out behind a shop, cone in hand, to personally thank the cows. Say, for their milk that goes into creations like crunchy chunks of chocolate-covered coffee beans in the smoothest coffee ice cream at the University of Connecticut’s Dairy Bar in Storrs (where you can witness the ice cream making process firsthand). Or, for the chocolate chips and brownies rolled into dark chocolate ice cream at Richardson’s Ice Cream in Middleton, Massachusettes. For this girl, I gotta say New England begins the battle with a win.
Set aside deep dish pizza — we’ll save that for Chicago. And New York is so specific about its slice, we'll leave it to the boroughs. We're talking wood-fired, Neapolitan-style thin crust, with plenty of leopard spotting, crispy-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside crust and toppings that accentuate but don't overtake the pizza.
For all that plus tantalizing crushed tomato sauce and gooey cheese, look no further than The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Connecticut. They’re one of the oldest pizzerias in the United States — all you need is one bite to tell why they've lasted so long.
Of course, you won’t go pizza-deprived in California where West Coast toppings amp up a pie that still does a Neapolitan crust justice. Stand outs are the ever-chic Del Popolo truck in the Bay Area, the super meticulous Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. There are even great joints that do New Haven-style Neapolitan pizza such as Bar Basic in San Diego.
Yet patrons will line up for hours for clam pizza with white sauce sizzling from the historical coal-fired brick oven at Frank Pepe’s. They craft pizza fit for a president (no, really – check out the Presidential pictures on their wall) and yet are willing to stray from tradition enough to have intriguing combos. For the history alone, it’s another victory for the East Coast.
Grinders – aka sub sandwiches for the uninitiated – have only two real requirements: that they be fresh and packed to the brim with paper thin-sliced deli meats. Then, if you really want it right, top it with stacks of produce, sauce (I’m partial to chipotle aioli), and pickles. The best grinders are nothing fancy; look for sprouts and arugula elsewhere. They’re messy, crunchy, down-to-earth, quick fare that make the perfect picnic (or road trip) sidekick.
Grinders are probably a bigger deal here in New England — after all, they're nearly as ubiquitous as Dunkin’ Donuts Iced Coffee. Just step foot into Boston's Quincy Market, and, within 15 seconds, you'll have 15 grinders to choose from. But the best sub sandwich I ever tasted? It came from a tiny mom-and-pop shop, Sam's To Go, in Santa Barbara. So, if only for the memory of that stellar sandwich, this win goes to California.
Speaking of iced coffee, summer is its time to shine. Coffee is a tricky one: source the beans responsibly, roast them just so, and either coast can produce a bold brew to pump you up.
Dunkin’ Donuts maintains an iron grip on New England, but I'll go against the tide on this one and say it: the taste is weak, especially when compared to local roasters. Instead, try the cold brew from The Coffee Trike in Boston or coffee milk from Dave’s Coffee in Providence (it’s their official state drink, after all).
In California, there's the iced coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Santa Barbara, the Nitro coffee (like beer, it's coffee on tap, with bubbles) at Chocolate Fish Coffee in Sacramento, the cinnamon-laced Iced Cubano from LA's Coffee Commissary, or San Fran's Sightglass if you just want it classic. In honor of all the amazing folks focused on the craft, I’ll call this one a tie.
I could pit In-n-Out versus Shake Shack, but I doubt I'd make it out of that battle alive. So let’s talk slow food instead of fast food, as in thick, hand-shaped patties on freshly-made buns. For good measure, let's keep it to just the classic toppings: onions, cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and lettuce (if it’s wilted, bolt for the door).
California has some divine joints. There are institutions like Hodad's and Rocky's in San Diego, each of which will have lines out the door almost any day of the week. And there are more modern places that have national acclaim like the wood-grilled burger at San Francisco's Nopa and the well-made but unpretentious burger at Father's Office in Los Angeles.
But then take a bite out of the burger at jm Curley in Boston. Or the higher-end but still straightforward The Bristol Burger or the "Our Way Burger" at The Gallows. A few bites in and it becomes clear that New England isn’t afraid of a little fat (okay, a lot of fat). Here your burger will be dripping and you’ll want to lick the plate. So, in terms of meaty, juicy burgers that you can’t eat without five napkins, the birthplace of America grills ‘em best.
Any self-respecting eater will wash down that burger with a craft beer and whether you like it hoppy, frothy, fruity, or malty, the craft beer scenes on both coasts are on point. For intensity, try Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg or Black Ale from Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine. For some of the oldest craft beers in the States check out Rhode Island's Narrangansett or Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. And for IPAs, don’t forget San Diego's Hops Highway — where you'll find places like Green Flash Brewery — or Vermont's Alchemist Brewing. Truth is, I could keep going, so I’ll stop because this one's clearly a tie.
Bottom line is California will probably always do certain foods better — say Mexican, Thai, or West Coast-style farm-to-table. But in terms of fun twists on our favorite All-American summer foods, New England drums up the delicacies. Sure, I still crave carnitas and artisanal salad, but, if I’d just kept missing my old favorites, I never would have discovered all these new ones. So, no matter where you are, California or New England, you're winning as long as you're eating some great food.
Opening Image by Photocapy via Flickr