Don’t get hangry on your next road trip: 5 must-try food spots in California

Illustrations of oranges on top of a photo of a small shop with people holding foam cups of ice cream.
The Orange Works Café, in the town of Strathmore, is locally famous for its orange ice cream.
(Photo by Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Pack your bags, gas up (or charge) the car, and don’t forget to bring some sunscreen. Summer travel is nearly upon us.

I have a surprise: My colleague Christopher Reynolds just published his list of the 101 best California experiences. Whether you’re new to the Golden State or are a road-weathered traveler, I have a feeling you’ll find some inspiration in his writing.

The cover of the 101 Best California Experiences special issue.
Look for the must-do list in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, or read it online now.
(Illustrations by Grace Danico)

To pair with our must-do list, we’ve launched a collection of merch: T-shirts, joggers, hats, tote bags, water bottles and other items created to celebrate life on the West Coast. The full California Collection is available now at Shop L.A. Times.

A person in a sweatshirt and bucket hat.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

While you’re on the road this summer, don’t forget to budget time to eat. In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find some of the best places to stop for food on your adventures around the state — three of Reynolds’ recommendations and two of my favorites. Take a look at the California 101 list for even more culinary destinations.

If you’re heading to Big Bear Lake or Joshua Tree National Park …

Don’t leave Los Angeles County without ordering something off the menu at In-N-Out’s flagship location in Baldwin Park.

An illustration of a flashing dotted line around an In-N-Out sign.
(Photo by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

“For certain carnivorous Californians, a visit to In-N-Out is like church but with more flexible hours,” Reynolds writes. But no need to fret if you don’t eat meat: I always opt for the grilled cheese, adored by fast food-loving vegetarians, off the restaurant’s “not-so-secret menu.”


In-N-Out’s “double-double, animal-style” burgers are just the start of the experience. Devotees can shop for merchandise at the company store (open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday) and pop by a replica of the chain’s first pint-sized burger shack (open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays) for a photo.

The replica, which can be found at 13752 Francisquito Ave., nods to a pivotal moment in fast food history. “Harry and Esther Snyder founded the first In-N-Out burger shack in 1948, which put them among the first to try a drive-through restaurant,” Reynolds reports.

If you’re cruising Highway 1 to San Luis Obispo …

Taste-test chilis and bask in blues at Cold Spring Tavern.

A rustic, cabin-like building with gingham curtains and a sign that reads "Cold Spring Tavern."
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“The Cold Spring Tavern is a special spot tucked along the roadside on San Marcos Pass above Santa Barbara, where it has been uniting bikers and dressed-down upper-crusters for decades,” Reynolds writes.

The location operated as a stagecoach stop during the mid-1800s. Visitors to this windy stretch of road today arrive mostly by car and fuel up on the tavern’s three distinct flavors of chili. “Yes, you can order a sampler,” assures Reynolds.


On weekends, the Cold Spring Tavern kicks back, serving its tri-tip barbecue sandwiches outside, with live performances from local bands. Reynolds recommends catching acoustic blues specialists Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, who often have the Sunday slot. The duo has been playing at the Cold Spring Tavern for more than 30 years.

The outdoor barbecue typically runs from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, making it a convenient stop for travelers on a weekend road trip along the coast.

If your schedule allows, take time to meander the historical property and peruse the Treasures and Trash Gift Shop, once used as a bunkhouse for stagecoach drivers.

If you’re venturing even farther up Highway 1 to Cambria, Big Sur or beyond …

Cool off with a scoop of ice cream at Harmony Valley Creamery.

Illustration of three types of ice cream, a car, and a town sign.
(Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

Fans of small towns and dairy products will be delighted by tiny Harmony, population: 18.

The offbeat, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet is less than 10 minutes south of Cambria; catch it on a sunny spring day, and its fields look like that classic Microsoft background of rolling green hills.

In addition to the Harmony Valley Creamery, Harmony is home to a glassworks shop and a pottery shop — situated along a one-block “main” street. There’s also an unsurprisingly teeny chapel, in case you’re in the mood to get hitched while in town (wedding packages start at $2,500).


Last spring, I enjoyed a scoop of the creamery’s Local Yodelers Cookies ’n Cream flavor after a cozy weekend in Cambria — but I think I’ll try the Cow Town Coffee Bean next.

Travelers can buy ice cream in Harmony from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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If you’re on your way to Sequoia National Park or Yosemite National Park …

Stop for a sandwich — and a scoop of grove-to-spoon ice cream — at the Orange Works Café in Strathmore.

A GIF of small oranges on top of a photo of a small building with people sitting outdoors under orange umbrellas.
(Photo by Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

I know what you’re thinking: More ice cream? Well, summer is almost here and California is home to a lot of excellent ice cream spots.

The family-owned cafe, run by Jacques and Isabel Khal and their three kids, is just off California 65, 25 minutes south of Visalia.


Its specialty: homemade orange ice cream. “It delivers the creamy texture of a vintage 50-50 bar but without the vanilla nonsense,” Reynolds describes, “with a sharp edge of freshness and the moral authority that comes from being surrounded by miles of orange groves.”

Game to taste a few ice cream flavors? Orange Works Café is also known for other seasonal flavors such as pomegranate, persimmon and cantaloupe, all made from local ingredients.

The eatery is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.

If you’re southbound to downtown San Diego or Coronado …

Get your fill of locally caught fish at Mitch’s Seafood.

View of downtown from San Diego Bay
The Port of San Diego has jurisdiction over 34 miles of tidelands that wrap around San Diego Bay from Shelter Island to Coronado. The district includes many of San Diego’s iconic waterfront attractions, including Seaport Village and the Embarcadero.
(Jarrod Valliere / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Point Loma restaurant sits right on the marina, and it’s difficult to imagine a better place to relax after the long (and often trafficky) drive from Los Angeles to San Diego.

In 2018, my friend Maura took me to Mitch’s, founded by three families of fisherpeople, to fuel up before making the long journey back to L.A. Ever since that visit, I’ve been dreaming of its grilled fish tacos and ceviche.


In addition to those items, Mitch’s serves up a wide variety of fresh seafood, sourced from the waters off San Diego. It also offers craft beer from San Diego breweries and wine from California vineyards.

Mitch’s Seafood is open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. every day. Snag a seat outside by the waterfront if you can.

And while you’re on the road this summer ...

When stopping at a backcountry fruit stand or splurging on a pricey dinner, take care to notice the people around you. After more than two years of life in a pandemic, I’ve found myself equally as captivated by the strangers around me as the destinations I visit.

That’s the theme of the upcoming “Letter to a Stranger” Times Book Club event on May 26. Reynolds will join authors Pico Iyer, Maggie Shipstead and Michelle Tea for a conversation about “Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us.” If you’d like to attend, sign up here.

Letters Q&A with a butterfly illustration.
(Illustration by Li Anne Liew)

Wandering and Wondering

Last month, someone on Reddit asked, “What’s similar to Lake Tahoe but not an 8 hour drive from LA?

Respondents suggested Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead, Mammoth Lakes and various other spots in the Sierra (such as Shaver Lake).

My recommendation? I’ll never get tired of camping at Hume Lake in Sequoia National Forest. What with the sequoias and mountains surrounding the lake, and the shops and eateries nearby, it matches Tahoe’s blend of natural beauty and convenience, with far fewer people around.


🎸 Road song

West Coast Love” by Emotional Oranges. Play as you drive past Morro Rock on your way north to Harmony, Calif.