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Bay Area Foodie Culture Goes Way Further Back Than California Cuisine

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Freshly baked loaves of sourdough bread are displayed at Boudin Bakery. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

You might know the Bay Area for its foodie culture — trendy restaurants, fresh produce and incredible ethnic diversity. But the Bay Area’s culinary history goes further back than the California cuisine it’s known for. The Bay Area is also the birthplace of iconic food and drinks like the fortune cookie, rocky road ice cream, even the tropical Mai Tai. Here are 11 appetizing stories about foods born and popularized right here in the Bay Area to inspire your next culinary adventure.

The Mai Tai may have a tropical sounding name, but it’s origins are right here in the Bay Area. (Courtesy of Trader Vics.)

1. Yes, Your ‘Tropical’ Mai Tai Was Invented Here in Oakland

Picture this: You’re sitting on the beach, sand between your toes, sunglasses on. What else could complete the picture? How about a Mai Tai? Many people associate this delicious rum drink with the tropics, but it was actually invented in the East Bay. The first stop on our quest to learn more is Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, known as the “Home of the Original Mai Tai.”

Rice-A-Roni is a common household item with a surprising San Francisco origin story. (Boereck 13:27, 25 September 2006 (UTC) / CC BY-SA )

2.  How Rice-A-Roni Became ‘The San Francisco Treat’

A Canadian immigrant, an Italian pasta maker and a survivor of the Armenian genocide shared an apartment in San Francisco for four months in 1946, and out of that Rice-A-Roni was born. Originally produced by the Kitchen Sisters in 2008, this story got the KQED treatment when Bay Curious adapted it for a recent episode. Together they tell the multicultural origin story behind “the San Francisco treat.”

The beloved Dutch crunch roll, made at Semifreddi’s Bakery in Alameda. (Amanda Font/KQED)

3. Dutch Crunch: A Bay Area Favorite, But Not a Bay Area Original

When you’re ordering a sandwich in the Bay Area, Dutch crunch is a standard bread choice. But get about 10 miles outside the Bay Area and that crunchy, slightly sweet bread option disappears. That’s made many sandwich lovers wonder: What makes Dutch crunch a Bay Area thing? Why can’t you find it anywhere else? We’ve got answers.

A worker makes fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco in 2012.
A worker makes fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco in 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

4. Unwrapping the Bay Area Origins of the Fortune Cookie

What comes with the check at almost every Chinese restaurant? Fortune cookies. Like orange slices after a blood draw or apples at San Francisco’s Fillmore music venue, they’re a given. But how did they come to be? Are they really Chinese? And if so, why do they serve them at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park?

Pisco punch
In the late 1800s, Pisco Punch wasn’t just a drink. Ordering a glass was a status symbol. (Carly Severn/KQED)

5. Pisco Punch: The Pricey San Francisco Cocktail That Was a Gold Rush Knockout

Pisco is a distilled, fermented grape juice from Peru with extreme potency. But many, many years before the 1940s — when pisco sours became popular — San Francisco was gripped by a craze for another pisco concoction. Pisco punch was the “it” drink of the Gold Rush era. A mysterious ingredient may be what makes it so good.


Rocky road ice cream in an edible waffle bowl
Rocky road was among the first flavors to incorporate “mix ins.” (MSPhotographic/iStock)

6. How Rocky Road Ice Cream Got Its Start in Oakland

It’s hard to imagine in this era of salted caramel and matcha tea, but there was a time when the American ice cream palate was limited to chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. The invention of rocky road in the 1920s changed the ice cream game with “mix-ins.” Nearly a century later, there’s still a dispute over who originally created the recipe for rocky road ice cream: Fentons Creamery or Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream. The one certain thing is that the flavor was invented in Oakland.

The origins of the martini all lead back to the Bay Area.
The origins of the martini all lead back to the Bay Area. (Don LaVange/Flickr)

7. The Story of the Martini, Straight Up, With a Twist

The martini is iconic. Not just because it is James Bond’s drink of choice, but also because of the martini glass. That V-shaped glass has made its way onto neon signs in front of old-school bars and even has its own emoji. The city of Martinez, in the northeast corner of the Bay Area, lays claim to the drink. The city’s official website details the martini’s origin, and there’s a plaque downtown commemorating the annual Martini’s on the Plaza Gala. But, there’s actually a controversy about where — and who — really invented the martini.

The Palace Signature Salad comes with crab and Green Goddess Dressing on the side. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

8. The San Francisco Origins of Green Goddess Dressing

The Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco is the birthplace of several famous California recipes, including green goddess dressing. The story goes that the dressing was inspired by George Arliss, lead actor of the 1920s play, “The Green Goddess.” While he was staying at the Palace Hotel for a performance, head chef Phillip Roemer created the special dressing to be served on the starter salad — and the rest is history.

An Irish coffee at the Buena Vista. (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

9. The True History of Irish Coffee and Its San Francisco Origins

Word on the street is that Irish Coffee was invented at Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco. On a regular day, Buena Vista serves around 2,000 Irish coffees — up to 2,500 on a busy weekend day. But how could Irish coffee have been invented in San Francisco? Well, it wasn’t. But it was popularized here, and the whole history is fascinating and delicious.

Boudin Bakery says their decades-old starter is the key to the bread’s flavor. (Rachel Hathaway/Flickr)

10. What Makes San Francisco Sourdough Unique?

If bagels are a New York thing, sourdough is definitely a San Francisco thing. But what exactly makes our sourdough stand out? Well, it turns out that this is as much a science question as it is about the history and local mythology of our “authentic” local sourdough.

Its-It has been in the Bay Area for nearly a century. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

11. It’s-It! The San Francisco Treat That Sparked a Cult Following

If you’re not from San Francisco, you may not know It’s-It. This delightful ice cream sandwich is an old-school San Francisco treat. It’s been with the city through devastating earthquakes, three World Series wins, and weathered not one, but two tech booms. Since its amusement park beginnings nearly a century ago, the dessert has endured multiple owners. In the 1970s, the original formula and name were sold to an immigrant with an eye on the American Dream: Mr. Charles Shamieh. He didn’t quite stick to the recipe — he made it his own — but the concept, the name, the title it had earned, that bit of original San Francisco, is still tucked between those cookie walls.

Learn more by listening to these Bay Curious food episodes


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