Any food lover’s trip to Gold Country means digging into California’s culinary past as much as exploring the new. So, armed with Mark Twain’s Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays for me and Tod Olson’s How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush: An Adventurer’s Guide to the Fabulous Riches Discovered in 1848 for my two boys, we marked a trail that took us through the Sierra foothills and into the heart of Gold Country, eating, reading, and discovering California along the way.
The region’s history is a multifaceted one, layered with the frictions of immigrant groups who made a hard living here, overcoming the difficulty of bringing supplies from San Francisco to the diggins (most of the communities here began as “diggins” and the term is used liberally in the area) as they panned for riches on the river banks. The culinary commingling that took place when ingredients from home weren’t available resulted in food no one in the 1850s would’ve known to call “fusion.” Times have changed — as they tend to do — but Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Scots-Irish restaurants from Sonora to Sacramento reflect the diverse heritages of immigrants to the region. A more recent wave of newcomers introduced cuisines as varied as Greek, French, and Thai.
This list is a guide to the Mother Lode: its sights, cultural oddities, and often exceptional eats. For a straight-up list, there’s also a map pinpointing worthwhile restaurants from Sonora to Sacramento.
Day 1: Columbia State Historic Park
Our search for the Gold Rush took us to Columbia State Historic Park, preserved by Governor Earl Warren in 1945 as an example of a typical Gold Rush town. A double-shot cappuccino made with Modesto’s Milone Coffee and topped with almond milk is worth waiting in line for at Columbia Kate’s Bakery. Though known for apricot scones and cinnamon rolls, the bakery’s bierocks — savory yeast buns stuffed with egg and bacon or ground beef and cabbage — are hearty enough to keep you moving through lunch without a sugar crash.
The taps rotate to include everything from Corona to Old Rasputin Nitro at St. Charles Saloon, and the pizza is a solid choice, too. Check the specials board for the day’s offering — sausage, mushroom, and artichoke heart-topped pizza is popular — or try the barbecue pulled pork on fresh ciabatta. The drinks and pizza may be updated to modern sensibilities but the old-timey surroundings are kitschy and comfortable.
Days 2-3: Yosemite National Park and Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Stock up on picnic supplies for a day trip to Yosemite or Calaveras Big Trees at Columbia Mercantile 1855, where owner Teresa Torbett properly provisions modern travelers in a style recognizable to citizens of 1850s Columbia. That means antibiotic- and hormone-free meat and milk alongside handmade soaps, fresh berry pies, and sarsaparilla soda. Chef Nic Paz prepares fresh sandwiches (options include ham and cheese or roast beef and tomato), but you can also build your own from the daily sourdough bread and veggie deliveries, paired with deli meats and veggie spreads from the cold case.
Pull over on your way to Yosemite at what seems to be the single building remaining in the nearly disappeared former mining town of Chinese Camp: the Chinese Camp Store. A remnant of Gold Rush history, the settlement (now a census designated place) once played host to thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to the area with hopes of striking it rich. At the store, local honeys are stacked chockablock with potato chips and fishing supplies, but be sure to browse the small collection of locally collected archaeological and geological items and to check out the historical landmark buildings, of which a few remain.
Stretch your legs on the drive home from Big Trees with a meal in Angels Camp or Murphys. In Murphys, Alchemy is painted Provençal yellow and the restaurant reflects its French bistro soul in dishes like an ahi nicoise and filet mignon napped with Roquefort cream sauce. But the mussels with green curry and pickled garlic or fried chicken with sweet Asian chile glaze reflect a local-meets-global ethos that’s similarly reflected in the wine list.
Mark Twain’s time in Angels Camp is said to have inspired his tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (the Jumping Frog Jubilee celebrated again this year from May 19 through May 22). While in town, have lunch at the Pickled Porch Cafe. The classic BLT, rechristened as a “Pesty Adam,” gets an upgrade with a slap of pesto and fresh mozzarella while the “Eve’s Garden” is stacked with enough veggies to satisfy the finickiest herbivore in your group.
Day 4: Sonora
A regional hub, Sonora has a blocks-long main drag rife with restaurants. We couldn’t believe our luck when we snagged an outdoor table at El Jardín, a popular spot for margaritas and classic Mexican fare. Chicken enchiladas with homemade chocolate mole were a hit — the smooth flavor smacked with chile heat (try one with the house margarita) — as were the chicken quesadillas and the endless baskets of fresh chips.
If you have time to walk around, check out the Veterans Memorial Hall and Military Museum and the Candy Vault, a creaky-floored mecca for international candies like Pocky, Haribo gummies, and Japanese Kit Kats, plus archaic sweets that earlier generations would recognize — candy cigarettes, anyone?
Day 5: Sacramento
I wasn’t searching for Kabob House, but while waiting for emergency car service at a dealership on Fulton Avenue in Sacramento’s eastern wedge between I-80 and 50, we needed a place within walking distance for lunch. Kabob House beckoned with its meze plate, featuring ground lamb-stuffed dolmades and creamy hummus that felt instantly familiar. Chicken kebabs were juicy and had hints of garlic in the accompanying tzatziki. The calming effect of white-washed walls and Grecian colonnaded statuary soothed everyone’s frayed nerves.
We spent the afternoon at Sutter’s Fort and enjoyed dinner at Paragary’s, a restaurant recently recognized for culinary excellence by the James Beard Foundation. The shaded courtyard garden at the Midtown location, where the bougainvillea coyly reaches over the sidewalls, is a hot spot. No matter where you sit, butter lettuce salad is enlivened with fresh herbs and green goddess dressing while a Mishima wagyu bavette steak pops with green garlic chimichurri. It’s California cuisine that nicely completes a trip to better understand a slice of California history.