What: The oblong fruit of the date palm—a tropical tree native to the Middle East and Northern Africa—dates began to be cultivated in Southern California around the turn of the 20th century. While rapid development has limited the industry over the decades, the Coachella Valley still produces the vast majority of the United States’ dates, and has been the site of the National Date Festival every February for 60-plus years (incidentally, there’s also a popular International Tamale Festival every December, reflecting the area’s huge Hispanic population). Though they’re high in potassium, fiber, and B-complex vitamins, dates are inherently sweet, with the creamier varieties tasting downright decadent when fresh.
Where: Since 1924, Shields Date Garden (80-225 U.S. Hwy 111, Indio), the retail store of a local date grower in Indio, has been a date mecca within a date mecca. It’s just as known for its continually playing 15-minute film, Romance and Sex Life of the Date, as it is for its wide variety of all-natural California dates, other fresh and dried fruits and fruit bars, and kitschy souvenirs.
When: Daily, 9am-5pm
Order: Whatever you fancy, as you have free range to sample lots of different kinds here, including creamy honey dates, thick halawi dates, nutty deglet noor dates, and the medium-sweet “Blondes” and “Brunettes,” hybrids developed by Floyd Shields in 1927 that are sold exclusively here. We liked the plump, dark-brown medjool dates ($5.50 per pound)—deliciously moist, sweet, and creamy—and the super soft, juicy, and sweet yellow barhi dates ($5.50 per pound), rounder in shape and meatier inside around a small pit; a mix of these two are pictured above.
Good to know: Between 8am and 2pm, the garden patio café serves breakfast and lunch, with menu items that use dates in pancakes, salads, and burgers in addition to the always-available shakes.
Alternatively: Another popular date shop around here is that at Oasis Date Gardens (59-111 Grapefruit Blvd., Thermal, map), about 15 minutes southeast of Indio in the town of Thermal. Established in 1912, Oasis was certified organic in 2000, and carries a similar variety of local dates and dried fruits and nuts, as well as baked goods and beloved date shakes.