A surprisingly exotic destination still offers riches for intrepid pioneers.
Built on a branch of the mighty San Joaquin River and surrounded by walnut orchards and fruit stands, Stockton, Calif., looks at first just like any other big, wholesome Central Valley farm town.
But if you have ever driven through Stockton's beautiful old downtown, enjoyed a stupendous Philippine lunch, toured the regal Haggin Museum, or attended the annual festival celebrating composer and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, you will never forget that Stockton is a city.
Like San Francisco, Stockton—named after Robert Stockton, a U.S. commander in the Mexican War—experienced its first burst of growth with the Gold Rush. A sleepy village in 1848, Stockton one year later was a heavily trafficked pit stop for miners heading for the hills. When the newcomers learned it was easier and more profitable to farm, Stockton continued to grow and flourish, transforming itself into the shipping center for the valley's burgeoning crops. Its architecture reflects this prosperity. The city's downtown sprawls along the banks of a wide, bottle-green channel. The mission revival Hotel Stockton, built in 1910, stretches for an entire block, and when the gorgeous Fox California Theatre opened in 1930, it was the state's biggest vaudeville house. Both these buildings are undergoing renovation. A historic flour mill on the channel, the Waterfront Warehouse, is now home to restaurants and delis. Across the street, the Children's Museum features an interactive park for infants and a miniature metropolis for older kids, complete with post office, hamburger shop, and fire truck.
There's also a terrific year-round farmers' market held Saturdays under the freeway on Washington Street, where you can buy the usual local produce as well as Indian beans, African jelly melons, white eggplants, and potted grapefruit trees.
For shopping and strolling, head to the so-called Miracle Mile. Here, on Pacific Avenue between Castle Street and Harding Way, you'll find antique shops, the art deco Stockton Royal Theatre, the nonprofit Elsie May Goodwin Gallery, which displays the work of local artists, and CoCoro, a Japanese bistro.
Indeed, one of the surprises about Stockton is just what a rich restaurant town it is. For a swanky occasion, you can feast on lobster bisque at Le Bistro. Or hit Tepa Taqueria for ceviche, then cross the street for coconut cakes from the New Cambodian Supermarket. On a sunny day, buy some rice torta at De Vinci's, an Italian deli, and picnic at big, grassy Victory Park.
Be sure to visit the nearby Haggin Museum, which houses an unusual collection including a Renoir, a cigar-store Indian, a combine harvester, and 11 lush canvases by romantic landscapist Albert Bierstadt. The Haggin perfectly reflects its city: eclectic, sweetly self-important, and surprisingly urbane.
Best Lumpia, a Philippine restaurant, dishes up crispy egg rolls, kaldereta (spicy beef stew), and sweet treats such as halo-halo (below), a blend of fruit, ice, milk, and ice cream. 9305 Thornton Rd., 952-8300.
Stockton's Asparagus Festival (April 23—25) salutes the skinny green vegetable with races, concerts, winetasting, and asparagus margaritas. For more information, call (209) 644—3740 or visit www.asparagusfest.com .
Photography by Sean Arbabi 
This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Area code is 209. Pick up AAA's Stockton map and the Northern California & Nevada TourBook. For a place to stay, visit AAA.com/hotel . Contact the City of Stockton at 937-8827, www.visitstockton.org , or visit www.stocktongov.com .
University of the Pacific Founded in 1851. Start at the Welcome Center at the Robert E. Burns Tower and be sure to see the brick Morris Chapel. 3601 Pacific Ave.
Don't Go Home Without . . .
Visiting the Haggin Museum. 1201 N. Pershing Ave., 940-6300, www.hagginmuseum.org .
Children's Museum of Stockton Offers interactive exhibits for children ages 6 months to 12 years. 402 W. Weber Ave., 465-4386.
Elsie May Goodwin Gallery 1902 Pacific Ave., 466-6604. Hubba Hubba Antiques American furniture, lamps, and glass. 2026 Pacific Ave., 460-0339. Treasure Trove Antiques Kitchenware, pottery, chandeliers, photos, and furniture. 234 W. Harding Way, 547-0433.
CoCoro Tofu, sushi, and mango mochi (rice cakes). 2105 Pacific Ave., 941-6053. Ernie's on the Brick Walk Tasty pastas and steak. 296 Lincoln Ctr., 951-3311. Le Bistro Caesar salads and pear soufflé. 3121 W.Benjamin Holt Dr., 951-0885.
De Vinci's Homemade focaccia and ravioli. 4555 N. Pershing Ave., 957-2750. New Cambodian Super-market Fresh baked goods and canned Asian foods. 4753 N. Pershing Ave., 951-4023. Tepa Taqueria Yummy ceviche and huevos rancheros.1205 W. March Ln., 476-8802.
Stockton has several weekly farmers' markets; for more information, contact the Stockton Certified Farmers' Market Association, 481-7421, www.stocktonfarmersmarket.org . Since 1947, the Fruit Bowl has been selling seasonal produce along with jellies, pies, zucchini bread, and Italian tortas. 8767 E. Waterloo Rd., 931-1196.
Brubeck Festival April 4-7. Works by Brubeck presented in varied styles. Visit www.brubeckinstitute.org .