Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: California Pizza Kitchen



We are generally disdainful of chain pizza. Actually, we avoid BIG chain anything, with the possible exception of Taco Bell. But a thorough pizza blog must occasionally visit the chains, big and small, to see if their convenience offerings have merit. And in fact we’ve been astounded by the pizza at Bertucci’s (Jersey City) and the sublime Anthony’s Coal-Fired (reviewed recently at http://mainlinepizzaquest.blogspot.com/2012/03/review-anthonys-coal-fired-pizza-wayne.html). We’re also fond of the tiny 4-store chain Jules Thin Crust.
Click any pic to enlarge

We’re highly tolerant of the commodity pie at Costco (http://mainlinepizzaquest.blogspot.com/2011/12/review-costco-pizza.html) and their take-and-bake version (http://mainlinepizzaquest.blogspot.com/2012/02/review-costco-take-and-bake-artisan.html). On the other hand, we avoid Domino’s and Pizza Hut. And when we tried Papa John’s, it was distressingly bad pizza (http://mainlinepizzaquest.blogspot.com/2012/03/review-papa-johns-pizza.html).
Inside CPK

But we’ve heard some generally positive comments about the pie at California Pizza Kitchen, especially the thin-crust version. I avoided the versions I’ve seen in airports and turnpike rest stops, but on a recent trip to Wilmington DE, EPBAC (eats pizza but avoids cheese) and I missed an opportunity to stop at the inventive Pizza by Elizabeths (http://mainlinepizzaquest.blogspot.com/2011/07/review-pizza-by-elizabeths-3801-kennett.html) and instead landed at the Christiana Mall when we were hungry. There we found a full-service sit down CPK restaurant; it was time to find out about this chain.
Wok-seared shrimp for the lettuce wraps

Inside, we found a cheery, bright, casual (if a tad generic) interior. We choose a booth and our friendly server took our order. Beyond the pizza, the appetizer menu seems inspired by P.F. Chang’s. We decided to go with the flow – we order lettuce wraps (shrimp wok-seared with Shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts and scallions, served with spicy soy-ginger sauce), Korean BBQ beef tacos (Korean steak, Napa cabbage, Romaine, onions, scallions and cilantro on corn tortillas, topped with spicy chili sauce and sesame seeds.), and a pepperoni pizza. All of the pizzas are a generous “personal” size.
EPBAC with lettuce wrap appetizer

The lettuce wraps were a generous sized appetizer, fresh and delicious, even if not very original. We also enjoyed the Korean BBQ tacos, but the order was two quite tiny tacos, and the seasoning was too restrained; obviously tuned for a timid American palate. 

Korean BBQ taco
But EPBAC and I enjoyed them about equally.
The pepperoni pizza

The pizza did not have a promising look to it; small and thin, it had a disturbing resemblance to that wretched Papa John’s pizza we had recently.   Happily, eating it proved to be quite a better experience. The cheese, sauce, and pepperoni were all solid, but unremarkable. Honestly, they were about the same as you get when you buy a better-quality frozen pizza like Wolfgang Puck. 
One beautiful crust!

The merits of this pie are found entirely in its crust. It was extremely thin, and it had a delectable crispness, but also a dense chewiness. Just a look at the lovely underside, uneven in texture and color, revealed that a good breadmaker is behind this recipe.

California Pizza Kitchen on Urbanspoon 

California Pizza Kitchen is not destination pie, and it’s not bargain pie. But it is miles ahead of the other big chains. CPK earns a 6 for ambience, 7 for the appetizers, 5 for the cheese, 5 for the sauce, 5 for the pepperoni, and an 8 for the crust. Overall, 6.5. That is measurably better than the Sysco slop slung up by the typical mom and pop shop. If I am stuck eating at a mall again, I could do lots worse than CPK.

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