You could drive from Connecticut to California and eat only at California Pizza Kitchens along the way. This is either a comforting thought to you or a horrifying one. It will comfort you if you want to eat something different each day without risking the unfamiliar. It will horrify you if you see the California Pizza Kitchen as only the latest manifestation of the homogenization of America -- the disintegration of anything unique and regional in American food culture into something mass-produced, ubiquitous and utterly predictable. In any case, you'll eat pretty well.
Pizzas dominate the menu. Traditional pizzas like Margherita, pepperoni or Italian sausage are available, but you really ought to try some of the more interesting combinations. The pizza that put California Pizza Kitchen on the map is a delicious barbeque chicken pizza flavored with cilantro and a slightly sweet barbeque sauce.
Farther out in culinary left field are selections that would be terrific if they weren't put on pizza dough. The Tostada, replete with black beans, salsa, cheddar and Jack cheeses, tortilla strips and lettuce, should stay a tostada. Ditto for the Caramelized Pear and Gorgonzola Pizza that is essentially a salad. Putting mixed greens on a pizza is an idea whose time has not yet come.
Then there are the unexpected pizza combos that really work. The Vegetarian with Japanese eggplant, broccoli, corn, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes is a winner. And odd as is sounds, the Rosemary Chicken-Potato pizza won raves from some at our table (those people who believe nothing can't be improved by the addition of a potato). The Wild Mushroom pizza was also very tasty: mushroom pesto, four kinds of mushrooms, fontina and mozzarella cheeses.
Be sure to go with a crowd; it's the only way to sample a little of everything. The appetizers alone could make a meal. The Singapore Shrimp Rolls were packed with fresh vegetables and came with a delicious Szechuan slaw and a spicy ginger dipping sauce. I'd skip the focaccia and go with a tortilla spring roll, available in three cultures: Mediterranean, Baja and Thai (the first is vegetarian, the other two have chicken).
Soups are often an afterthought when a menu is as varied as CPK's. The two we sampled were good. The Potato Leek Soup had just the right texture and flavor, and the Sedona Tortilla Soup was thick and zingy. We ordered cups; the servings were huge.
If pizza's not your thing, but you still want to carbo-load, take heart. There are several focaccia sandwiches and almost a dozen pasta dishes to choose from. If you're carbo-phobic, there's a good selection of entree salads available in full or half portions. Be advised, the half portions are large. Another caveat: Ask for the dressing on the side unless you like your salads drenched.
Two of the pasta dishes were standouts: the Broccoli/Sun-dried Tomato Fusilli and the Chicken Tequila Fettuccine. The fusilli, with both fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, was seasoned with thyme and Parmesan (and as colorful as all the dishes we tried). The latter dish was spinach fettuccine, red and yellow peppers, and chicken in a flavorful sauce of tequila, cream, lime and jalapeno that added a nice kick. Days later, the leftovers (gigantic servings again) were still good.
Clearly this high-end chain restaurant has tested and tweaked its formulas; from greeters to servers to dishes, everything is scripted, practiced and mastered. There are no surprises and little subtlety. If anything, dishes were too heavily spiced, too much rosemary here, too much garlic there. The lights are too bright, the service too fast (on one visit our soups came with the appetizers and the entrees arrived before the appetizers were done). This is not a place to linger. It is a place to get lots of food for reasonable prices. Most pizzas and pastas are $9-$10; add chicken or shrimp to pasta dishes for a few dollars more. It is a place to take a family of picky eaters; vegetarians, meat lovers, bland palates or adventurous, there are menu choices for all. For those with big appetites who make it to dessert (we didn't), there are some lavish-sounding desserts like Chocolate Souffl Cake and Caramel Pecan Hot Fudge Sundae.
It was perhaps inevitable that the genius of Wolfgang Puck and the inventiveness of Spago's gourmet pizzas should become a clich at shopping malls. California Pizza Kitchen offers pseudo-exotic fusion food for the masses. Some of it is quite tasty, some a little odd, but it's all the same whether you're in Orlando, Ann Arbor or Colorado Springs. Sadly, you can't get any more American than that.
California Pizza Kitchen
1645 Briargate Parkway in The Shops at Briargate
Open Mon. Thurs, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sun., 11a.m. to 10 p.m.