The first time I stepped into a California Pizza Kitchen, I was a college student on spring break, visiting my West Coast roommate. Eager to show off the assets of her sunny hometown, my hostess introduced me to her local CPK, with the same brand of pride that swells when I lead visitors to the Loveless. As I beheld the SoCal spectacle—the yellow-tiled pizza oven, the sleek decor and the bronzed customers nibbling on designer pies—I was dazzled.
And so it was with happy nostalgia for my first barbecue chicken pizza—not to mention an ongoing love affair with the frozen CPK products available in supermarkets—that I stormed the doors of the Green Hills CPK when it opened in September.
Perched precariously close to Hillsboro Road at the outer edge of the new Hill Center, California Pizza Kitchen is an architectural triumph of consistent corporate brand development. With warm wood accents and pendant lighting, the sprawling, serpentine dining room is a cheerful setting for a bustling cross-section of suburban life. On our visits businessmen in shirt sleeves, ladies who lunch, high school athletes in team uniforms, families with toddlers, and tweens dropped off by moms in minivans all waited shoulder-to-shoulder just inside the revolving glass door, which, at any given minute, was being wiped assiduously by an employee charged with eliminating any trace of fingerprints on the pristine panes.
Blame it on the Windex. Or blame it on the corporate design team. But the 210th California Pizza Kitchen indeed lacks any fingerprints of Nashville—or of any other place, for that matter. “Where are we?” I overheard a couple of pie-eyed customers ask rhetorically, as they surveyed the non-region-specific scene of soothing neutral appointments and oversized vegetables painted on cardboard pizza boxes.
But while the trademark CPK yellow drowns out any local color, the fresh ingredients and unusual combinations that characterize the food clearly translate to Green Hills tastes. In fact, the next most overheard question was, “Where did all these people come from?”
The frenetic menu of mainstream global specialties and international hybrids—think Kung Pao spaghetti, tortilla spring rolls and Thai pizza—reads like a pocket dictionary of culinary Esperanto, flailing from Europe to the Southwest to the Pacific Rim with a gustatory ADHD not often found outside of The Cheesecake Factory. (Wait, maybe I was at The Cheesecake Factory. No, it was definitely California Pizza Kitchen—the barbecue chicken pizza was a ringer for the CPK pies in the freezer section at Kroger.)
With stores in 29 states and seven foreign countries and square yellow boxes tiling the freezer section, CPK has mastered the art of mass marketing. Particular kudos go to the customer-behavior savant responsible for peppering the menu with geographic names that imply “vaguely Asian-inspired” and “fresh and zingy.” Without realizing it, I ordered a veritable archipelago of dishes named for Asian locations that I can’t find on a map. Szechwan orange lettuce wraps arrived with large, crisp leaves to hold a stir-fried medley of shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, carrots, green onions and chicken seared with just a whisper of breading. Singapore shrimp rolls—rice paper wrapped around shrimp, baby broccoli, lettuce, cilantro and sprouts—were colorful and crisp. But when ordered together, the Asian-themed appetizers began to blur together, a consequence of similar (and extremely salty) dipping sauces. I might suggest diversifying with, say, a Baja chicken spring roll with guacamole, a Tuscan hummus or the avocado club egg rolls packed with chicken, bacon, Monterey Jack and tomatoes, deep-fried and served with a spicy ranch dip.
There’s nothing like soy sauce to make you focus on your water glasses, and ours were often painfully empty. After the high-performance flurry of opening weekend, when service clicked like a digitally choreographed Visa commercial, things got a little slower. In addition to being parched, at one lunch we waited half an hour for our pizzas.
While salt was a predominant flavor across the menu, sugar was another. CPK earned high marks for its abundance of fresh vegetables: top honors went to the steamed broccolini, accompanied by the children’s chicken breast. But freshness was often buried under heavy, icky-sweet sauces. Exhibit A: the Thai curry noodles—a generous serving of lightly stir-fried vegetables and chicken over Chinese noodles—which quickly congealed into a glutinous lump of cloying sweetness.
It’s probably no coincidence that we visited CPK three times without ordering dessert. When we finally launched a fourth, dessert-specific expedition, tiramisu took the cake, light and fluffy, with hints of marsala and rum. Our group also enjoyed the white chocolate-peanut butter cheesecake but unanimously rejected the key lime pie for having a flavor too close to citrus-scented cleanser. And the cunning menu writer hoisted herself on her own pithy petard when titling the chocolate soufflé “cake.” Plated elegantly on a bath of frothed vanilla cream, the dense dessert would have delighted our table had it just been advertised as a brownie. Instead, it fell flat under the weight of our inflated expectations.
But what were we thinking ordering a classic French dessert—or Thai curry, for that matter—in a California Pizza Kitchen? We should have stuck with the pizza that made the brand a household name. Yes, it’s the pizza—reliable and elegantly simple—that will lure us back to CPK, and most likely through the takeout door at the back of the dining room. The barbecue chicken pizza—with its sweet-and-tangy sauce, hunks of chicken, fresh cilantro, mozzarella, smoked gouda and oven-kissed pink onion—delivered on expectations. (It was even better than the frozen version—though not necessarily twice as good, as the $11.29 price tag would imply.)
Among the more than two dozen pizzas, we also particularly enjoyed the goat cheese with roasted peppers, a name that undersold the gorgeous combination of roasted yellow and red peppers, tender grilled Japanese eggplant and generous tangles of caramelized onions strewn across a bed of mozzarella and tomato sauce. By contrast, the California Club pizza—cooked with bacon, chicken and cheese and topped with a cool tussle of lettuce with mayonnaise and avocado—was an awkward pairing of hot and cold.
Perhaps the better course is to order separately from the extensive salad and pizza menus, since the pizzas are an ideal size for two people. And I would advise against branching out to the honey wheat dough or the thin Neapolitan-style crust. Stick with the original. The perfect balance of crispy and chewy, textured with browned melted cheese around the edges, it is the ideal vehicle for CPK’s signature combinations—the native cuisine of a borderless world without a culture to call its own.
California Pizza Kitchen opens Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 11:30. Dinner is served until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 p.m. on Sunday.
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