By Richie Nakano | iStock

The tostada pizza at California Pizza Kitchen is big.

It has a thin crust, slathered in black beans, piles of cheese, shredded lettuce, tortilla strips, and an embarrassment of ranch dressing. It comes with a side of salsa big enough to share with four other people. You can add lime chicken or carne asada; which of course you do. It’s the unholy love child of nachos and pizza, and it’s sitting right in front of me. What in hell am I doing here?

I’m in the suburbs, killing time with my five-year-old son while his older brother attends basketball camp. The options are some pizza place called Pieology: The Study of Pizza, a Chipotle, a wildly expensive wine bar, and another Chipotle. But then, there it is: California Pizza Kitchen.

As a professional cook, you are taught to shun these places; the ones where your craft is defiled, disrespected with garbage ingredients and pre-made sauces and microwaves. So many microwaves. CPK, in particular, is the embodiment of what’s can go wrong with chains. The menu is sprawling—88 items spread out over categories like “power bowls” and “Small Plates and California Flatbreads.” It’s the 90s Wolfgang Puck-style fusion cuisine that makes most cooks roll their eyes. You wouldn’t slather spaghetti in spicy peanut sauce and chicken satay and call it California Spaghetti Kitchen, so why is this okay with pizza?

Later, I will come to find out that this is the “nice” CPK from my mother, which leaves me wondering about the dive-y CPK, and which one offers the most authentic California Pizza experience. And upon entering, it is nice. All of the trappings of the modern trendy restaurant are missing. There’s no flashy mural, no booming 90s rap soundtrack, no handmade chairs made with Japanese joinery techniques that are very pretty to look at but unbelievably uncomfortable to sit in. We sit down in a huge booth, and the hostess sets up my son with crayons and a multi-page activity book that doubles as the kid’s menu.

Eating out with my kids is always a gamble. There are generally two outcomes: the kids eat their food and engage in pleasant conversation and mind their manners, or they complain about the food, bicker, and feel the need to stand up every ten minutes. But here, bread and a water with a lid and straw immediately land for him to snack on, and he’s happy. For some reason, I preferred to believe that my kids were more enlightened than other children, that they didn’t need kids menus and entertainment, that they could more or less compose themselves like adults when we are out. But what CPK lacks in coolness they make up for by being impressively prepared to take care of children.

When a person steps confidently into the food world, whether as a professional cook or just an enthusiast, one of the first steps is to cast aside these chain restaurants we grew up eating in. No more Chevy’s. Don’t even look at Chili’s. But sitting here with my son, doing crosswords and coloring while he happily sips a frozen lemonade and snacks on his personal pizza, I’m reminded about all of the times my family had a special night out. My favorite restaurant memories weren’t made in fancy Italian places where some dude in a suit would get annoyed with me for standing near the kitchen watching the rotisserie spin; they were made in dining rooms full of generic Americana knick-knacks being served by a college student working a part-time job. 

The server comes over. “If he’s all done, I can get that out of his way and bring out his dessert. He can choose between a sundae or a brownie with ice cream.”

My son beams at me. “I LOVE THIS RESTAURANT.”

In a way, so do I. The tostada pizza was pretty good, too.

 

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