12517 N Mainstreet, Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91739
Web: California Pizza Kitchen
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California Desserts Favorites Pizza Ribs Steak
"CPK isn't as appealing as it was ten years ago. Back then, some of the pizzas were downright brilliant: a Tandoori Chicken pizza brought rich and authentic Indian yogurt-baked chicken and chutney onto the dough."
As we mentioned in the first of our unexpected SoCal Chow articles from this weekend, our trip back from San Francisco to test Apple's new iPad was stalled by a mid-week snowstorm in Buffalo, so we shuffled off to Southern California instead to catch up on some places that we think you might enjoy reading about. This article discusses California pizza and the growing California Pizza Kitchen chain, as well as the well-liked Claim Jumper steak and rib restaurants; the prior article looked at Kogi BBQ, an innovative Korean-Mexican taco truck, and Bass Pro Stores.
California Pizza Kitchen. Though conventional wisdom has it that "everyone loves pizza," there are such substantial regional differences between pizzas that there's no single definition of what a pizza really is: it's typically but not always a circle of dough topped with cheese and sauce, though there mightn't be any cheese on one, or any sauce on another, the dough may be thimble thick or cracker-thin, and the toppings can vary from meats, vegetables, and herbs to fruits, nuts, and even eggs. Buffalo has its own style of pizza, as do other cities such as Chicago and New York, so it's no surprise that California has its own version - "California-style" pizza - a small, thin-crusted pizza with eclectic toppings that was invented in 1980 at two famous restaurants, then truly commercialized starting in 1985 by another.
In brief, California-style pizza was developed simultaneously by different chefs at Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse and Wolfgang Puck's then-unknown Spago; five years later, Chef Ed LaDou from Spago took his recipes to California Pizza Kitchen, founded by two lawyers in Beverly Hills, who popularized them. In fewer than 10 years, California Pizza Kitchen had become one of the most impressive pizzeria chains in the country, serving a wide variety of unusual fusion pizzas in dining rooms that were more upscale and classy than the typical family dining establishment, but by no means unaffordable or inaccessible. Each restaurant had a wood-burning pizza oven, clearly visible from the dining room, and though pizzas were the focus, salads and pasta dishes were also offered to round out the menu. We had our first meal at CPK at Chicago in the mid-1990s, and have since visited more locations than we can count, from full-fledged restaurants to "CPK ASAP" shops located at airports and malls.
Buffalo doesn't have a California Pizza Kitchen, and you might note that we didn't include it on our list of Top Ten Great Chain Restaurants Buffalo Should Pursue. There's a reason for this: CPK isn't as appealing as it was ten years ago. Back then, some of the pizzas were downright brilliant: a Tandoori Chicken pizza brought rich and authentic Indian yogurt-baked chicken and chutney onto the dough, while a Peking Duck pizza had legitimately crispy-skinned duck and even hoisin sauce, and CPK's famous Thai and Jamaican Jerk Chicken versions were also popular. But over the past 10 years, the chain has continually messed with its pizza menu, dumping some of its most distinctive flavors - including the somewhat challenging Tandoori and Peking ones - in favor of a stream of boring, "me too" options. Today, the menu is packed with variations on barbecue chicken, a "Meat Cravers" pizza, a Cheeseburger Pizza, and other downmarket options that would be as easily found at a Domino's; using common ingredients seems to be the big trick.
More out of an interest in sharing CPK with readers than actually scanning the menu for the most recently departed old favorites, we stopped in for a lunch and ordered two of the chain's more famous versions: the satay-inspired Thai Chicken, made with peanut sauce and sesame-marinated chicken slices, cilantro, chunks of peanuts, mozzarella, onions, bean sprouts, and carrots, and "The Original BBQ Chicken," now one of many such BBQ chicken variants on the menu, this one with barbecue sauce and chicken, red onions, cilantro, and a mix of smoked gouda and mozzarella. Each was in the $14 range, and more or less identical to the versions we've tried and liked at CPK over the years - interesting flavors with common thin but soft crusts, both decidedly sweeter than the typical pizza served in other places. You have the option to customize the dough with wheat or garlic if you know to ask for it, and of course, if you want a different or more traditional pizza, there are other options: a shrimp scampi pizza, a classic margherita with basil and mozzarella sauce, and so on.
The feeling we've had in recent years and again on this visit was that California Pizza Kitchen has stopped pushing the envelope: at one point, the Thai Chicken was so novel and exotic that even ordering it felt like a culinary adventure, but these days, it's old hat, along with the disappearance of the Chinese and Indian pizzas, the only traces of similarly interesting ethnic options on the menu now come from Italy and various places in North America. With no hint of irony, CPK now serves a Hawaiian BBQ Chicken pizza that does little more than add pineapple to the standard version, and surprise: it also offers a Buffalo Chicken version mixed with gorgonzola, mozzarella, carrots, and celery. Wow. Or not. We get more excited these days by the California-style pizzas offered at Just Pizza locations near home, and we say that as people who used to think California Pizza Kitchen was a high water mark for gourmet pizzas. Something's wrong when you can get a better pizza at Spago for less - as we did earlier this month in Las Vegas - than at a place that serves nothing but pizzas.
If you want to sample California Pizza Kitchen's pizzas for yourself, you can look in a local supermarket such as Wegmans: CPK has been licensing some of its recipes to Kraft for sale from freezers, and the "Crispy Thin Crust" ones taste pretty close to the versions sold in the restaurants when you finish them off in your own oven. Unfortunately, we've gotten sick twice for unknown reasons after eating the frozen ones, and the Thai Chicken version we preferred is no longer being produced, leaving CPK's supermarket choices roughly as me-too as Freschetta and other competitors. Since Kraft has just sold its pizza business to Nestle, and CPK has just signed a new licensing deal, perhaps things will improve. We're not holding our breath, but if this once great chain were to pick up where it left off 10 years ago, we'd be happy to consider it worth having in Western New York.
Claim Jumper. If you've ever visited an Outback Steakhouse, Smokey Bones, or Famous Dave's, you might think that you already understand the concept behind Claim Jumper (12499 Foothill Blvd., Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91739, 909.899.8022), which would be very easy to write off as "just another Western-themed steak, rib, and chicken chain restaurant" from the outside. Western New York has had no shortage of such places, and frankly, the recent disappearance of Montana's and the Roadhouse Grill might suggest that another isn't necessary. Yet we'd still make a case for Claim Jumper to open up shop here: it's a step or two better than any of the aforementioned places, akin to an upscale, Cheesecake Factory-inspired version of Famous Dave's, and whether you're a fan of barbecue or comfort food, it has plenty to offer.
As its name suggests, Claim Jumper is Old West-themed, and the motif carries through from the sheriff-starred servers and saloon-like bar to the root beer barrel candies and rotisserie-cooked meats. Claim Jumper draws people into its bar with legitimately delicious, discounted appetizers during happy hours, and always seems to have both a full dining room and a line out the door for tables, no matter which location we've visited over the past ten years. This isn't P.F. Chang's, which plays games to create waiting lines; at Claim Jumper, the menu and food are so strong that the lines form spontaneously.
Ribs are one of Claim Jumper's many claims to fame: in years past, it offered multiple variations on its pork or beef ribs, but now sells only one version of each, differentiated primarily by the massive, dinosaur bone-like size of the beef ribs and the leaner, softer meat in the pork ones. Both are shown on our plate, served with numerous potato choices or onion rings, plus a generous but buried side of fresh roasted vegetables. This dinner plate, and most of the ones served at Claim Jumper, also come with one of several types of bread; we're long-time fans of the Cornbread Muffins, which are bigger than an adult man's fist in size and consistently delicious - so moist and strong in corn and butter flavor that the dollop of margarine served alongside them isn't necessary.
There are, of course, many other options: salads such as the Caesar shown here, made with especially good poultry and served with garlic toast, fish and chips, steaks, grilled, sauteed, or fried seafood, and numerous homey options: beef stew, country-fried steak, meatloaf, and rotisserie chicken. We've had and enjoyed so many of them over the years that we could talk about them for ages, but it suffices to say that everything's at least good - even the steaks, which come out big and juicy in a way that suggests some old fashioned shenanigans are making them special. From location to location, we've literally never walked away from a meal here disappointed or even hungry, as the plates are invariably huge, and the sides as satisfying as the entrees. Ordering an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert is a one-way ticket to a food coma, and chances are good that you'll be forced to stop well before you've finished whatever you've ordered.
That brings us to Claim Jumper's single biggest draw, a monster dessert called the Chocolate Motherlode Cake, named one of the country's five most decadent desserts by the Food Network. The tall, thick slice includes six layers of chocolate fudge cake separated by chocolate frosting and topped with walnuts, selling for $10 - it's big enough to split three or four ways. That's what we did, two layers per person, and due to how stuffed we were after our appetizer-less meal, only one of us finished the two-layer piece; two others left enough of the cake for the fourth member of our group to take three layers home. Notably, despite its size, the Motherlode is always - seriously, always - moist, and though the chocolate is rich and impressive, it never crosses the line into nauseating unless you try to force yourself to eat too much. As much as it has improved in recent months, Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse could stand to copy this particular recipe for its own mammoth chocolate cake, which uses comparatively overaggressive frosting layers and isn't quite as soft inside.
It's as surprising to us as it may be to you, but yes, we'd be more excited about having "yet another" rib and steak shop in town than the comparatively novel California Pizza Kitchen. Rarely does a place offer both creativity and excellent food for the price, and if we're forced to choose, we'd take the latter any day. Ideally, however, we'd see some indigenous versions of places like Kogi BBQ, where great pricing and creative, fun food intersect with memorable results.