No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This is Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog, champion of the mom-and-pop restaurant, defender of the independently owned eatery, supporter of the family owned and family operated diner…and this is a review of a chain restaurant. No, this blog has not been hijacked by some corporate cabal bent on corrupting the American diet with homogeneous mediocrity…and no, this review was not written under duress or the promise of free food. It was written of my own free will, sound mind and full accord. Lest you condemn this seemingly traitorous affront, hear me out.
Several years ago, I made my own version of a Faustian pact. Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a scholar who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. In my case, I made a deal with my Kim to take her to the Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year. I sure got the rotten end of that deal! On Labor Day 2015, my Kim decided to collect my soul, er….have me make good on my promise and take her to the Olive Garden.
In the traditional deal with the devil motif, when Satan comes to collect the witless pawn’s immortal soul, the pawn begs, bribes, cajoles and barters to no avail. Unlike the pawn, however, I had one barter up my sleeve. “Rather than the Olive Garden, wouldn’t you rather go to a better chain restaurant, one in proximity to the best gelateria in town?,” I pleaded. Much as she’d wanted to try the California Pizza Kitchen, it was the promise of gelato that sealed our bargain—a one-year reprieve from the Olive Garden.
Sadly, I must admit to many close encounters of the third kind familiarity with the California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). Back in the days when I traveled to Phoenix quite regularly for business, CPK was, by far, the best restaurant in the Sky Harbor. With that distinction, it held a captive market. Those of us from New Mexico wouldn’t deign to eat at the Phoenix-style Mexican food restaurants on the concourse and other options were even less palatable. Besides, several CPK offerings were actually pretty good.
If California Pizza Kitchen at the Sky Harbor, an express fast food to go operation, is better than Olive Garden anywhere it stood to reason (at least in my convoluted mind) that CPK in a casual-dining ambiance would be far better than the CPK at the Sky Harbor, ergo much better than the Olive Garden. Albuquerque’s CPK, situated in the heart of ABQ Uptown, is an expansive sit-down establishment in which menu items are prepared to order. That menu is much more expansive than at the Sky Harbor, offering everything hearth-baked pizzas to salads, pastas, entrees, soups and sandwiches.
Frankly, my expectations (which tend to be rather low for chain restaurants) were exceeded in every way. Service was first rate—not the saccharine, rehearsed wait shtick with which some chains insult diners, but personable, friendly and attentive service. Seating, while in near personal space proximity, was reasonably comfortable. Delivery was well spaced, meaning there was ample time between delivery of our appetizer and delivery of our entrees. Beverages were replenished faithfully. Best of all, our meal was delicious.
7 September 2015: The appetizer which first caught our eye bore the name tortilla spring rolls. What a great idea! Why have we limited ourselves to boring tortilla roll-ups, tortilla pinwheels stuffed with cream cheese and sundry ingredients? There are three types of tortilla spring rolls, the most enticing of which was the Thai Chicken Spring Rolls, flour tortillas sprinkled with herbs and baked in the hearth oven stuffed with bean sprouts, scallions, carrots, cilantro and mozzarella served with an addictive peanut sauce. The peanut sauce is the topper, both literally and figuratively. As good as peanut sauce at many Thai restaurants, it’s the perfect dip for an otherwise very good starter, elevating it into an excellent introduction to CPK.
7 September 2015: CPK’s pizzas are categorized as “original hand-tossed” and “crispy thin crust.” Though there are plenty of traditional toppings, we opted for pies topped as no other pizzas we’ve seen in New Mexico are topped. These are true California pizzas, constructed from imagination and creativity (not that the Land of Enchantment’s pizzaiolo don’t have these qualities). The first was a Pear and Gorgonzola pie (Bosc pears, sweet caramelized onions and hazelnuts topped with chilled field greens in Gorgonzola ranch dressing). Wow! This salad on a pizza is a winner thanks largely to the creamy, sharp Gorgonzola ranch which penetrated through the greens onto the thin crusted pie. The Bosc pears are sliced thin and are caramelized by the baking process, rendering them even sweeter, a nice contrast to the Gorgonzola.
7 September 2015: Perhaps even more creative is a Jamaican Jerk Chicken pizza (spicy-sweet Caribbean sauce, authentic Jamaican spices, Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon, red onions and bell peppers). Make sure to ask for pineapples (from the fruit, not a can) for a tangy-sweet complement to the assertively wonderful ingredients that come standard with this beauteous pizza. Though you might be tempted to tell your server “Jamaican me crazy with this pizza,” your servers have all heard that before. Nueske’s applewood bacon is porcine perfection, as good a bacon as you’ll find anywhere.
19 February 2022: Not long after having shared our mutual disdain for chain restaurants with Erik, an Apple Genius Bar technician from California, my Kim decided we should have lunch at nearby California Pizza Kitchen. Once again, my Faustian bargain came back to haunt me. Erik, if you’re reading this, please understand I was under severe duress and great pressure. A lesser man would have crumbled even more quickly than I did. Thankfully, as far as chain restaurants go, California Pizza kitchen isn’t half bad.
19 February 2022: Besides, how can you not like a restaurant that serves a pretty mean Thai Crunch Salad (crisp veggies and fresh cilantro with chicken and the crunch of peanuts, wontons and rice sticks. Served with Thai peanut dressing. Also available with fresh avocado.)? Our kind server split this salad for us and still neither of us could finish it. Talk about a substantial salad. Talk about a delicious salad. The genius is tossing all those beautiful, mostly healthy ingredients with a Thai peanut dressing that’s very well balanced between sweet and savory and between creamy and thin. This is a salad we’ll be duplicating at home.
19 February 2022: Though the end of summer meant the inevitable return to school, my brothers and sisters found consolation in roasting ears of corn we had raised and nurtured from seed to harvest. This special time was the sole occasion in which we also used our horno to make chicos, slow-roasted corn which we would dry and reconstitute during the winter when we were craving the sweet flavor of corn. Back then we had no idea about Mexican street corn. To us, roasted corn was absolutely delicious just the way it was.
Today Mexican street corn has transcended culinary boundaries and borders. You can find it in fine-dining restaurants, roadside stands…and in California Pizza Kitchen. CPK’s Mexican street corn (roasted with smoked paprika, feta and Parmesan served with fresh cilantro, lime and housemade ranchito sauce) didn’t exactly remind me of horno-roasted corn, but it was quite good. Most memorable is the discernible char on virtually every niblet of corn. That char imparted a sharpness that paired very well with the smokiness of the paprika and the tanginess of the feta. Even my persnickety grandmother would have enjoyed this Mexican street corn.
19 February 2022: Several years ago, the President of Iceland declared he was “fundamentally opposed” to pineapple on pizzas. Not wise enough to leave well enough alone, he further stated that if he could, he would ban the tropical fruit as a pizza topping. Not surprisingly, Twitter and half the world’s online media became rabid at his declaration. Wisely,he issued a “retraction” indicating “I would not want to hold this position if I could pass laws forbidding that which I don’t like. I would not want to live in such a country. For pizzas, I recommend seafood.”
Neither my Kim nor I are fundamentally opposed to pineapple on pizza. It may not be what comes to mind when asked what our favorite pizza toppings are, but we would never kick a “Hawaiian pizza” off our table–especially when it’s as good as California Pizza Kitchen’s. What makes CPK’s Hawaiian pizza (fresh pineapple, applewood smoked ham and slivered scallions) a star is its painfully thin crust. It’s so thin Food Network star Guy Fieri might describe it as having only one side. Somehow it manages to support the weight of a generous amount of pineapple and smoked ham. It’s six slices of pizza you wouldn’t want to share with the President of Iceland, but you might enjoy sharing it with someone you love.
My Kim enjoyed California Pizza Kitchen so much, our Faustian deal might just have to be amended. It’s a deal with which this anti chain crusader can probably live and it’s so much better than the Olive Garden.
California Pizza Kitchen
2241 Q Street, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2022
1st VISIT: 7 September 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Jamaican Jerk Pizza, Gorgonzola & Pear Pizza, Thai Chicken Tortilla Egg Rolls, Thai Crunch Salad, Mexican Street Corn, Hawaiian Pizza