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Reviews of pizza at chain restaurants.

Chain Reaction: California Pizza Kitchen

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[Photographs: John M. Edwards]

I hear the words "California Pizza Kitchen" and something just doesn't sound right. I know Slice extols the virtues of Pizzeria Bianco, so there is something significant going on in the pizza department west of the Mississippi. From my East Coast perspective, California conjures images of blond people on surfboards, or skinny bald men with black mock turtlenecks. It just doesn't feel like pizza territory. But when chains, California or otherwise, put out a new pizza, they call in "the kid" to try it out.

CPK's newest pie is the Habanero Carnitas pizza. It features "slow-roasted pulled pork, red onions, cilantro pesto, mozzarella and Queso Quesadilla cheese with spicy habanero salsa." I love pork, so I'll admit I was slightly excited at the prospect of my own 13-inch pork covered pizza.

So how did it taste? Well, CPK's thin crust dough simultaneously feels heavy and dense. It's volumetrically thin, but calorically pretty dense. Its dough tastes almost like compressed deep dish pizza, if that makes sense. The crust wasn't very thick or crispy, but I don't think crust is the focus of pizza chains lately, unless filled with cheese.

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The cilantro pesto tasted more like regular pesto, but on the cheesier side, rather than the herb-y side. The cheese was very thick, but indistinguishable from any other melted shredded cheese. The red onions, which are a topping I loathe, had a great, light crispness to them, and the sharp onion flavor complemented the pesto well.

The carnitas, however, disappointed me; too tough and chewy, and covered in a sauce that looked and tasted like it came from the bottom of a box of Chinese takeout (read: orange and oily). The pink color of the habanero salsa threw me off; its girly hue hinted at something mild, but it was quite spicy. I heaved a few spoonfuls on my slices with abandon.

If I had to grade it, I'd give it a B: it's edible, and it at least aspires to something that sounds delicious. I like how creative CPK is with its toppings. Though the pizza is much more complex than I had expected, at 13.50, it knocked on the upper end of what I'm willing to fork over for pizza. You can find better for about the same price at many mom-and-pop pizzerias.

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