How California Ruined Pizza

Not every famed Golden State dish is a culinary home run.

anaheim, ca   october 04 a wood fired bbq chicken pizza is one of the offerings at "the kitchen," a new eatery at the honda center's remodeled south entrance in anaheim, ca on wednesday, october 4, 2017 photo by kevin sullivandigital first mediaorange county register via getty images
MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Farm-to table-eating, Mission-style burritos, avocado on nearly everything: California cooks have served up some pretty brilliant culinary creations. But not every menu item born in the Golden State has elevated the food world as much as, say, San Francisco restaurant Zuni Café’s famous roast chicken. In the category of Dishes That We Screwed Up, pizza takes the prize.

Berkeley chef (and Alta Live guest) Alice Waters is generally thought to have been the first to creatively—and successfully—top a professional pizza with nontraditional items, but it is Ed LaDou, the former chef at famed Los Angeles restaurant Spago, whom we can blame for BBQ chicken pizza, the brown-and-purple pie commonplace in supermarket freezer aisles. In 1985, LaDou helped design the first menu for the California Pizza Kitchen, a chain restaurant apparently determined to ruin the reputations of both California and pizza. His BBQ chicken pizza is the business’s trademark menu item, forever linking the state with sweet-sauce pizza.

CPK’s most well-known pie is the mass-market result of wonderful experimentation. A pizza crust is a chef’s blank canvas, its potential for topping combinations an endless opportunity to strike taste bud gold. Prosciutto and grilled peach, goat cheese and fig, even LaDou’s own duck and hoisin sauce are all exciting pizza successes—but BBQ sauce and chicken breast? This, sadly, is the pizza flavor most synonymous with the Golden State. No wonder New York thinks it’s better than us.

Here are three other examples of California chefs messing with perfection—and failing:

  • In the 1970s, carob took the natural-foods movement by storm. Health enthusiasts swapped this bland sweet for chocolate and expected us not to notice until well into the 1980s. Jonathan Kauffman’s “How Carob Traumatized a Generation” dives deep into the phenomenon.
    • West Hollywood watering hole Lola’s credits a bartender named Adam Karsten with inventing the bright green Adam’s Apple in 1997, or as it soon became popularly known, the appletini. This fruit-flavored take on a martini no doubt paved the way for other cocktail abominations, like the peartini and the grapetini.
      • Baseball game food generally consists of hot dogs, beer, and in San Francisco, garlic fries—the pile of soggy fried potato sticks drenched in garlic probably minced before the season even began. Created by the cofounders of the San Jose–based brewery Gordon Biersch, garlic fries were first served at Candlestick Park, the former home of the San Francisco Giants, in 1994. People love them, maybe because they’re so city-specific and the garlic, which arrives in jars, comes from Gilroy. But the current version being offered these past few seasons at Oracle Park is a dreadful twist on the original. Poutine this is not.

        Alta creative director John Goecke, a man whose job it is to have excellent taste, thinks BBQ chicken pizza is delicious, so the above culinary opinions are just that: opinions. Please take our BBQ chicken pizza poll and let us know what you think.•

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        This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
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