Monday, October 15, 2007

California Pizza Kitchen

As I've gotten older, my favorite kind of pizza is cheese pizza. And increasingly I like vanilla ice cream--especially if it's premium vanilla. I'm not sure what this says about me. But I'm warming up to the idea of exotic toppings on pizza. When you're talking exotic toppings, you're talking California-style pizza.

For a long time here in Utah the only pizza you could get that was really "California style" was Canadian bacon (or usually regular old ham) with pineapple. (Some people call this "Hawaiian pizza," but it doesn't come from Hawaii. (Some claim that Britain's Pizza Express invented Hawaiian pizza, but this seems unlikely.) The Brick Oven serves my favorite version of this this sliced almonds. Now you can get the real taste of California pizza at California Pizza Kitchen at the University Mall. There are also stores at the Gateway and SLC Airport. (The Brick Oven obviously shows the influence of CA pizza.)

You should know that "California" pizza is an oxymoron to pizza lovers in Chicago and New York (who believe that they have the only true pizza). But it has a legitimate pizza heritage. Like NY pizza, CA style is a thin crust pizza, so it traces its heritage back to Naples. Also, like NY pizza, CA pizza is a soft, tender crust (unlike true Neapolitan pizza, which is crisp like a cracker. You can get Neapolitan style at CPK.) Unlike NY pizza, CA pizza isn't floppy, and at least the usual CPK pizza doesn't look authentically hand tossed, but these gourmet pizzas are usually pretty small. They look rolled to me.

Pretty much all California-style cuisine traces its genealogy to Alice Waters and her legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. Waters was a fan of Tommaso's Italian restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. She combined Tommasos ideas with her own ideas gathered from Italy and her own vision of California cuisine to create a unique style of pizza. (Imagine pizza with local organic goat cheese, fresh, handmade duck sausage, and local, organic arugula.)

At the same time Ed LaDou ("the Prince of Pizza") was experimenting with exotic pizza recipes at Prego Restaurante, also in San Francisco (Cow Hollow neighborhood). This Bay Area contribution to pizza went Hollywood when Wolfgang Puck, inspired by Alice Waters, opened Spago, a trendy Beverly Hills restaurant that provided pizza for the stars and turned Puck into one of the first celebrity chefs. Puck brought LaDou into his pizza kitchen, and between the two of them, they turned out over 250 varieties of pizza. LaDou later helped develop pizza menus for CPK, Sammy's Woodfired Pizza (currently only in CA and NV), and Hard Rock Cafe (you'll find one at Trolley Square).

Sure CPK is a chain, but it has a Bacon number of two connecting it to legendary North Beach pizza and Alice Waters. Consider it a "poor person's" trip to Spago (relatively "poor" that is, CPK pizza is about $12 for an 11" pizza).

Most of my experience with CPK has been while I'm traveling. I've had the Thai Chicken pizza at both LAX and Reagan National (and probably a couple of other places I forget). That's become my favorite. Just Saturday night I tried a new variety: mango with curry sauce.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Nina's Original NY Pizzeria & Juice Bar

New York pizza is a variety of Neapolitan pizza (thin, crisp crust, cheese/tomato sauce/herbs, cooked in a wood-fired oven). This pizza followed Italian immigrant to New York in the early 20th century. Unlike it's Italian cousin, New York pizza uses mozzarella made from cow's milk (rather than water buffalo) and originally began with coal-fired ovens rather than wood. (The coal gives a wetter heat which gives NY pizza its famous droop. This is why you can fold it in half and eat it as you walk down the street--"Hey, I'm walkin' here!") New Yorkers also claim that their famous water gives the pizza a distinctive taste.

You can get some pizza at New York's original pizzeria, Lombardi's, or any of it's famous descendants: Patsy's, John's, Grimaldi's, Di Fara, Nick's, and Totonno's. Now Provo has Nina's Original.

I won't say that Nina's is in the same universe as these New York legends (you really have to go to New York), but I will say it is authentic New York pizza and as good as I've had at merely good places such as Ray's or Famiglia. Tourists dig these places, but it's not where the New Yorkers eat.

How can you tell Nina's is authentic? It's thin crust, but with that NY droop. You can only buy cheese pizza by the slice. Everything else, you have to buy a complete pie. (Some NY places only sell pizza by the pie.) They put it in the oven to warm it up after you order it. They serve it to you on a thin piece of foil. On a counter against the wall you can find chili flakes and onion powder to shake on your pizza (Did someone steal the shaker of Italian herbs?) The slices are huge, but you can fold them in half and make your own pizza sandwich (as you walk back to class. "Hey!") It's hand tossed. (You can tell because the crust is thinner at the middle and gets thicker toward the edges.) And it's got a certain smokiness that's hard to describe but is distinctly New York.

If you can't get to New York, jaywalk down to Nina's. They also offer a variety of juices, pastas, and desserts. But it's about the pizza.

Looking for the authentic Neapolitan kind? Only Settebello in Salt Lake City receives the approval of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association. (Save this for your Homecoming date.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Poutine, and Other Things Canadian

This last weekend, Cougar Eats hit the road (or the "air" actually) on a business trips to Calgary, Canada. I only had about 36 hours, so I wanted to make sure I had some authentic Canadian food.

My plane got in about 12:30. To start off my Canadian food quest the right way, I grabbed a maple doughnut at the airport Tim Horton's, the Canadian version of Dunkin Donuts. This wasn't much different from what you would get here, but it was Canadian, and it was maple.

I picked up my rental car and started hunting out lunch. After passing McDonald's (several), Wendy's, Arby's, and other American joints, I started to wonder if Canadian cuisine had been completely overrun by its cousin to the south. I finally got hungry enough that I decided to stop at a Wendy's near the University of Calgary. (Wendy's offers better choices than most fast food places.)

As I pulled into the shopping center, I spied the Billingsgate Seafood Market (named after the famous London market). I also say the sign "fish and chips." Although Canadian provinces tend to mirror the culture of whatever states lie to the south, they also reflect the cultural influence of Britain and the Commonwealth. This means good Indian food, good Chinese, and good chip shops--although I was surprised to find a chips shop in Calgary. I decided to skip Wendy's for whatever adventure this shop would hold.

One side of the shop is the market and another is a British style chips shop. And this is the real deal. It's been in business (although not at its current location) for an amazing 100 years. The shop began in 1907, when a British emigrant settled on the plains of Canada and brought his love of fish and chips with him. I've had fish and chips at several shops in England, and Billingsgate is honestly as good as any I've had. The batter was light and not greasy at all, and the fish was fresh and flavorful. (I splurged for the halibut instead of the pollock, which is what usually passes for halibut here in the States.) They have their own special batter, which you can buy in the market. I also picked up some inexpensive imported Spanish saffron ($4.50 can.).

My hotel was next to Calgary's Chinatown (who knew?), and I apparently missed an opportunity to get some great Chinese food. Some friends ate at the Golden Inn, which is apparently a Calgary institution.

My true Canadian experience came at Harvey's, sort of a Canadian A&W (minus the root beer). Here I discovered poutine, which is french fries with white cheese curds and brown gravy. This is a traditional French Canadian dish and may possibly be the most unhealthy dish ever invented. Apparently, in Montreal and Quebec City, you can get an upscale version of this dish, but the Harvey's version was just a little much. One source told me that the best poutine is actually at KFC, but I have my doubts. But it's Canadian comfort food, and lots of Canadian stranded in Provo yearn for it. (Maybe the next time I go to KFC, I'll bring some cheese curds along and ask them to put gravy on my fries.)

Granny's vs. The Dairy Keen

Returning to Provo from the Uintas through Heber presents you with two possibilities: Granny's and Dairy Keen. Both are famous for hamburger and super thick shakes.

Granny's occupies an old house on main street and 500 South. During the summer months, particularly on weekends, the line goes out the door. It's pretty cramped inside, but there is limited seating outside. Granny's "over the top" shakes and malts are so thick that you're practically eating ice cream. They have good hamburgers, fries, battered fish, onion rings, fry sauce, the usual.

The Dairy Keen offers a similar menu, but with a wider selection. Dairy Keen began life as a Dairy Queen, but when it was sold, the new owners, who were short on money, just changed the "Qu" to a "K." It became so popular that in 1998, the owners built a new building. Like Granny's, DK is also ridiculously crowed, especially on summer weekends. DK also has the added attraction of a model train that drives throughout the restaurant on a track up by the ceiling. (DK is officially the "Home of the Train.") When I visited in late August, I had a fresh peach and raspberry shake. It was thick and over the top. My friend Dale had a chocolate shake, which he didn't care for (and didn't eat--I'm still trying to figure this out. I think he's choosier about his calories.)

Both offer excellent shakes, burgers, and fries, and both have a devoted following. Some make claims for each having the best burgers and shakes in the state, but having tried both, I give the slight edge to DK. But Heber City is obviously blessed with an abundance of burger riches. (Why would anyone stop at McDonalds in Heber? Oh yeah, the shorter lines.)

Monday, October 1, 2007