The history of few culinary trends can be recounted as precisely as that of California pizza. In 1980, Alice Waters, inspired by her travels in Italy and meals at Tommaso's, made a wood-burning pizza oven the centerpiece of Chez Panisse's new upstairs cafe, and her pizza chefs started turning out pies with then-unheard-of toppings such as goat cheese and duck sausage.
That anything-goes approach was quickly adopted by other local restaurants, most notably Prego in San Francisco. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck knocked off the Chez Panisse Cafe concept, hired Prego's pizza chef, Ed LaDou, and opened the original Spago in Los Angeles. In 1985, LaDou was hired to develop recipes for the company that became California Pizza Kitchen, which in the years since has spread the style worldwide by opening more than 200 restaurants in the United States, Mexico, and Asia —including, recently, several here in San Francisco.
The branch on Third Street, just south of Market, is exceptionally nice, as chain restaurants go. The seats are big and comfy, the tables large and spaced well apart, and the high ceiling is dotted with baffles to keep noise down.
The produce is also better than that of the average chain. Take the salads, for instance: With the exception of some tired pears, all the ingredients were high quality and very fresh. Best of the several we tried was a savory Mediterranean salad with flavorful ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, Romaine, onions, feta, and Greek olives. A "miso salad" with cabbage, cucumber, daikon, carrots, edamame (boiled soybeans), very good avocado, and toasted noodles was good but a bit too sweet. Field greens were even sweeter, thanks to candied walnuts, the sad pears, and sweet balsamic in the dressing. A good version of Chinese chicken salad also hit the sugar note, but that's traditional and as expected, given the sweet-and-sour dressing mentioned on the menu.
Considering the prominent wood-burning oven, the pizza crust comes as a big disappointment: soft, doughy, a bit sweet, baked to only a light gold, no crunch or smoky scorched bits. A thinner crust used in a few Italian-influenced "Neapolitan" pizzas tastes about the same.
So the pizza (one size only) is really all about the toppings. One of the best is the BLT, a LaDou invention from the early days: a salad of crisp bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes served on a hot pizza shell. Even better is a minor variation called the California club, which adds ripe avocado and some gratuitous grilled chicken. Other good choices include the white pizza with bacon; the Cajun (decent andouille padded with grilled chicken); and goat cheese with roasted peppers. The chipotle chicken is topped with a big pile of very tasty corn and black bean salsa, but pizza isn't really a great vehicle for it. The barbecue chicken, Italian sausage, and Hawaiian (made with fresh pineapple) pizzas were just too sweet.
As for dessert, warm chocolate soufflé cake with fudge sauce is very good, dark, rich, and, unlike some of the earlier dishes, not too sweet. Key lime pie is passable and comes with good whipped cream.
Bottom line, CPK is like Starbucks or Quizno's. If you're stuck in some culinarily deprived place with nothing but restaurant chains, you'd be lucky to find one. Here in S.F., there are better choices. For example, Pauline's, which has been making the best California pizza in the city since 1985.
At first glance, the restaurant hasn't changed much in that time. Victorian high ceilings and tall windows make the dining room bright and airy, and the busy open kitchen and bustling servers give it a lively feel. The main changes over more than 20 years are the conversion of the upstairs flat to handle large groups and private parties, and the development of a garden in Berkeley and a farm in Calaveras County that provide organic produce, herbs, and even grapes for the house wines.
The menu offers a choice of two salads. The green salad, always available, uses earthier lettuce than you'll find outside of a home garden, plus seasonal additions such as radishes and cherry tomatoes. The chef's special changes daily: on one visit it was a mix of delicious green, red, and yellow heirloom tomatoes with cucumbers and feta. The only flaw was that both salads were a little underdressed.
Pauline's crust is broadly similar to that of California Pizza Kitchen — medium-thick, cooked golden brown — but, despite the disadvantage of being cooked in a gas deck oven, is superior in every respect. The texture is perfect, with an initial sharp crunch followed by a modest chewiness, and there's a slight nuttiness to the flavor. The dough is made by hand every day and shaped into balls for the final rising, which means that later in the evening they may start running out of some of their four sizes of pie.
The specialty of the house is pesto pizza: A crust is baked untopped until almost done, pulled out, slathered with pesto, sprinkled with pine nuts, and briefly popped back into the oven to brown. There's no better way to enjoy pesto, or to appreciate the excellence of the crust.
Two other great choices involve pork products from Louisiana. The Cajun-style combo of andouille, bell peppers, green onions, and fontina highlights the flavor of the lean ham sausage. Tasso (extra-smoky ham) sometimes appears in a similar daily special; if that's not on the chalkboard, the tasso makes a great single-topping pizza.
Every night there are two special pizzas, one vegetarian, one not. One veggie combo highlighted the mild, fruity flavor of roasted Carmen chiles with judicious amounts of garlic and basil. A meat combo with tasty Italian sausage, heirloom Costata Romanesco zucchini, and ricotta salata (like feta, but drier) was, to my taste, too dominated by lemon verbena, but my companions loved it.
Desserts, once a weak spot, now rank among the best in town. The fabulous butterscotch pudding is defiantly crafted for the adult palate: easy on the sugar, liberal with the salt, and a long, intense caramel finish. The bitter, barely sweet, ultra-dark chocolate mousse might also frighten small children. Olive oil gelato brings out the fruitiness of the olives, and it is served with a sprinkling of fancy salt in which you can dip each bite. Those sophisticated regular items are supplemented by homier, more G-rated daily specials such as a warm peach crisp, a trio of melon, plum, and strawberry sorbets, and a sundae of peanut butter and coconut ice creams with caramel and chocolate sauces.
If you haven't tried Pauline's, the pesto pizza demands a visit. If you're already a fan, the greatly improved desserts are a good excuse to head back soon.