clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Thai Chicken Pizza, Just for Us

Finding what it means to be American at California Pizza Kitchen

“See?” my mom said, pointing to a photo of a pizza topped with cilantro. “They know that we like to eat here, so they have this on the menu.” The Thai Chicken pizza, with its orange carrot slivers and lush green herbs, rendered in near-neon, popped off of the menu. It was 1998, and my family was celebrating the beginning of the school year at California Pizza Kitchen.

While my mother pored over the photo, pleased that an American restaurant was using ingredients she was familiar with, I stared at the BBQ Chicken pizza, slathered with a gloopy, taupe sauce and sprinkled with red onions, then took in everything else: the beach-montage walls that separated the airy space from the rest of the mall, the blond waiters who looked like they spent hours surfing, the palm trees in every corner. While the setting was slightly out of my parents’ comfort zone, it was pure California to me — the California I lived in but, as a child of immigrants, never felt like I belonged in, except at California Pizza Kitchen.

I was born and raised in Torrance, an LA suburb just 10 minutes from the beach, but the Beach Boys never had a song about the way our house looked: The entryway was bordered by two calligraphy scrolls, and during Chinese New Year celebrations, we had a table dedicated to our ancestors whose legs buckled under the weight of oranges, red paper envelopes, and sweets. My whole life mimicked how it would have been if we had grown up in Hong Kong, albeit within the spacious environs of a California suburb. And while I grew up with a lot of Chinese friends in Torrance, their parents been educated in the West. For a long time, my brother and I felt like we had a lot of American catching up to do.

The message drilled into us throughout elementary school, that America was a melting pot and we were all a part of it, only ingrained how fully I needed to assimilate. In fifth grade, my teacher drew a large chalk circle on the black asphalt, then told us to jump into the circle and run around, so that we were “mixing” together. “Throw in some heat and now we’re all one! America is a giant melting pot!” my teacher explained as we all flailed inside the circle, bumping into each other. The exercise, rather than affirming my identity, just made me want to be more like the white kids and second-generation Asian Americans at my school, who had easy access to the cultural touchpoints that felt far out of reach for me and the rest of my immigrant friends, like getting an allowance, going on vacations, having grandparents who lived in the same neighborhood, and eating out at McDonald’s.

Instead, we wore hand-me-downs from cousins in Hong Kong and dined out exclusively at Chinese restaurants where my parents knew the staff — who would pinch my cheeks, tell me I was getting too fat, and then send out extra food anyway. One hazy Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1997, though, my parents, my brother, and I were over at a family friend’s house — also immigrants from Hong Kong, but who had assimilated seamlessly, their English flawless, their kids costumed in sunflower baby doll dresses and bucket hats while I still wore full sweat suits decorated with cartoons. They suggested that we all go to California Pizza Kitchen for dinner, since one had just opened nearby. “They give you free bread,” they said, which sold my parents.

This particular California Pizza Kitchen was inside the South Bay Galleria in Redondo Beach, and like many ’90s Southern California malls, it boasted a huge marquee in neon script at the entryway, flanked by palm trees. The CPK took up the front of the mall, anchored on the left side by a valet station and a little outdoor patio with umbrellas. Inside, two young women clad in sensible black and perma-smiles stood in front of an enormous open kitchen and a wood-fire oven prominently near the bar. They took us to a booth, where instead of hot tea, we were served giant glasses of ice water. The menus were big, glossy, and full of photos; there were no set banquet menus, hot tea cups, or chopsticks; and nothing was served what is now called “family style,” so I found myself confronted by the exotic idea of having your own dish that you did not share with the eight other people at your round table. I got a salad and it was thrilling. From that day forward, I recognized CPK as my gateway to being a real American: I could eat the food I couldn’t eat at home, the things that I saw my American friends eat when I was invited into their houses, like cold lettuce chopped up with dressing, pizza not from a take-out box, and multi-colored drinks with ice.

California Pizza Kitchen was established in 1985 by former federal prosecutors Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax with a $200,000 lease in Beverly Hills. CPK’s first menu includes the now-famous BBQ Chicken pizza, which was developed by the former pizza chef at Spago — one of the temples of fusion cuisine — and, according to CPK’s “About Us” page, “gave California a place in the pizza pantheon alongside Chicago and New York.” (Even if that were true then, whether California still belongs there now is debatable.) Most importantly, at least on the surface, CPK embraced the hodgepodge of cultures of Southern California with a menu that endlessly combined signature ingredients from the cuisines of the area’s fastest-growing populations, from peanut sauces to avocados, tortilla chips to soy sauce. By 1992, CPK had expanded to 26 locations, including one a 10-minute drive from our house.

After that first visit, my family and I started going for special occasions, since my parents were more easily persuaded to go to CPK than any other American restaurant in our suburb. Just like they continually sought similar families to socialize with, they also sought out restaurants where they could understand the menu, and seeing familiar ingredients in even derivative facsimiles of dishes they recognized — lettuce wraps, Peking duck pizza, Chinese chicken salad — in a thoroughly Western restaurant was a sign of true acceptance.

At the same time, I learned that if I brought CPK leftovers to school, I wouldn’t be made fun of by my classmates. I was tired of seeing my mom wake up two hours before school to cook my lunch — noodles and fermented tofu and rice dumplings — and pack it in an insulated lunch box so that it was still warm when I opened it up at noon, only for me to quickly eat it so that no one would see how different it was from the square lunch meats everyone else was eating. A lunch of CPK leftovers showed all my peers that I belonged, that I knew how to eat like an American. Sure, the BBQ Chicken pizza was crammed into my bento box, but it was so recognizable that everyone knew and immediately understood what I was eating, sparing me the humiliation of explaining, for the millionth time, that I was not eating worms.

Something else was at work, too. As I got older, I realized that while I couldn’t change myself to physically blend in with the white kids or expect my parents to speak perfect, non-accented English, the more that people came to recognize the menu at CPK — the spring rolls, the lettuce wraps — the easier it was for these same people to recognize that the food my family ate could go hand in hand with what they were used to: fried food, and foods you can eat with your hands. In a suburban blandscape of malls and big-box retailers and countless chains, California Pizza Kitchen was the epitome of a cultural exchange.

In 2010, when I was 22, I moved to New York for graduate school. The only person I knew in the city was my high school friend Shazia, who had just moved to the city the year before. When we had both lived in Torrance, we would meet up at the Galleria after school, walk around the mall, then eat at CPK before being picked up to go home. As the child of immigrant parents from India and Pakistan, she too found a salve in the CPK menu, where she could indulge her taste for the American food not found in her family’s pantry. During one of our regular Gchat sessions my first year in New York, she told me that she was missing California, and that there was a CPK in Murray Hill.

We met up for lunch there on a cool spring day, 3,000 miles from where we were both born and raised. While we now had disposable income and lived in a city known for its pizza, we still ended up ordering what we used to get as high schoolers: BBQ Chicken and Thai Chicken pizzas. They tasted like I remembered — tangy sauces, a little crunch on the carrots and cilantro, that unmistakable, slightly raw dough — but the food was slightly cold and gloopy. The julienned carrots were tossed on a single side of the Thai pizza; the cheese of the BBQ was haphazardly strewn across the doughy canvas. Everything was too sweet and made our teeth hurt.

We pointed at the menu and laughed at the ridiculous, Guy Fieri levels of exxxtreme “fusion” CPK had reached: Chicken Tequila Fettuccine, Szechwan Chicken Dumplings, Avocado Club Egg Rolls. But as we sat in an alien forest of fake palm trees and I stabbed a cold piece of chicken, we talked about how we couldn’t feel the magic and awe of this place anymore. While we were happy to grow up seeing some acknowledgement of ourselves at a culturally American institution, this brand of the California melting pot had become unpalatable. After spending so much of our lives trying to make ourselves acceptable to white Americans, we had realized that it was fundamentally Californian to be both Asian and American, not as a mix, but in parallel.

Life in Chains is Eater’s essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible.

Vivian Lee is an editor at Little A. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in the Los Angeles Times, espnW, World Policy Journal, the Rumpus, Entropy, and New South Journal. She currently lives in New York.
Adela Kang is a creative professional in Toronto.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

Eater Events

Join Eater and Shopify for a Holiday Market in New York


The Brands Moving South Asian Food Beyond the Ethnic Aisle


How NYC’s Don Angie Makes Its Viral Lasagna