Growing up in a Northern California suburb, California Pizza Kitchen was formative for me—a spot for birthdays, teen theater cast parties, and weird high school dates, and the site of my first bite of spinach-artichoke dip (it was fine). Last year for his birthday, my husband, deeply familiar with CPK’s oeuvre, requested that I make him a classic of the restaurant: the barbecue chicken pizza. Eating it for the first time outside a CPK, tweaked to account for our grown-up tastes, I found the pizza was even better than I remembered.
I pulled from my childhood nostalgia to create this recipe: a stellar version of the California Pizza Kitchen barbecue chicken pizza, but made to meet me where I am right now in life—including being easy to whip any time the craving strikes.
Barbecue chicken pizza is an interesting beast. Created for CPK’s opening menu in the mid-80’s by chef Ed LaDou, it’s since become a bit of a phenomenon, and its core components—even beyond the walls of a California Pizza Kitchen—are pretty well-defined. You have the titular chicken and barbecue sauce, of course, but also a layer of smoked gouda, thinly sliced red onion, and a sprinkling of cilantro added after the pizza is baked, for a little bit of freshness and something green. Today the words “barbecue chicken pizza” are synonymous with that line-up of ingredients; Competitors and imitators don’t stray too far from LaDou’s original vision. But unlike many of the other proprietary offerings at CPK (the California club pizza, for example, or the shrimp scampi pizza), it isn’t based on a non-pizza dish. This was CPK’s attempt at adding something to the pizza cannon, and given its pervasiveness, I think they’ve achieved it.
You can never recreate a beloved chain dish at home with 100 percent accuracy, and I think that’s a good thing. So much of what I love about CPK has nothing to do with the food, and the fact that the actual pizza there is just ok is part of its charm. But that doesn’t mean I can’t (as in the birthday pizza endeavor) make a version in my own kitchen that’s inspired by an old fave, amped up ever so slightly to be the kind of thing I really want to eat.
That means picking up pre-made pizza dough from a restaurant near my apartment, and cooking it in a skillet for a thicker crust and golden-brown edges. It’s topping the pie with a mix of mozzarella and smoked gouda for double cheesiness and extra stretch. It’s adding a little crushed red pepper flakes over the top for heat, to balance out the sweetness of the barbecue sauce. And crucially, it means no chicken. I know! But mushrooms bring all the same meatiness that chicken does, PLUS an extra crispiness on the outside that a boneless, skinless breast or thigh never could. I think it’s the ideal speedy weeknight dinner plan—whether you’ve logged a lifetime of CPK hours or not.