I Yam What I Yam: Mr. Pizza Factory
Have you ever seen the Grand Prix pizza at Mr. Pizza Factory, a gleaming new pizzeria in Koreatown? Because even in a culinary crossroads such as Los Angeles, the Grand Prix is a remarkable object. This weighty, doughy construction, swirled like a creamy hypnodisc, so completely warps perceptions of what a pizza might be that it threatens to dent the space-time continuum itself.
Wheel of fortune: Joon throws the dough at Mr. Pizza Factory's gleaming new location.
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Disk error: The Potato Gold: warping perceptions of what a pizza might be
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Imagine a pie whose geography is neatly bisected, one half bearing mild tomato salsa, cooked shrimp, hamburger, corn kernels, strands of burnt onion, a veneer of orange cheese, and other things that don't really belong on a pizza. On the other rests a payload of bacon, roasted potatoes, squiggles of sour cream, industrial Cheddar, more beef and corn, and what seems like a handful of crushed tortilla chips — like a pizza that dreamed of becoming a plate of nachos but ended up flunking Spanish.
Even within the context of L.A.'s cross-cultural landscape, cosmopolitan Koreatown stands out. Within Koreatown, you will find more places to eat pho, Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, than in the largely Vietnamese areas of Chinatown. Korean-style sushi bars abound, traditionally Japanese in aspect but featuring Korean condiments as well as the live-fish sashimi beloved by Korean businessmen on expense accounts. Koreatown Chinese restaurants serve the spicy-sweet stir-fries and such that used to be called "Mandarin" a couple of decades ago, sometimes supplemented with dishes from Shandong, a part of China close to Korea, and the kinds of hand-thrown noodle dishes that rarely appear elsewhere in Los Angeles.
If you look hard enough in Koreatown, among the restaurants specializing in kalbi, soondobu and gooksu, you'll find Korean stabs at the Viennese coffeehouse, the French cafe and the German beer hall. There are Korean burger stands and Korean fried-chicken joints, Korean patisseries and Korean ice cream parlors.
But with the exception of the great kimchi pizza they used to serve at an otherwise Italian restaurant in Pasadena that I used to like, Korean pizza is new to me.
The first Mr. Pizza Factory, whose slogan is "Made for Women," opened in 1990 near a women's college in Seoul and quickly spread across Korea, where there are now more than 300 restaurants. In Beijing, Mr. Pizza's popularity threatens Pizza Hut's. "We... put in an ingredient that's rare and hard to find," says the brochure. "Our hearts."
The Koreatown Mr. Pizza Factory, the first in the United States, occupies a soaring corner space in an old office building on Wilshire, glazed in marble, decorated with bright murals of Roman ruins and of an idealized Los Angeles, sporting big flat screens that always seemed tuned to the Fox Soccer Channel. At one end of the room, a squadron of young pizza makers flips broad circles of dough into the air, slapping them onto the counter, pressing them onto the shiny circular screens on which they are baked. The pies, sliding into and out of the big deck oven, are gorgeous things, with damp crusts as soft as Wonder Bread. You can believe the founder when he talks about his pizzas conquering China. And the restaurant is crowded, on weekend nights unbelievably so.
Yet there is something about the hand-thrown pizzas here that is more than a bit off, as if the guy who came up with the recipes hadn't actually bothered to visit Italy or New York — like a Dante verse that's been Google-translated from Italian to Korean to Chinese to English and ends up sounding like something issuing from the mouth of either Borat or Skeletor.
So the signature creation here, the Potato Gold, is baked with basically the aforementioned combination of potatoes, bacon, sour cream, corn, beef and crumbled tortilla chips, and the outer crust is both stuffed with sweet yam puree and gilded with melted Cheddar cheese. Mr. Pizza Factory's "Nude" pizza is stuffed with cream cheese piped in from a pastry bag, and is piled with shrimp, jalapeno peppers and blue-cheese sauce, among other things. (The bulgogi pizza, with bits of grilled beef and onions, is almost a relief — it merely tastes like microwaved Costco pizza.)
And then there's that Grand Prix pizza: At the edge of it, rising from the surface of the pie like a tawny sea cliff, is what Mr. Pizza Factory calls a "scone crust": browned, sweetened, raisin-speckled dough with a taste that does bear an alarming resemblance to that of a scone. After you eat the shrimp-cocktail side of the pizza and have your fill of the nacho-potato section, you are supposed to break off this scone crust and dip it in strawberry jam for dessert. Mr. Pizza Factory truly has thought of everything.
Mr. Pizza Factory, 3881 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown, (213) 738-0077. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer, wine and soju. Takeout. Semivalidated parking in rear. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $17-$30.
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