In Korea, Mr. Pizza Factory is as ubiquitous as Pizza Hut in our country, with more than 350 locations. But here in the U.S.? Last week, we had just one, tucked into an old office building in Koreatown. Now, notch it up to two: A location in downtown's Little Tokyo just opened.
Despite the American-sounding, unassuming name, Mr. Pizza is not your average pie parlor. Sure, you can get plain cheese. But Mr. Pizza is known for its variety of ingredients and unusual combinations in what it calls "Premium" pizzas.
Potato Gold is the most popular, says the manager. It begins as a classic tomato and mozzarella, then is baked with corn, onion, ground beef, mushrooms and potato wedges wrapped in bacon. A swirl of sour cream and crumbled nachos are added last. Lest you crave an extra flavor, the outer crust is stuffed with sweet potato puree (called "mousse" on the menu).
Another Premium style, Grand Prix, is split evenly between shrimp and potato toppings. The crust is made with soboro, similar to milk bread, and baked with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins. The final component is strawberry dipping sauce. "Try the crust as a dessert!" says the menu. Another pizza, the Seafood Island featuring shrimp, calamari and scallop, comes with orange marmalade.
Feeling overwhelmed? The "Screen" pizzas offer some simpler choices, including teriyaki chicken and Hawaiian. (An employee said "Screen" refers to the popular things you often see on a screen. Like a TV, we guess? Other perplexities include the logo that reads: "100% Live.") Your final option is one of the "Thin Crust" pizzas -- cheese, pepperoni, roasted garlic or margherita. Pastas, salads, soups and deep-fried appetizers are available too.
After ordering at the cashier, don't sit down right away. At Mr. Pizza's front counter, you can watch pizza cooks at their craft. It's quite the spectacle to see a spinning circle of raw dough get tossed high into the air. We gasped every time it seemed close to hitting the ceiling. Then the cook piles on the toppings, and you try to keep track and count them all.
Also take note of a photo displaying the chain's first location in Seoul. Humble beginnings, perhaps, but ambitious goals -- "moving to be the world's best pizza brand," says the menu.
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Mr. Pizza is one of several Korean eateries in Little Tokyo, where Japanese immigrants settled in the late 1800s. The block of First Street where Mr. Pizza is located has the strongest historical flavor, with old hotels and apartments adorned with fire escapes and the '30s-era Far East Cafe (now Chop Suey/Far Bar), in an 1896 building. You'll find Mr. Pizza across the street at Japanese Village Plaza in the shadow of a decorative fire lookout tower.
Some community members would prefer to keep out non-Japanese or Japanese-American businesses, Korean or otherwise, in order to preserve the area's historical integrity. Others say Little Tokyo needs to welcome any and all that can invigorate the streets and attract business. Mr. Pizza, with its bright red sign, sleek design and sliding doors that open onto the sidewalk, appears poised to do just that -- not to mention the smell of melted cheese, sweet potato-stuffed crusts and bacon-wrapped potato toppings.