RESTAURANTS : BJ's Dishes Pizza That Pans Out

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, with its thick, bready crust, gaudily served in a hot iron pan atop a raised platform, originated decades ago in a Windy City restaurant called Pizzeria Uno. In 1975, Ohio natives Mike Phillips and William Cunningham started a chain in our part of the world, BJ's Chicago Pizzeria, that has made a cottage industry out of this phenomenon. Today BJ's has 10 branches, all, apparently, doing a booming business.

Ah, sweet mystery of life. I've found the food at BJ's to be erratic. The pizzas often lack proper texture and flavor, the uninspiring pastas have cliche sauces like a standard-issue marinara or an oily Alfredo, the portion-controlled sandwiches are only a cut above those at the local Subway.

Now, when these pizzas are good--an event that occurs at unpredictable intervals--the crust bubbles up into a golden color on both the bottom and sides and there is scarcely any doughiness in the center. When they are not, a slice of this pizza is like a mass of undercooked dough.

The major selling points of this chain are its nearly faultless ambience and a friendly staff that aims to please. I've been to three locations recently, in Seal Beach, Belmont Shore in Long Beach and the newest location, Huntington Beach. All three are spotlessly clean, reasonably priced and pleasant to dine in.

These attributes haven't been lost on the public. When we dined in the Huntington Beach BJ's one Tuesday, we were ushered into the back dining room and given the only empty table, under a wall-mounted color TV showing nonstop surfing videos. We then proceeded to wait for our pizza--and wait some more, while our waiter plied us with lemonade in frosty, sugar-rimmed glasses and apologized at regular intervals.

That evening it was precisely 37 minutes from the time we ordered our pizza until it arrived. (Normally, the waiting time on my visits has run closer to 20.)

The Huntington Beach pizza, at least, was worth the wait. We had ordered one of the specialty pizzas called Great White, which is topped with chicken, a white sauce, tomatoes and only a small amount of cheese, and when the pizza came to the table, it was cooked to a perfect golden crunch on the bottom. If there is a better pizza than Great White at BJ's, I haven't discovered one.

Vegetarian pizza, on the other hand, topped with mushrooms, green pepper, black olives and sweet onions, is far too bland. BJ's Favorite, the chain's equivalent of a deluxe (meatballs, pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms, green pepper, black olives and sweet onions), is muddled.

In fact, I think it is better to avoid most vegetable toppings with this genre of pizza. Unless the pies are cooked with great skill, the vegetables lose water and sog the bottom by the time the pizza arrives, leaving only the great gobs of melted cheese and hunks of chopped tomato intact.

The pizzas come in three sizes: small, serving one or two; medium, serving two or four, and large, four-plus. The standard cheese and tomato pizza is only $4.95, and additional toppings are $1.20 apiece. For the record, BJ's has a good serving gimmick. The pizza comes on a small kitchen scale in place of the more traditional metal platform, so if you want, you can weigh your pizza--or a slice, or anything else you eat.

A near-pizza is what the menu calls a calzone . This is a hunk of folded pizza dough with an opening on one side, like the stocking it is named for. The filling is a bland marinara sauce, and the top is covered by melted provolone.

Start a meal here with one of the salads, such as the the surprisingly delicious sesame chicken salad, which is based on napa cabbage, toasted almonds and mildly blackened strips of grilled chicken breast.

I'm told the waiters at BJ's are responsible for mixing the Caesar, so take your best shot. I got lucky with my Caesar in Seal Beach, mixed by a motherly waitress who knew how to administer the ideal amount of cheesy dressing. (Salad bars are available at the Balboa, Santa Ana or La Jolla Village Square locations.)

The best sandwich is probably Sam's Special, sweet Italian link sausage simmered with peppers and onions on a good, home-baked roll. The worst has to be the Chicago Express, the chain's version of a sub. Mine came out with the cold cuts all the same nearly freezing temperature.

Read the logo on the menu, and you might notice that pastas are provided by a company called Pasta by Costa. I'm not blaming Costa, but every pasta I had at BJ's seemed to be missing something, despite the fact that the chain takes great pains not to overcook the noodles. Take the nondescript, cream-based clam sauce (with flavorless chopped clams) on linguine, or the spaghetti with meat sauce, which reminds me of something from Stouffer's. Lasagna and ravioli are better, thanks to good ingredients such as ricotta and, in the case of the ravioli, a tasty pesto.

There are a couple of good desserts too. Cleanse that palate with a scoop of the light, fruity raspberry sorbet, or try the cannoli. Or, send the chefs back to their ovens by ordering the pizookie n cream, a sort of deep-dish chocolate chip cookie served hot.

BJ's is inexpensive to moderate. Sandwiches are $4.50 to $5.95. Pastas are $5.95 to $6.95. Pizza is $4.95 to $16.55.

* BJ's CHICAGO PIZZERIA

* 200 Main St., Huntington Beach. Other locations in Balboa, Santa Ana, Laguna Beach, San Juan Capistrano, Seal Beach and Long Beach.

* (714) 374-2224.

* Lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m.-midnight.

* All major cards.

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