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Mr. Pizza: A Menu Planned by a Five-Year-Old, Executed by a Multinational

Abrupt Departure, Mr. Pizza, Seoul, Korea

Last week, HCB and I had the great pleasure(?) of experiencing the Korean culinary phenomenon that is Mr. Pizza. A friend of ours (Ms. Temple!) suggested a visit to Mr. Pizza for the ongoing Korean scavenger hunt that is our lives. I was actually already well aware of Mr. Pizza because during the live StarCraft Tournament, a commercial for the popular Korean chain restaurant played repeatedly during the breaks between matches. The product being offered: Lobster Pizza.

That’s just what a room full of computer nerds needs. Nothing like cheese and shellfish to fuel a raiding expedition.

In theory, I could have dumped this into a larger post (a post which is still being gestated) about familiar foods flavored in unexpected ways (Task 5D), but I would hate to give short shrift to Mr. Pizza. Lobster, for chrissake! That deserves a post all its own.

Before you get too excited, let me address something right up front: we did not get the lobster pizza. For as tempted as we were, if we’d gone with lobster, lobster would have been all we’d gotten. Instead, we went for the greater coverage offered by the 몽땅4랑해 (Mongttang 4 Ranghae):

The Mr. Pizza sampler pack!

The lone “4” hidden within all that hangul hints at the benefit of the 몽땅4랑해: one pizza, four flavors. The menu offered several, more appealing arrangements, but not wishing to disappoint everyone back home, we went for the Maximum Cultural Experience. This proved to be both edifying and traumatizing, in the extreme.

Before launching into what will essentially be a takedown of Mr. Pizza, I must give credit where credit is due. The crust wasn’t terrible and the cheese was actual cheese not cheese sauce. As for everything else? Train wreck.

The pizza sauce was an act of culinary violence. I, in theory, support the idea of, sometimes, in the right circumstances, putting barbecue sauce on pizza. This application, however, was both indiscriminate and egregious. If I had to speculate, I would say their sauce formula is something like one part tomato purée to two parts Heinz rib sauce. Y’all, this was sweet. Like, candy sweet. Living in Korea, I’ve grown accustomed to unexpected sweetness creeping into my savory baked goods (sugar glazed garlic bread!), but remember, pizzas—even in Korea—have cheese on them. The criminality of the pizza sauce was enough to ruin the experience right there, but then the toppings… oh, the toppings.

First, let me begin with the least offensive of the four combinations: potato wedges and bacon. Honestly, for as weird as it was to have potato on a pizza (Just what pizza needs: more starchy carbs!), the flavors fit together in a somewhat recognizable fashion. Cheese+potatoes+bacon+sour cream=food. Oh, did I mention the whole thing was drizzled in sour cream? Yeah. Just let that knock around in your brain, especially when I get to the last flavor combination…

Then there was the veggie/barbecue chicken quadrant. Again, this was not totally offensive. Really the worst part of the whole affair was the sauce and the canned corn. Oh, did I not mention the canned corn? Funny how that managed to slip my mind… Other than that, it was your standard vegetable medley topped with dry, flavorless chicken breasts.

So far, we’ve stayed safely in the outlying suburbs of Crazy Town, but with the next set of toppings we’re boarding a bus headed straight Downtown: beef rib and pumpkin pizza with pork cutlet sauce. No. No no no no. Especially not with the sweet pizza sauce and sour cream and corn and black olives (Yeah, black olives, they were there too). The pumpkin, on its own, would have been a welcome addition to the right balance of ingredients, but chunks of beef? At least, someone had the foresight to debone the ribs, but still, to get a slice of pizza with a big finger of meat just lying there? Not appealing, thank you very much.

Finger was the most delicate rendering I could manage. Do not want.

Finally, we reach the culmination of the Mr. Pizza experience. The three previous pizza toppings were distinctly unheimliche. They each seemed to attempt intelligibility, only to end up with something eerily unfamiliar. But, the starting point, the original idea upon which the whole thing was based, was still somehow visible from the nowhere that we ended up in. Not so with the last topping, Deluxe Shrimp. What made it “deluxe,” I have no earthly idea, but I can assure you that the combination of all the ingredients listed above was something far greater (lesser) than the sum of its parts: sweet pizza sauce, miscellaneous veggies, corn, black olives, cheese, sour cream, frozen shrimp.

Like a racially motivated bar fight in your mouth.

My palate didn’t know what to do. It made no sense. It was like someone’s five-year-old nephew was let loose in the pantry and this is what he came up with. Oooh! Canned corn! Let’s put some of that on! Oh boy, and sour cream? Sure! Look! I found shrimp, Imma put some of that on there too! The roundness of the dairy mixed with the underlying sweetness of the sauce and corn mixed with the brine of the olives just forefronted the fishiness of what couldn’t have been very good shrimp to begin with.

In all honesty, the whole experience, in a body sort of way, convinced me of something I’ve been struggling to really get through my thick skull: appropriate flavor combination and balance are culturally specific. Since forever, I’ve known it’s all about nurture, but I haven’t really known it. And, when you’re 6000 miles away from your homeland and you just. want. something. cooked. RIGHT. it’s hard to keep all that relativity in mind: it isn’t wrong (yes, it is), it’s just different (nope). But Koreans love this stuff. Like, more than they like fancy artisan pizzas. Or greasy meat-bomb pizzas smothered in parmesan and Tapatio sauce! (Oh, no. I just made myself sad thinking about the Tapatio sauce…) And that’s OK. They aren’t mistaken, their palates aren’t broken, and they don’t need reeducating. It’s all just separate. I guess… Or something.

But, yeah. Mr. Pizza sucked.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Noy #

    What are the green slices? Kinda looks like avocado or maybe something from the squash family?

    Israelis put tuna, corn and goose liver on pizzas. Separately though. I occasionally find myself wishing for a slice of corn pizza.

    April 4, 2012
    • The green chunks are the pumpkin. I don’t know if, were I to see the vegetable whole, I’d think it was a pumpkin, but that’s what they translate it as here.

      As for corn, shave some fresh off the cob and I’m all down. Frozen/canned is a no-no in my book. I eat it when it’s in season (never here), and then dream of it the rest of the year.

      April 4, 2012
  2. Connie Blood #

    I don’t think I feel very well….

    April 4, 2012
  3. You take down things so well. I giggled with delight reading this.
    Canned corn is a staple pizza topping in Austria too. In fact, corn, or as the Austrians call it “Maize” (no, really), sneaks into everything: salads, stir fries (which are often still called “chop sueys” here) and “Big Texas” pizzas. Yet they have actual Italian restaurants and pizza kitchens here. I don’t know why they think American pizza would have corn on it.
    That reminds me, there’s a playground not far from here with an “American Frontier” theme: teepees, forts, a climbing cactus, etc. But there’s also a jungle gym in the shape of an elephant right in the middle. An elephant. I have no idea.
    Looking forward to the next post,

    April 4, 2012
    • Oh man, Shannon. Elephants? That’s awesome. I’m imagining the owners of those teepees saddling up to follow the elephant heards across the Great Plains.

      Also, “climbing cactus?” that’s a dangerous misconception to foster.

      It seems as if the signal by which American culture is transmitted has a decay problem.

      (Also, also, thank you for the compliment. I am working on accepting them gracefully. As you can see by the parenthetical aside, I still have some work to do.)

      April 4, 2012
  4. John W. #

    You think Mr. Pizza is weird? Weird is putting tapatillo sauce on a pizza. That’s weird. (Did you mean Tapatio?)

    April 4, 2012
    • Again, Mr. Wood, you are my savior! I swoon for your editing prowess. Keep ’em comin’.

      P.S. I know about the dash error in my title on HCB’s Facebook. It occurred in an earlier draft, but for some reason WP won’t let me fix it in the FB preview. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch.

      April 4, 2012
      • John W. #

        Please do not think that I read these entries to find and only comment when there is an error. This blog is utterly delightful and fabulously written. I’m just a bitch. Ask HCB. When my husband and I come to visit you, I’ll bring some Tapatio!

        April 5, 2012
        • Oh, Mr. Wood, no worries. I was completely serious when I said I appreciate the copyediting! I hate finding typos in my writing AFTER hundreds of people have read my stuff. It’s physically painful. But I’ve learned to accept I’m just not one of those writers who never misses an error. I don’t read that way. So go for it! I count it as a favor.

          But, aw shucks, I’m glad you enjoy the blog…

          April 5, 2012
  5. The food wasn’t the only weird part: Mr. Pizza turns out to be a restaurant for women! It wasn’t as gendered as many things are in America (like pink earplugs, to meet the unique sound bl

    April 4, 2012
    • Ahem. Perils of commenting from the subway. As I was saying: sound blocking needs of women), and there were other men eating there. But this place sees pizza as a woman’s food, and the restaurant aims to. E the go-to place for Korean Girl’s Night Out. The napkin holder said, in English, something like, “Mr. Pizza loves women,” inside a heart.

      April 4, 2012
  6. Mikl #

    Thanks for the attempt at a self-reflexive and culturally tolerant finish to your post. You make this social work grad student proud!

    April 4, 2012
    • I do my best, Miguel! I’m nothing if not (compulsively) self-refective…

      It’s amazing how KNOWING that taste is culturally determined—and thus relative—and FEELING that taste is culturally determined—and thus relative—are totally different mental functions. If you’re a well-trained global citizen, the two states should look the same (smile and nod when the Chinese man gives you your fermented raw crab), but on the inside they are totally different. It’s the difference between seeming and being. I really don’t think the same part of the brain controls the two states. Like how a fake smile comes from and is governed by a totally separate area in the brain than a real smile. They are just fundamentally NOT THE SAME. So yeah. I’m giving it my best shot. Don’t be valuative. Don’t be valuative. Don’t be valuative. My pleasure seeking brain finds this all very difficult because urges are invested in outcome (I want to have that!) not description (I like that), but eventually it will really, truly sink in that actually its all the same. In other words, my brain knows; my stomach does not.

      April 4, 2012
  7. I found this article and it totally reminded me of this post. Perhaps American fast food is becoming more Koreanized?

    April 25, 2012
    • That pizza is positively architectural! The Korean version is libertine but at least there was no additional technology required…

      April 26, 2012

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