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