As some of you might know, Casual Encounters of the Food Kind hit the road a couple of weeks ago in pursuit of some casual dining experiences that can no longer be had in the Twin Cities, or indeed in the entire state of Minnesota. Our two contestants were #20-ranked California Pizza Kitchen (no, there are no longer any CPK’s in MN, despite what you remember. Yes, even the one at Southdale is gone.) and #22-ranked Carraba’s Italian Grill. Rather than do a classic ratings rundown, we decided to do a little head-to-head competition between the two to see who was the best. Or, as the case turned out, who was the least mediocre. Let’s get ready to rumble!
We went in with fairly low expectations. This was encouraged by the horrified reaction of whomever we told where we were dining while in Milwaukee. “But…there are so many good restaurants!” they’d say. “We know,” we’d say. “But that’s not why we’re doing this. Our cause is noble and our dining casual.”
Carraba’s had ample free bread and included a free side salad with many of their entrees. These are niceties you just don’t generally get at those farm-to-table spots.
John says: They cooked the steak to my liking. I got my choice of flavored butter to top it, too.
Rachel says: Well cooked, moist chicken. Good ratio of protein to greens. Included side salad…..NICE.
Aaron says: I really enjoyed it. The pork-on-pork [Ed. note: Prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin. Semed like overkill, but I’m Jewish, so what do I know.] was okay, however the chicken marsala was very good, the mushrooms were a definite stand out.
Jenna says: I ordered incorrectly. My pasta dish was unremarkable. Unless you are John Ward and eat in your sleep [Ed. note: He really does this. Ask him about it.]. Then it’s DELICIOUS.
California Pizza Kitchen rundown:
The starter, some ginger-soy dumplings, was the standout of the evening. Delicious with lots of flavor, and enough to share. We split two pizzas: The signature BBQ chicken pizza, and the thin crust spinach-artichoke pizza.
Spinach-artichoke pizza: Thin, crispy crust was perfectly thin and crispy. Good cheese blend.
BBQ chicken pizza: John and Rachel say fine. Aaron says mediocre. Jenna says: Terrible – basically cardboard with the blandest BBQ sauce imaginable and rubbery chicken. All agree that it was probably just a CPK brand frozen pizza.
Verdict: It should be called California Ginger Dumpling Kitchen. The category goes to Carraba’s.
To try and keep the playing field level, we ate at both places around 8pm, post-dining-rush, and sat on the patio. Though the time and setting were largely the same, the two scenarios were quite different.
Rachel says: I wasn’t really pleased, but I wasn’t really displeased either. It could have been the patio for any casual dining establishment. I got neither “Italian” nor “grill” vibes from it.
Jenna says: When we arrived, there were four tables on the patio that had yet be cleared, and they stayed that way for at least 30 minutes. While this falls more under the service category, it definitely affected the overall ambience. That shit wouldn’t fly at the Fryn’ Pan. Also, the bathroom situation was not up to par – water (pee?) on floor, and paper towels everywhere.
Aaron says: The chairs were somehow too small for my bony body. Don’t know how they managed that.
Rachel says: The track lighting over our table was broken, and the server didn’t mention it. It’s not hard to eat pizza in the dark, but that’s not what I’m here for.
Verdict: Carraba’s ekes out a victory again by being pretty clean, unoffensive, and more comfortable for Aaron’s skeletal frame. The category goes to Carraba’s.
Like any typical casual dining experience, the beverage list at each place was of considerable size yet managed to not really entice anyone at our table.
Aaron says: I got an Arnie Palmer, which came with free refills. Score!
Jenna says: I got a nice glass of rose, which Rachel reminded me goes well with everything, and also goes well with just my mouth.
Rachel says: My water was nice and watery.
Jenna’s Moscow Mule was delightfully refreshing and helped her “choke down [her] cardboard pizza.” The rest of crew left the drinking to Jenna and enjoyed water.
Verdict: A tie!
It became apparent that both servers were basically just phoning it in, ready to be done for the evening and hit up the Milwaukee suburbs. It should be noted that our previous Causal Encounter at Rainforest Cafe introduced us to Earth, the best server this side of the Mississippi. So we still coming off that high, and ain’t no one gonna live up to EARTH.
Carraba’s rundown: Although our server, Destiny, warmed up later in the evening, she initially was ICE COLD. However bonus points for the manager checking in with us on our dining experience. That’s a level of hospitality you don’t see at every Casual Encounter establishment.
CPK rundown: The aforementioned messy tables and bathrooms were a major points boner killer. Our server was fine, but could have been more attentive with refilling glasses and asking if we (ahem, Jenna) wanted more Moscow Mules.
Both were fairly casual, although CPK had a preponderance of strollers and children, which always brings up the casualosity level.
Verdict: California Pizza Kitchen takes the category.
Carraba’s rundown: We broke one of our rules and ordered tiramsu, instead of cheesecake because it was a ricotta-based cheesecake, and Rachel was previously traumatized by a ricotta cheesecake incident. Consensus was that it was “quite good.” No regrets.
CPK rundown: No cheesecake available, at least not from what we could piece together from the menu and the server’s apathetic description of the seasonal dessert, and to be honest, after that disappointing pizza experience, everyone wanted to leave. We did enjoy delicious frozen custard from Milwaukee’s world famous KOPP’S. Except for Aaaron because he ordered some lemon bulls***. WTF Aaron, who orders lemon ice cream?!? [Ed. note: It tasted like Lemon Pledge. Unpleasant.]
Verdict: Kopp’s obviously won, but in keeping with the (loosely enforced) rules of the game, we’d have to say Carraba’s.
John says: I won’t set foot in a CPK again. Carabbas was fine. If someone had a bday party, I would go after suggesting a different venue.
Overall winner: Carraba’s
Overall REAL winner: Our group, and the city of Milwaukee. It’s not often that the idea of a road trip actually turns into a road trip, but we did it, folks. And Milwaukee is a lovely town.
Join us for our next casual dining adventure at Chevy’s!