One of the fascinating impacts of the pandemic that we've survived is that soaring demand for pizza. According to marketing tech company Zenreach, foot traffic in pizza parlors is up 49 percent nationally, remarkably up 156 percent in Los Angeles and 119 percent in California. Texas is up 29.42 percent and Florida just 8.84 percent, so at least we're beating those two states at something.
And a big part of our state's total has got to be coming from the return of King Leo's in the northeast, eight years after its restaurant on Columbus near Haley closed. It returned to a new location on Niles Street and was so overwhelmed by business that on my first visit at about 6 p.m. on a Friday in late June, they were completely out of food.
Taped to the front doors were two simple handwritten signs that read "Sold Out." In my entire life, I've never gone to a pizza parlor that ran out of food, so I immediately thought it was some sort of new protest — it's so hard to keep track of them nowadays — that some sort of activist group was staging to discourage patronage. (How had the king "sold out"?)
When I went in, the manager said that even though a crew of at least a dozen was busy making pizzas and the dining room was full of customers looking like patients in a waiting room, he said he could sell no more food of any type.
"We've been slammed since 2 p.m.," he said. "We can't take any more orders."
It's not like King Leo's is located in a pizza desert — there's a Rusty's Pizza just a few blocks to the east on Niles — but I had read on social media before this that people were lined up outside waiting to get in. This despite the limited menu at this time: wings, wedges, two salads, only five specialty pizzas and no beer.
Devoted readers of this column may remember that my favorite pizza at the old King Leo's was the chile verde pizza, since matched and surpassed by the pie at Tony's Pizza. Well, sad to say, this is not currently available as a specialty pizza. Perhaps when the crowds dwindle, they will rediscover their roots, though I'm pretty sure these people are getting what they want already, judging by the popularity.
To make sure that we got fed, we went back at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the place was only one-third full and only six people were making pizzas around the big, circular, six-deck rotating oven in the center of the kitchen. One odd thing is that a lot of the tables had handwritten notes reserving them for people at 7 p.m. that night. Job interviews were going on in one of the two side rooms at a steady pace.
They seemed to have a lot of pizza orders despite the reasonable crowd, but I saw a lot of folks coming in for to-go orders. As it was, we received our order in 20 minutes, not an unreasonable time.
We ordered three specialty individual pizzas ($6.35): vegetarian, meaty meat and bacon cheddar cheese, as well as a five-piece chicken wings ($5.50) and a small order of potato wedges ($3.75).
What surprised me in general was how much the pizza reminded me of what Rusty's offers in both the crust, tomato sauce and toppings, as well as the battered potato wedges, though I think Rusty's has a better product there.
My companion did love the vegetarian, with onions, black olives, mushrooms, tomatoes and green peppers. Nothing startling, but it does the job, and the same could be said of the "meaty meat" with pepperoni, salami, beef, bacon, ham and sausage. The Italian sausage was the biggest disappointment, kind of those dried-up chunks when we're quite partial to Pizza Bob's use of actual, real Italian sausage pieces that have a lot more flavor.
The bacon cheddar had strings of white onion on top, along with the bacon chunks, ground beef and cheddar with mozzarella really working to create that "burger in a pizza" effect.
One warning about the wings: There's no choice on the sauce. It's Buffalo spicy and that's it, and I saw them baking it in foil in the pizza oven. If you're used to Wing Stop quality, you may find that disappointing.
There are also about a half-dozen video games in the corner, but a helpful young boy pointed out to me which ones weren't working before I put any money in them. Even the claw machine was on the fritz. A note on the busted diversions would've been nice — that boy can't be there 24/7.
Pete Tittl's Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @pftittl.