A Love Letter To The Lynwood Pizza Parlor That Raised Me
I've been eating at Chico's Pizza Parlor in Lynwood my entire life. When I graduated high school, I went there with my family and we ordered the usual -- two extra large pies, a chopped salad and a pitcher of soda. Five hours later, thrilled that high school was finally in my metaphorical rearview mirror, I pulled out of the parking lot and promptly got into a car crash. I was hoping I could drive home but my 1989 Honda Civic didn't agree. As I stared at my battered tire, I felt like the cartoon Italian chef on the restaurant's sign was mocking my misery. Any way you cut it, it was an inauspicious entry into adult life. But there I was, six years later, a newly minted college grad, and the only celebratory meal I wanted was Chico's. Fortunately, no car crash that time.
For more than half a century, Chico's has been serving delicious, unpretentious, ultra thin pizzas topped with their trademark shredded pepperoni. The joint barely registers a blip on the radar of most L.A. foodies. It probably won't make it into the newly minted California Michelin Guide or land on any restaurant critic's "best of" list. But it inspires the sort of loyalty that many high-end restaurants would kill for.
In the process, it has become a de facto community space, the kind of place that feels like it belongs to the customers. It's everything I love about small, often ignored Lynwood, the South East L.A. city where I grew up. Chico's is comfort food at its best, lacking the pretension and reverence that swirls around L.A.'s "essential" food landmarks. Most crucially, it serves a damn fine pizza.
Some Things Never Change
Located between a King Taco and El Infierno, a Lynwood institution known for its menudo, Chico's is housed in a squat, beige building coated in 56-years of automobile exhaust and history. Everything about the place feels old, like it's been on this planet longer than most of us have been alive. The letters on the sign are done in that whimsical 1970s balloon font and the mascot is the mid-century equivalent of clipart. Darkness hides but doesn't erase the building's blemishes. Some of the lights have burned out and the sign flickers on a loop, but in my memories, it's bright and full of life, an indicator that you've made the right choice.
This corner of Lynwood, located on its southern border, near Compton, has seen plenty of changes during the last few decades. Across the street from Chico's, the business turns over every few years. (It currently houses a cell phone store. Before that, it was a BBQ joint.) Nearby, you'll find a changing lineup of small marketas, Mexican restaurants, laundromats and a Zumba studio.
Julien's liquor store, where you can spot Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar throwing rap hands and bravado in his "King Kunta" video, is one of the few businesses that has withstood the test of time.
The other is Chico's, where almost nothing has changed in the last two decades.
At Chico's, it's always 9 p.m. When the heavy door swings shut, blocking out the noise of Long Beach Boulevard -- and almost all the natural light -- the world immediately feels calmer. The aging brick wallpaper makes the place seem even older than its 56 years. It has all the down-at-the-heels comfort of a dive bar minus the alcoholism and angst.
The patrons are a cross-section of high school students, city workers, school district employees and neighborhood regulars, mostly Lynwood and Compton locals, some of whom have been coming for decades.
One night, I see a group of roqueros in faded band tees sharing pies and pitchers of beer. One of them walks to the jukebox, it's the newfangled kind connected to the internet, and puts on a medley of metal and thrash. A few minutes later, another patron changes the music to corridos.
You order your pizza at one window and your drinks at the bar, illuminated by neon beer signs. While you wait, maybe you pick up a cue and shoot a game of pool or hit up one of the dozen arcade games lining the parlor.
"The games have changed but it's cool," says customer Charles Smith. "It's for the young dudes but I'm glad they kept Pac-Man and Galaga."
A Slice Of History
Chico's opened in Lynwood in 1963 and was once part of a chain that spanned five states -- if you believe the back of the menu.
This year, in my personal quest to see how far this pizza parlor rabbit holes went, I called a Chico's Pizza Parlor in Moses Lake, Washington. No one there had heard of a connection to Southern California and they didn't know anything about being part of a larger chain. We'll never know now. That Chico's outpost burned down last year.
Back in Lynwood, manager Juan Reza says this Chico's used to be owned by Antone "Ripper" Leone, a popular pro wrestler who claimed he had been blacklisted from the sport after refusing to join the National Wrestling Alliance. Reza says Leone passed it on to its current owner, William Boardeau. I couldn't reach Boardeau to confirm this.
Instead, I spoke to customers and employees.
"What's your favorite thing about the pizza?" I ask a man in a battered baseball cap who's playing pool. "The beer," he says with a smile.
Reza, who has worked at Chico's for 29 years, is a hardened man of few words but he eventually agrees to a short interview. He's less concerned with the pizzeria's cultural impact and more with how our chat will impact his workday. When I ask what Chico's means to him, he softens.
"Well, everything," he says. "I've been working here 30 years and I still enjoy coming to do my job. I'm not tired or bored of being here. I raised my kids here. I never thought of getting another job." And he still likes the pizza.
Heriberto Bermudez started coming to Chico's in 1974, when he was 20 years old, long enough that he remembers when live piano was the soundtrack to many dinners. He migrated to Los Angeles from Sinaloa, Mexico and has been living in Compton for more than 45 years.
"There's more variety now," Bermudez says. "Back in that time, it was only the pizza. The tables have stayed the same, so has the joy. Playing pool in other places is more about bets. Here, it's only for enjoyment."
But What About The Pizza?
Without its pies, Chico's wouldn't have lasted this long. Ride-or-die patrons point to two elements.
"Thin crust, shredded pepperoni -- fire," a 15-year-old tells me.
In most places, a pepperoni pizza means thin round slices of cured meat. At Chico's, employees run pepperoni slices through a deli slicer so customers get a little spicy cured meat in every bite
"The way they do the pepperoni, the way they shred it up," longtime customer and video game enthusiast Smith says, "ever since I took my first bite, I've just been hooked."
Then there's the dough. It's so thin, employees refer to it as a tortilla. Do the owners know? "Of course," general manager Reza says. "They know Spanish too... a little bit. They have worked with Mexicans so long."
Arguably the most important member of the Chico's team is the dough maker aka the tortillero. For the past 14 years, that has been Miguel Aguilar Torres.
He emerges from the "tortilla" room, basically a dough closet, wearing a gray cap and a white apron, a smile turning up the corners of his precise mustache. I can feel the caked-on flour when I shake his hand. Torres has been making dough since the day he started working at Chico's.
He says it took him a week to master the recipe. His first few rounds of dough released too much water and didn't crisp up. From then on, he was more careful about adding liquids and found the perfect balance.
The ingredients for the crust are basic -- water, oil, dough starter, milk powder -- "But it's the hands that make all the difference," Torres says.
Once the ingredients are mixed, Torres uses a large rolling machine to extrude the dough into thin sheets. He measures them into 10, 13, 15 and 17-inch pies then hand-cuts them using a large chef's knife. With a roller docker, the distant cousin of a medieval morningstar, he creates pin-point indentations that prevent the crust from over-rising and blistering.
"The recipe hasn't changed since I started or since it opened," Torres says.
The dough needs to be thick enough to withstand toppings, shredded cheese and housemade tomato sauce ("You won't find any canned sauces," Torres says) but thin enough to cook in 15 minutes.
When a pie comes out of the oven, employees use a rocking pizza slicer to create irregular, often comically small slices. It's less about geometry and more about personal style. That's part of what I love about Chico's, the sense that human hands, with all their imperfections, have prepared my food. The small pieces are my favorites.
I've tasted plenty of pizzas -- mind-shattering ones, classic ones, ones that are probably "better" -- but none mean as much to me as the ones at Chico's. I remember being floored by my first crisp bite of their pie. I still get that feeling every time I visit. Chico's taught me to appreciate the city I come from and it reminds me that even in Lynwood, a city that's largely ignored by anyone who doesn't live here, you can find diamonds if you know where to look.
One random Tuesday night, I meet an older gentleman who says, in a soft voice, he has never been here before. He spends a long time reading the menu, deciding on his order. I tell him he's in for a treat. As I leave, I see him carrying a small pizza box emblazoned with a cartoon Italian chef and I'm filled with envy. Tonight, he gets to try Chico's for the first time.