Restaurant Review: Tomato Joe’s Pizza & Taps Shows Promise, But Not Without CaveatsSean Malin January 18, 2019 0 COMMENTS
It can take a hot minute for even the best-financed and most fastidiously managed restaurant to find its footing after opening. That much was in stark evidence last Friday, barely three days after Tomato Joe’s opened its first vegan-friendly Pizza & Taps location in Canyon Country.
That night, with fog rolling down from the hills above Golden Valley Road, the outdoor patio was empty despite the fact that business appeared to be booming inside. In fact, so great was the traffic that the front door was accidentally jackknifed open throughout the night to accommodate the untamable line at the register.
Pre-rain winds don’t do great things to warm pizza, and the service staff – including owner Joe Brown (might he be the eponymous Tomato Joe? The truth is out there) – exuded a kind of antic concern for customers coming in from the cold. “Please SIT before ordering!” they said. “Make sure there’s room inside!” And for a while, there wasn’t – a nice reminder that Santa Claritans will brave the elements to get artisanal, high-end pizza that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Once I found a table, however, the real excitement began. Tomato Joe’s offers “SCVs first self-serve beer wall”, which was both more stressful and more exciting than it sounds. Picture the semi-circle back walls of a frozen yogurt shop, with creamy dollops drippings from metal spigots; now double the number of spigots you’re picturing, and you have some sense of the beer, cider and wine options on hand.
The sight was overwhelming, though not more than the process of securing a wristband which buzzes the plaques on the wall which unlocks the spigots that pour your preferred drink into glasses held by the staff. While the line-up of drinks has no clear order – Mr. Brown suggested in passing that this chaos was an intentional way of encouraging new customers to experiment – the selection was handsome, with a fine representation of local offerings scattered amongst the usual, nationally-available suspects.
The upside to this process is that once a drink is acquired (like my fragrant and vaguely spicy Winter Wonderland ale from Wolf Creek Brewery, for instance), all one must do is wait for the food to arrive: no waitstaff taking orders, only servers delivering your meal.
On this particular night, crowded as it was, the wait was not long enough. The first dish, an 8” “concept pizza” called a Margherita Fresca, came at the same time as four cannoli ordered for dessert. Ten minutes later, the vegan bites (breaded faux-chicken strips with a vegan sriracha aioli) ordered as an appetizer arrived, scattered loose and chilled from exposure to a metal tray; and after that, the second and third pizzas – Umami from the Train and a 12” personal with an assortment of vegetables – came with their side of vegan cheese bread. It took a further 15 minutes for the fourth pizza, the Parthenon, to make it to the table, even though it had been ordered before the other three.
Thankfully, while the service was as troubling and disjointed as could be expected at any 3-day-old restaurant, the food was much the opposite: tantalizing, adventurous and entirely pleasant. In fact, so much looked appetizing that I regretted not trying the house-made meatballs & sauce, the what-cha-ma-chicken samich (roasted chicken, smoked bacon, 8” French roll), or the “cinnamon bazinga”, whatever that might be.
Of the dishes I was able to try, my Margherita Fresca was the sunniest spot, with its tangy signature marinara base and garlicky basil crusted like amber into the veganized “cheese” on top (Tomato Joe’s offers to “veganize” any of its pizzas, to delicious effect). Less stimulating though no less enjoyable were the basil, spinach and mushroom-topped personal pizza and the cheese bread, which, while sumptuous, paled in comparison to that served at Vincenzo’s.
My carnivorous side was also tickled by the Umami from the Train, so named for its combination of aged cheese, mushrooms and sliced steak flavors. These slices really agreed with the rich, earthy Old Road Brown Ale from SCV’s own Pocock Brewing Company. But what remained on the tongue after this meat-lover’s bonanza were not those toppings so much as the white garlic sauce applied to the pizza’s thin crust. Its creamy indulgence offered maximum satisfaction with minimal application (if its recipe is proprietary, the restaurant would be well-advised to offer it in take-home jars).
Dessert combined a light, forgettable Mammoth Brewing Company IPA with the house-made cannoli, which had sat untouched on their tray for half an hour before I got to them. Was it fair to evaluate them in such circumstances? Perhaps not, but the savory-sweet ricotta innards were heavily spritzed with an intoxicating (it literally tastes of alcohol) chocolate sauce, so they did the trick well enough. Then, the adventure complete, separately-opened drink and food tabs were closed, leftover boxes were acquired, and I moved groggily into the foggy night.
Some might argue that even if the food was as good as it was that night, reviewing a restaurant that has just opened still gives short shrift to the business’s potential, much like reviewing the pilot for a TV series: it’s not a genuine indication of what the show’s actual quality will be down the line, so why do it? But the truth is that whether a few weeks’ worth of finessing the environment and streamlining the service will improve Tomato Joe’s’ business model in the long run remains unknown – after all, no industry is as unpredictable in Santa Clarita as cuisine. All that’s known is that the ambitions visible and the tastes provided in that first trip were strong enough that a return journey after the hype dies down seems inevitable.