Photo by Jeanne RiceThe people at Papa Joe's Pizza don't want me to die. They're just nice that way. They see me come in just about every day, order my two slices of cheese with a side of ranch (for about the most fundamentally satisfying $3.50 you'll ever shell out in Huntington Beach), and immediately peg me as the kind of guy whose ability to stave off starvation begins and ends with the reheat button on the microwave—or would, if I actually owned a microwave. Of course, they're completely right.
"Where are you going to eat on Christmas?" they asked me, worried. "You know we're going to be closed."
"Don't worry," I said bravely, visions of Shell station Ding Dongs and store-brand Pepsi dancing in my head. "I'll survive."
But walking outside, I passed an ominously perky developer's billboard, depicting a not-so-distant Christmas Future for Huntington Beach, all multistory stucco-plexes and faceless Beach Cafés, with nothing like Papa Joe's Pizza penciled in anywhere. There's big money in making Surf City into a Riviera-by-the-oil-rigs, and there's no room between the hulking stucco-plexes of tomorrow for the little old bungalows of yesterday—or the little old entrepreneurs within. It looks like Papa Joe's days are numbered—and that means mine are, too.
How much longer did I—I mean, did they—have, I asked? Well, they've been in business for 12 years, they told me, serving a faithful base of local regulars (yours truly humbly included). Maybe the bulldozers rumble into life in a year, maybe longer—it depends on how rapidly the developers are able to goose the city and the county past the artist's-conception stage. For now, they're in an uncomfortably uncertain place. They can't sink too much valuable capital into, say, a vitality-maximizing overhaul of the charmingly rustic old storefront Papa Joe's calls home because it might all be razed to the foundations in a matter of months, but neither can they just throw in the towel—pending decisions by who-knows-who, they could have years of fulfilling pizza flipping ahead of them. They're not bitter—they actually kind of like the spiffy stucco shops that line most of Main Street and wouldn't mind seeing more of them—but they're sick of being in limbo.
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"I feel like I have no future," explained the always-cheerful, always-purposeful woman (Mama Joe?) who gives me the regular-customer discount on sandwiches (on the rare days when I want more than my two slices, I get the Philly steak with cheese) and worries that I'll starve on Christmas. I ask her if I can get her name, to quote her on that. She'd rather not, she says, a little nervous: "Just say that Papa Joe's pizza is good!"
Done and done! Papa Joe's does beachfront pizza the way nature intended, leaving pricy "gourmet" perversions to the foofy nouveau riche down Newport way and concentrating on delicious simplicity. Stop in for an early dinner: there are few things finer than nibbling on a hefty slice of cheese (or pepperoni, or pepperoni and pineapple, or anchovy/mushroom/basil/chicken/olive, or any permutation of the 19 available toppings) and watching through the front windows as the sky goes rosy pink over Catalina.
And, please, unless you just utterly loathe yourself, get a milkshake, too: they're made with fresh, real ice cream and any combination of a rainbow of flavors—peanut butter, banana, raspberry, boysenberry and more, all straight off the vine. They're so good they're hypnotic. You'll get that same contented glaze over your eyes that you see on your veteran hookah smokers, and you'll let the warm Pacific sunlight play over your suddenly sleepy body, and you will be happy. Just don't think about the future.
Papa Joe's Pizza, located at 508 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (714) 969-2553. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $5-$10, food only. All major credit cards accepted.