Just admit it, Orange County: We are plagued by segregation—pizza segregation. Not only do we have neighborhood spots frequented only by locals, but we also have mini-chains servicing swaths of the county that ensure we rarely leave our friendly confines to see how the other half folds a slice. Residents in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa swear by Pizza D'Oro; Irvine and its surrounding cities favor Ameci's; Garden Grove goes gaga for Valentina's and its various rip-offs; South County prefers New York's Upper Crust Pizza and Peppino's. They are all successful, even good, pizzerias in their own right, but mention them to someone who's not in their delivery area, and you might as well ask them to locate Stanton on a map.
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But there are also those local pizzerias that eventually break through and become county classics—BJs, Oggi's Pizza (which originated in San Diego, but now has locations in Tustin, Mission Viejo, Orange and Garden Grove), and zpizza, to name the most successful. I predict Pepz Pizza will break into the latter category. Currently, it's a North County cult classic, the place you call when you want a huge-ass order for your office or for a house party that is cheap, gets delivered quickly, and satisfies gourmets and gluttons alike. This is an honest pie—no thin- or thick-slice debate, no paeans to Neapolitan traditions made trendy by Mozza, but rather an expanse of dough slathered in marinara, buried under the toppings of your choice and milky cheese, baked a bit extra so the slices stay firm and the crust crunches just the slightest, delightful bit, and so it stands a couple of days in the fridge for the inevitable late-night snack time. They make great pasta, subs and salads as well, but it's the pizza that makes North County salivate.
But it's more than just a family feedbag; there is talent in the chain's ovens. Pepz's Mexican Style pizza is a Santa Ana resident's dream, with perfectly greasy chorizo melded to smoky jalapeños; the Mediterranean Style is more accurately a Middle Eastern sphiha writ large, with its ample helpings of sojouk and peppers. And if Pepz is known at all outside North County, it's for its pastrami pizza—meat sourced from the City of Industry and pared alongside mustard and pickles. I will take credit for inventing the idea of putting mustard on pizza, since I've been doing that since elementary school, but Pepz turned it into an institution—the saltiness, the tanginess, the sweetness of it guarantees this tiny chain has a future across Orange County. In the meanwhile, the 57 isn't that crowded in the evening, San Clementians. . . .
This column appeared in print as "North County Secret."