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California Pizza Kitchen located at the Simi Valley Town Center April 12, 2010. The Los Angeles?bas
California Pizza Kitchen located at the Simi Valley Town Center, April 12, 2010.
Al Seib—LA Times via Getty Images

If you find yourself hungry and stuck in a suburban strip mall, you could do far worse than eating at California Pizza Kitchen. The restaurant chain, launched in Beverly Hills in 1985, helped open up many Americans to more creative pizza options. But its food doesn’t come cheap: Appetizers are in the $11-15 range, while its famous pies are $16-19. So navigating the menu, as at many dining establishments, is an art.

We talked to two former CPK servers to get their insider tips about what to order and what to skip in order to get the best meal while saving a few bucks in your wallet.

Note: Prices here are for the Manhattan location on Park Avenue.

Stick with the pizzas—the right ones.

Thai Chicken Pizza
courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen and Waterbury Publications, Inc.

“CPK knows pizza, and the wood-fired oven really adds to the flavor of each dish,” says 29-year-old Kimberly Konen, a former server at a Charlotte, North Carolina, location. “Look for a pizza that’s topped with greens or fresh veggies like the BLT pizza—which may not be on the menu, but you can ask for it—or the Thai Chicken pizza ($16.99). It’s like getting a small salad on top of your pie for one flat price.”

The Thai pie not only has mozzarella and chicken slathered in Asian peanut flavor, but also copious bean sprouts, carrots, scallions, and cilantro, making it a worthwhile flavor and texture bomb with nutritional value. The Works pizza ($17.99) is one of the most popular, according to a former server in New York City. And “I really loved the carnitas pizza if you find a location with that on the menu,” Konen says.

And while the pizzas may seem like overpriced salad on dough, they're intensely rich. It's rare that anyone has the appetite to finish one alone. And as Konen points out, they make ideal leftovers heated up in a traditional or toaster oven.

BBQ chicken is still a classic at CPK.

The Original BBQ Chicken Pizza
courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen and Waterbury Publications

“You can't go wrong with the OG BBQ Chicken pizza. This restaurant made that dish famous, and there's a reason: They do it best,” Konen says. This pizza gives you the best bang for you buck, as they subtly elevate it by using smoked gouda and throwing in red onions and cilantro. If you’re in a lighter mood, the BBQ chicken also comes in salad form, and it “was always the most popular salad,” according to the New York server. They do this so well, you'll never feel short-changed.

Don’t forget about pasta, though.

Chicken Tequila Fettuccine
courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen and Waterbury Publications, Inc.

Sure, CPK has pizza in the name, but any good pizza place ought to be able to turn out a fresh, toothsome pasta. The chain brings its unique, hybridized Mexican and Asian flavors to its pastas. The Kung Pao Spaghetti ($15.99) and Chicken Tequila Fettuccine ($17.99) “are two of my favorites,” Konen says. The New York server notes that the latter was always a favorite of customers in her experience. The pastas can be even more filling than the pizzas, and both are superb for reheating the next day as an indulgent, envy-inducing lunch.

Share the love.

Many of the items at CPK are shareable. As with Cheesecake Factory, CPK's portions are nearly too big to fit on the plate. “A half-salad is still big enough to split with another person, if you are ordering an entree as well,” Konen says. “I love sharing to be able to try different things on the menu.” Sharing two different pizzas, like that BBQ Chicken and Thai Chicken for a total of $34.98, works well, the New York server says. The pastas and even the mammoth sandwiches cut in half are equally apt for passing around so you can get even more flavor for less money.

Skip most of the small stuff. And the mains.

Lettuce Wraps with Chicken
courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen and Waterbury Publications

As appetizers are nearly the price of pizzas and pastas, they tend not to be worth it. The less expensive small plates are also dicey. The White Corn Guacamole and Chips ($6.49) “is basically about five bites,” Konen says. And the Crispy Mac 'N' Cheese (same price) is "kind of a gut bomb," she says. On the other hand, the Lettuce Wraps ($12.79-16.49 depending on choice of protein) “are enough to be a meal, but with appetizer pricing.” Meanwhile, the main plates section of the menu, including Hearth-Roasted Halibut ($27.99) “is fairly pricey for the portion you get.” Likewise, the Cedar Plank Salmon ($22.99) and Crispy Fish Tacos ($17.99) run high.

Plus, who goes to CPK for fish?

Bonus Rule: Get connected to CPK rewards.

CPK has also jumped on the app rewards train. It offers shockingly valuable bonuses for signing up, even if you don't become a regular diner. Registering on its app, available on iOS and Android, immediately gets you a free small plate. With the app, you earn a point for every dollar spent, and 75 points will net a $5 reward. Plus a birthday dessert is automatically on the house. If you go to CPK a few times a year, it's a no-brainer.