Papa John’s is an American corporate pizza chain, and it can easily be compared to Pizza Hut and Mr. Pizza in China. However, it does not have the foothold and market presence. In Changzhou, for example, Pizza Hut is extremely easy to find, and their many locations can be as numerous as KFC. The Korean Mr. Pizza comes in a distant second with number of locations. Papa John’s is now entering the corporate pizza game in this city with a new location in Xinbei.
The place recently opened in a newly remodeled and small shopping center up Tongjiang Road in Xinbei. It is right next to a KFC and a hotpot place. You could say, perhaps, that it’s in between Wanda and Monkey King Pizza, which brings up another point.
Should places like Monkey King, OK Koala, and CF Cafe — local Xinbei places that also serve pizza — be afraid of the competition? Not really. Koala serves bar food, and CF Cafe and Monkey King are more high end. Food nerds like myself will always prefer those places because of the originality they bring to their cuisine. Papa John’s menu is more of a reminder of Pizza Hut and Mr. Pizza. The prices are roughly the same, too. Corporate pizza, however, is usually better than some of the locally owned Chinese places who may sweeten or spice things up when they absolutely shouldn’t. At any rate, it’s always good to have more dining options than less. So, in that spirit, welcome to Changzhou, Papa John’s.
One of the things I feared most, when leaving New Jersey for China, was going through pizza withdrawal. Yes, I was actually dumb enough to ponder, “I wonder if I can actually find pizza in China.” Stupid, I know, and my fears were completely unfounded. There is very good pizza to be had in Changzhou. Some places are not new to the old timers who have spent a few years here. But, those new to Changzhou may not yet be in the know. Especially with English teachers coming and going on one year contracts, there will always be somebody relatively new to this city. So, here is a rundown of five places to get good pizza in Changzhou. This is not a “best of” list nor should the order be construed as a ranking. Consider this as just five recommendations of places from a pizza snob.
This is a place that is partly owned by an Italian. And trust me, he is a very, very damned good chef. He creates the menu, concocts the dishes, and runs the kitchen. The pizza here would satisfy a guy from New Jersey. The crust is thin and crispy. If I had to complain about something, it would be that sometimes the crust can be a little over cooked. However, everything else is near perfection. Monkey King has two locations. One in Wujin near Yancheng, and the other in Xinbei, near Candle’s Steakhouse.
I know. It’s a Turkish place. However, Turkish cuisine has pide, which is basically Turkey’s version of pizza. It features a thin crust that is formed into a different shape, and it’s sliced into strips, but it’s the same concept as a pizza. Istanbul’s pie with doner kebab meat is highly recommended. But they have the other more standard toppings that a person might find in other shops. Istanbul Restaurant can be found in Xinbei on Taihu Road, near the media tower.
I know. It’s an Australian themed bar. But the love of pizza is truly international. Koala recently hired a new chef, and the menu is currently being expanded and rewritten. Their pizza tends to go heavy on the tomato sauce, which is something many Chinese-owned pizza parlors just do not do at all. The other thing is that they sell pizza by slice. They are one of the only places I know that does that. So, you are not obligated to eat a whole pie. Sure, foreign owned hotels do by the slice, but it’s part of a buffet you are paying a lot of RMB for. You can’t just pop in for a slice and a craft beer. At Koala, you can. So, it’s highly convenient — especially if you are there one night, drinking, and want to munch on something yummy and cheaply priced. Ok Koala is in Xinbei is located near the BRT stop one shopping center north of Wanda Plaza.
The Tree Pizza
This is a cozy little place downtown, right off of Beidajie. Tree serves a very thin crust. It is such a small nook of a place that it is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. Besides the excellent pizza, the place has a very pleasant and unique ambiance. For me, it’s almost like eating at a tiny neighborhood parlor back in Asbury Park, Neptune, or Long Branch. When compared to other places, the prices here are very, very affordable. It’s high quality at a low price.
CF Cafe is actually a high end bakery serving lots of delicious deserts. They do, however, offer varied range of lunch and dinner items including salads and sandwiches. Thin crust pizza is also on their menu. When compared to Tree or OK Koala, their pizza tends to be a bit pricey. Also, they do not serve regular toppings like pepperoni, but they do have a good five veggie pie that is perhaps one of the more vegetarian friendly options in town that’s more than just a plain cheese pizza. Like Istanbul Restaurant, CF Cafe is on Taihu Road in Xinbei. It’s across the street from Zoo Coffee and the media tower complex.
Sometimes, Baidu and other map apps are not to be trusted in China. They will say something exists when it actually doesn’t. Consider the above screenshot. It’s giving a Changzhou location for 达美乐比萨，or, as it is better known in English, Domino’s Pizza. According to the picture, it can be found in the relatively new and empty Rise Sun Manhattan Plaza in Xinbei. The above is what I like to term as a “map ghost.” If you actually go there, you will not find the American pizza chain. Nothing is there.
Sure, the marquee says “pizza” and has the 达美乐 characters, but the place is absolutely empty and devoid of life with a bare concrete floor. So, maybe Domino’s is still in Changzhou, and maybe it’s a a different location? Map apps are quite often wrong right? I say this because two friends of mine were very hopeful, and they heard rumors of a Changzhou Domino’s from Chinese people. However, if you go by Domino’s actual Chinese website, the chances are bleak. Their store locator only lists locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Not to point out the obvious, but if their website does not acknowledge a presence in Changzhou, than Domino’s Pizza is more than likely not in Changzhou.
Half of my ethnic heritage comes from Italy, so it’s very easy for me to say, “Monkey King is one of my favorite restaurants in Changzhou.” Of course, it’s not as good as my late mother’s home cooking, but it’s still pretty darned awesome. It consistently has the best pizza in town — which I would very readily compare to the sort that you can find in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City. By that, I mean thin crust. They’re not exactly alike, but it’s the closest you will find in Changzhou.
If there is one thing I would complain about, it would be the prices. But then again, a person should be willing to pay for a high end dining experience. And Monkey King is high end dining in Changzhou. That leads to another point. From time to time, the restaurant does an all-you-can- eat buffet. Recently, the location in Xinbei hosted one of these on the 25th of February from 6pm to 10pm. Incidentally, the 25th was also the one year anniversary of this blog (a very happy, but totally unrelated coincidence!). For 198 RMB, diners were treated to veal, eggplant, salads, seafood dishes, and more. There was also all-you-can-drink bottled beer and Italian red wine. If you take all of that together, it’s quite a good deal. I ate like a pig; I will not lie about that. Next time Monkey King offers one of these — in either Wujin or Xinbei locations — seriously consider going. It’s more than worth the money.
Where to find in Changzhou, even on regular menu days.
I once puzzled over a friend’s Wechat food pictures. He had posted some snapshots of oven baked chicken at Don Chicken in Xinbei, but that wasn’t what attracted my attention. Actually, it was something on the periphery — bisected by the edge of the photo. It looked like pizza, and and it looked like it was crammed with toppings. So, I asked, and my friend simply replied, “Korean Pizza.”
So, any time the word “Pizza” is mentioned to me, my brain goes into spastic overdrive with all the question words of “Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How.” I blame New Jersey for this mental imbalance where the word “Pizza” is concerned. I have eaten at Don Chicken before and found their food quite good. So, I opted to try. And?
And, I didn’t like it. At all. First of all, its just a doughy pancake fried in oil. The menu listed two options: kimchee and green onion with seafood. I opted for the seafood. All that entailed was a few tiny shrimp mixed into fried green onion shoots. Omelette style egg took the place of cheese as a topping — if you are to follow through with the pizza comparison. And the result? A profound meh!
I didn’t hate it, but I found no reason to order it again. Don Chicken does so much better with its signature chicken dishes. This “Green Onion and Seafood Pancake” is just downright not worth the time as a singular lunch item. I say this as somebody who enjoys Don Chicken. However, this particular menu item is rather mediocre and easy to live without.
Monkey King simply makes pizza closest to what I was used to in New Jersey. It comes with a crispy, thin crust. It also comes with a decent amount cheese and tomato sauce. Don’t get me wrong, as there are other places in Changzhou that also make very good or decent pizza; however, Monkey King is still the best, personally. This is just my opinion, and as I have noted elsewhere and to many people, I have very, very exacting requirements when it comes to pizza. I do when it comes to all Italian food; I am half Italian American, after all. Let me go even farther: I’m half Jersey-Italian.
After I moved to Xinbei, however, I quickly learned something. Some seem to not know that there are actually two different Monkey King Pizza restaurants in Changzhou. Some would hear the name and automatically assume that I am talking about the location near Candles. No, I’m not. Actually, I have never eaten at that one, yet. My experience comes solely from their Wujin presence — the one next to Chocolate’s German restaurant.
It’s an important distinction. Wujin Monkey King is a godsend and a must-go-to place when you live in southern Changzhou. This is especially true if you live in the College Town area of either Mingxin or Gehu Roads. When it comes to western cuisine, there really isn’t much of anything else to go to. Sure, there is also Kaffe Indian Cafe, and Jagerwirt, but that is all there is. And saying “Just take a cab to Xinbei” is just not an acceptable answer for routine, everyday eating. The cab fare is about 60 RMB, and when you are on a college English teacher’s salary, you only save such extravagant luxuries for special occasions, or when you can get a number of people to go with you and split fare.
So, no matter what, I will always stand by this distinction: Wujin Monkey King makes the best pizza in Changzhou. Others come very close. Some used to say that title belonged to Aria, and I used to welcome that debate. Sadly, Aria is gone.
Pizza is something I am passionate about. What can I say? I am from New Jersey, a surreal place where intense Facebook drama wars can, and have, broken out over this subject. Do you love Pizza Hut? Never say that in Jersey! You will likely get lengthy list of locally owned pizzerias in response. This list will also be given to you with a bunch of exasperated sighs and eye rolls. Add to this that I am half Italian-American, and the pizza I grew up eating was home cooked and made by my mother. And if you say anything is better than my mom’s cooking, I will fight you!
Simply put, my standards for judging pizza quality are absurdly high — to the point where personal, cultural, and ethnic issues are all in play. Not to mention the memory of my late, dearly departed mother. The worst thing you can do, if you are sharing a pizza with me, is to ask what I think about it. You will get a lengthy, dramatic monologue, with footnotes. And digressions, too! Wild gesticulations might also be possible. After all, I might need to empatically prove a point. Your non-spoken response might be,:”This guy is a bit loony.” You wouldn’t be that far from the truth. We are only talking about pizza after all.
And even despite all of this personal baggage, I can say I have eaten some of the best pizza in Changzhou, recently. For me, it also came from a surprising place: Istanbul Restaurant. I only have a passing knowledge of Turkish cuisine. Sure, I have eaten my share of Donor Kebabs and hummus, but I never knew the country had it’s own, unique heritage when it comes to pizza.
So, Istanbul Restuarant’s pizza doesn’t share the circular shape of it’s Italian and Italian-American. You could say it’s in the shape of an eye, but one were the eyeball is yellow and filled with chunks of meat. Let’s set the surreality of that one side for a moment. The crust is thin, which is a relief. Most of the pizza you can find in China tends to be thick. And for a guy from Jersey, that’s just bad. Very bad. Pizza should not taste like bread with pizza toppings on it. The greatest thing though, is the beef donor kebab toppings. That was a first for me, and while the thought sounded alien at first. Actually eating it on a pizza seemed like an absolute no-brainer after the initial first bite.
And so it comes to this: Istanbul Restaurant simply makes pizza you just cannot find anywhere else in Changzhou.