Tracy, California is a formerly sleepy agroindustrial town that’s slowly turning into an exurb for Silicon Valley train commuters. This growing community seems to update the tired, run down hole in the wall restaurants in its older neighborhoods with crappy chains in the newly developed areas. On the surface, Tracy’s food scene appeared bleak.
But then I drove past a storefront that caught my eye. “Lake of Fire,” the sign said, baffling me from the back of a strip mall.
“What the hell is a Lake of Fire,” I wondered? A brimstone burning evangelical church in a strip mall? In fact, it’s an Italian inspired restaurant where I ate twice during a recent weekend in Tracy. It’s been open since November 2006 under chef Kevin Conway, who adds depth and layers of flavors to his straightforward pizza and pasta dishes by roasting the vegetables in his sauces. Roasting intensifies the vegetables’ natural sweetness, and this simple rustic kitchen trick makes all the difference in the final dish.
Roasted pepper puree, for example, flavors one of their Tuscan Flat Breads, a house specialty. There are several iterations of this salad-on-a-pizza-crust, but the chicken version comes with with a salad of baby spinach, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, garlic puree and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. The pizza crust combines surprisingly well with the salad on top, although it cracks into pieces if you try to fold it like a pita bread. You’ll have to figure out your own way to eat this lovely carb-rich salad.
Roasted tomatos enhance the robust bolognese sauce in the Rigatoni, served with chunks of fennel sausage, sauteed fresh mushooms, parmesan and mozzarella. All the big flavors melded into a rich pasta dish that was one of our table’s favorites.
The spaghetti with meatballs, however, was not well received. The noodles were inexplicably cut into shorter pieces, and the meatball congnoscenti in our group gave them a major thumbs down.
But the pizzas here are the standout. They serve a crisp, thin crusted version that would lead you think there’s a wood fired oven in the kitchen, but there isn’t: only a gas fired oven and a chef who runs it at blast furnace temperatures. The crust has a cracker like bottom layer, with just enough breadiness to absorb the juices of the strongly flavored ingredients on top. The Margherita pizza has a restrained and proper balance of crust, sauce, and topping, meaning it’s not excessively overloaded with goopy cheese. Cheese is a seasoning here, not a choking hazard.
We tried two pizzas: the classic tricolored Margherita with tomato sauce, fresh basil and cow’s milk mozzarella. The Neapolitan pizza police will get their knickers twisted because they’re not using bufala mozzarella, but after all, this ain’t Napoli, it’s Tracy. It’s not damn good DOC (Denominazione di Orgine Controllata) pizza, it’s damn good BFT (Bum F*@k Tracy) pizza. It’s the closest to authentic Italian pizza you’ll get this side of San Francisco, and a welcome change from the same old, American doughwad pizza.
While the Margherita appealed to the minimalist in me, better still was the Carne Combo pizza, topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, fennel sausage, prosciutto, pancetta & sauteed fresh mushroom. Somehow, they manage to put all that meat on this thin crisp crust, and not overwhelm it with a sodden heaviness. Must be that blast furnace in the back that crisps the bottom of the pizza dough regardless of what’s sitting on top.
The most expensive item on the dinner menu is $12.95, and most are less than $10. Accessibly ambitious in a town overrun with mediocre chains, Lake of Fire elevates relatively humble ingredients to greatness, and that’s a measure of the cook’s skill in any rustic cuisine. The restaurant has plans to start growing its own herbs hydroponically in a converted salad bar fixture, but hasn’t had the time or money to proceed with the project. Let’s hope Tracy’s continued growth encourages brave independent restaurants like this one, which deserve the support.
Lake of Fire
2503 N. Tracy Blvd. (>1 mile south of the Tracy Blvd exit on I-205)
Tracy, CA 95376
Open 7 days a week