On any given night, a dozen or more eager pizza fans might be hovering near the front of Folks Pizzeria in Costa Mesa, staring at their phones or craning to peer in on the action. It isn’t hard: The kitchen takes up more than half the space, ensuring everyone gets a view of one of Orange County’s busiest restaurants. That’s by design, because at Folks chef-owner Joey Booterbaugh believes that dough is the star of the show. If anything, he’s just trying to get out of the way.
A Palmdale native, Booterbaugh has cooked at some serious Los Angeles restaurants in his time, including Cafe Birdie, which he opened in Highland Park in 2016. So why, in 2019, did he suddenly head south for the sunny suburbs?
“This is where we want to raise our family,” says Booterbaugh, rocking a low black dad hat inscribed with the Folks logo and a white button-up kitchen shirt. “I love everything about Orange County.”
The “we” in this case is Booterbaugh and partner Chloe Tran, formerly of Vietnamese restaurant East Borough. Four years ago, the pair packed up their restaurant lives to the north and embarked on a new journey in Orange County, intent on using a rustic former wine bar in the back of the Camp, a Costa Mesa retail plaza, to make food that would hopefully resonate with a new and unfamiliar dining base.
“I was like, ‘Orange County? What’s it like?’” says Booterbaugh. “I had no idea what to expect at first.”
But he knew that the space he’d toured would offer pizza. “I’m a firm believer that you have to have a solid concept going into a space,” says Booterbaugh, “or you’re just setting yourself up for failure. When someone walks into your space, they have to think of other concepts in their mind that you’re competing against.”
A longtime student of higher-hydration, fermentation-forward pizza, Booterbaugh saw an opening to make sorta funky, delicious pizzas for hundreds of diners a night — if he could sell them on his vision. “With Neapolitan pizza, you have all these boxes you’ve got to check. Detroit pizza, same thing,” says Booterbaugh. Definable requirements can make the marketing of those styles to average consumers easier. “What we’re doing is artisan-style pizza. We don’t check boxes from any other style.” That learning curve took time — for himself, his staff, and for Costa Mesa.
“I was like, man, am I making a mistake?” he says of those early days in the summer of 2019. “I wasn’t getting the clientele that I saw around at other places. It took two or three months before it started to click — and then the pandemic hit.”
Within days, Folks went from being a full-service, carb-y and salad-y pan-California restaurant that happened to serve pizza, to being a pizzeria. “COVID turned us into a takeout place,” says Booterbaugh, who by April 2020 was turning out 120 pizzas himself as Tran handled orders and pickups. “I thought, This sucks right now, but let’s just make the best out of it. We have an audience, so let’s just build the business. Let’s just make pizza and get better. It was a perfect time to get reps.”
The results are staggering. Two-plus years on, Folks has used that fuel and the pizza’s slightly funky fermented base to become one of Orange County’s most dynamic restaurants. On the deceptively small menu there are only four red sauce-based pizzas (and four more white options), filled with standards like margherita, fennel sausage, and pepperoni. The difference, the life, the changing nature of Folks, is in its process. Booterbaugh has spent years tweaking his dough recipe, tinkering with different pre-ferments, changing aspects of his sourdough or upping his hydration levels (it’s currently at 72 percent) depending on the season or his intuition. The water, the flour, the rest time, the purveyors, it’s all just pieces of one big ever-changing puzzle.
“The great thing about artisanal pizza is that when you go and eat it, you’re not going to have that exact pizza anywhere else,” says Booterbaugh. “Our pizza is better than it was two months ago, it’s way better than it was six months ago, and it’s a completely different thing than it was a year ago.”
Perhaps the closest LA allegory to Folks’s pizza is Hail Mary in Atwater Village, which also relies on the strength of its bespoke and constantly fluctuating dough base to turn out crusty, thick-ringed pizzas from an old deck oven. Folks’s pizza features a wide, dark rim that’s airy but sturdy, like a thin version of the crust found on some of Southern California’s best artisan breads. Each pizza’s base is similarly narrow, stretched out and strong thanks to ample gluten development that holds up the ingredients. Each slice flattens out to near-nothingness at the center but manages to stay robust enough to not flop off all of its toppings when held. Again, this is not Neapolitan or New York-style or Mozza’s own California pizza version — or anything else, really. This is Folks.
Booterbaugh believes that the pizza ethos he follows is growing. Never stop learning or tweaking, don’t overcomplicate the menu, and be consistent with the level of your output. He serves meatballs alongside thick wedges of bread (also made in-house) because people like and expect meatballs; that doesn’t mean that he needs the meat blend in the recipe to be rigid forever. People like his pizza’s darker cornicione bubbles too, part of the artisan charm and the realities of working with an overused Marsal oven that’s prone to hot spots.
“It’s this special time for pizza,” says Booterbaugh. “It’s like this awakening in the United States towards quality pizza. We have people who come in and say, ‘I get it now. Everything I’ve had before this was not really pizza. This is pizza.’ And that’s special. In most places in the United States, outside of big cities like New York, you don’t really eat real pizza that often. I grew up going to Shakey’s, that’s what I thought pizza was.” That’s what Booterbaugh is after at Folks, really. He wants to let the dough do the talking.
Word is certainly out because most nights there’s that crowd waiting well before the doors even open. People want to see the action for themselves. That’s a big win for the original intent of Folks, though it’s not without its frustrations.
“On a recent Friday we did 250 covers, which to your average guest doesn’t mean anything,” says Booterbaugh. “They don’t understand that our oven’s too small to just continuously do takeout. They’re just like, ‘What do you mean you can’t do takeout? You’re a pizzeria.’”
There are plans, with time, to open a second full-service Folks location somewhere else in Orange County. Booterbaugh says that he and Tran are serious when they talk about having roots in the region now. The only part of greater LA that they’d even consider right now is Long Beach, but it seems unlikely. Instead, they’re happy to grow deeper, not wider, roots in their newfound home. All of that possible expansion talk is still a ways away anyway. They’re just trying to get better at the Folks they have, one night at a time. “There’s a lot of chefs that want to go the fine dining route,” says Booterbaugh. “Pizza is what I love. Man, it’s just a special thing when you see that pizza puff up in the oven. Like, okay, we did it again.”
Folks Pizzeria is open daily for dinner service, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. (or 9:30 p.m. on weekends) at 2937 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92626.