Food carts, of course, are the awesome right now, and nowhere moreso than Portland where we have a higher number per capita than any other city in the country. Fine with me. When I travel I eat on the street more than in restaurants.
However, a cart with a wood-burning or gas oven running at 800 degrees slinging out freshly made pizzas with ingredients like fresh mozz and doughs allowed to ferment for 24 hours? Now that’s the real awesome. And Portland has three of them: Pizza Depokos, Pyro Pizza, and Wy’East Pizza. While I had tried two — Pyro and Wy’East — with the opening of the third, Depokos, a crawl was in order to judge their relative merits. The obvious partner in pizza-gorging to invite was Adam Lindsley.
If you don’t follow Adam’s blog, This Is Pizza, you’re missing out on the best source of pizza reviews in Portland. Growing up in Long Beach, Washington, a trip to Astoria for Pizza Hut was a treat for Adam, an unfortunate cultural milestone (or predicament) I’m sure many of us raised in the Pacific Northwest can relate to. It wasn’t until he read Jeff Varasano’s New York pizza recipe making use of a wet dough and an oven’s cleaning cycle that he tasted truly good pizza. Since then, he’s been refining his palate by eating the best pizza the country has to offer (much of which is in Portland, luckily), traveling to New York, of course, but also to far-flung pizza destinations, like Bianco in Phoenix.
Our first stop was Pizza Depokos, which started as a cart, but now is a sort of hybrid in order to placate the city. The former wood-oven-cart has been put up blocks inside a converted garage. Ethan, the owner, is a dedicated and gregarious guy.
Pizza choices are split into two categories: traditional Italian pies and Lebanese pies. All are 12″ and range in price from $8 for a zataar-topped Middle Eastern pizza to $12 for a pepperoni or sopressata pizza. We ordered the half-zataar/half-three cheese and their version of the margherita, a tomato, basil, and fresh mozza pie.
The menu says that the Lebanese pies come on a house pita dough. If so, the difference between it and the regular dough is very slight. It’s a good crust. I’d like it a little crisper and a little less puffy for my palate, but it has a nice sourdough flavor. I couldn’t really taste it at first over the somewhat heavy-handed zataar or the flavorful cheeses, but by the second pizza I had begun to really appreciate it. I’d like the lemon and sesame to come through better by a bit more restraint with the dried herb blend.
The three cheese side uses mozzarella, feta, and akawi. Akawi is usually a cow’s milk cheese that’s reminiscent of feta. (You can find it jarred around Portland in Middle Eastern markets.) Really great mix of flavors. The mozzarella adds the bulk of gooiness, while the other two cheeses diversify the flavor.
The tomato, basil, and fresh mozz pizza was accidentally made with regular mozz. While Ethan was manning the oven, he was also trying to teach a new employee the menu. (He gave us a discount for the mistake.) Even with the mixup, it was quite tasty. Though like a margherita, it’s still a white pie, using fresh tomatoes instead of tomato sauce. This time of year, I think that’s a mistake. Come summer, the tomatoes will be better. Right now, they’re not much more than a textural difference. Perhaps if he was to use sun-dried tomatoes or even cherry tomatoes, he could get a lot more tomato intensity. That said, I liked this pie. I look forward to giving it a try with fresh mozzarella and better tomatoes.
His pizzas get a light, mottled char on the bottom from the oven that ranges between 750 degrees in the front to 900 degrees in the back. A constant turning in the oven keeps them evenly browned.
This is damn good pizza.
2730 N. Killingsworth
Portland, OR 97217
Next stop was Pyro Pizza, the true cart with a wood oven inside that’s a sister-cart of the popular Give Pizza a Chance downtown. Pyro shares the 12th & Hawthorne “cartopia” with destinations like Potato Champion and Whiffies.
The menu has standards such as a margherita and a pepperoni pizza, but also more creative options, like a caramelized onion pizza with pistachios and gorgonzola. Prices are cheap, only $8 for their most expensive pie, though the “12 inch” pizzas seem smaller than the 12 inch pizzas at the other two carts we tried. We ordered the margherita and the caramelized onion.
The sauce on the margherita seemed better than the one I had tried a couple months back. The previous one was too sweet. This one has a more straight-forward, tomato and herb flavor with a little bit of spice. I like the fresh basil leaves put on after the pizza is cooked, letting them maintain their full flavor. The cheese is sparse but decent quality. However, I have a hard time with their whole wheat crust, especially on such a subtle pizza as the margherita. It just overpowers the other flavors.
The caramelized onion pizza should be a better match for the crust. But despite using two aged cheeses, gorgonzola and parmesan, it comes across flat-tasting. The first problem is that the onions aren’t truly caramelized. They’re really just sweated. Either they should use the torpedo onions raw, allowing their natural sweetness and sharpness to liven up the pizza, or they should just truly caramelize some common yellow onions, finishing them with some balsamic allowed to reduce to create a complex sweet and sour topping. And then use more of the funky cheeses on the menu. This pizza as described sounds great. It’s just not executed as well as it’s conceived.
Pizzas are well-cooked, though, and have a lot of promise with just a bit of tinkering. And given the price, I’ll put up with some of these quibbles. And the fact that I can get these tasty pizzas at 3am? That’s a serious bonus.
SE 12th & Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, OR 97214
The final stop was Wy’East Pizza, which just re-opened last month after a post-holiday winter break. They work out of a converted camper with a tiny propane brick oven that only fits one pie at a time. Waits can be long when the phone orders pile up. The pizzas take less than 5 minutes to cook, but they’re a popular take-out spot for neighborhood folks. Best to call ahead.
The menu has standard pizzas like a margherita, pepperoni, and plain cheese, but they have a lot of fun combos like their zig-zag glacier with kalamata olives, arugula, and garlic or (a current seasonal special) the crater potater with potato, garlic, rosemary, and spicy oil. Prices range from $11 to $15, though it’s worth noting the pizzas are topped more heavily than the other pizzas in this survey.
The pizzas are more New York or New Haven style than Neapolitan style. This comes through most clearly with the heavier use of cheese. I’ll be honest: this is my favorite style of pizza. It’s why when push comes to shove, I name Apizza Scholls as my favorite Portland pizzeria and why Difara’s is my favorite in New York. It’s no surprise that Squish, Wy’East’s pizziolo, put in a stint at Apizza Scholls.
The margherita uses a decent fresh mozz. The sauce is tomatoey and a little sharp, augmented with garlic. There’s plenty of fresh basil over the top and the whole thing is quite balanced.
Even better is the hot marmot, gooey with (what seemed to be) both a fresh mozzarella and aged mozzarella that stretched from what slice to the next as you pulled one to your mouth. Pepperoni, slightly spicy pickled peppers, and a welcome dose of garlic offset the heavy use of cheese. A really wonderful balance of toppings made this my favorite pizza of the night.
The crusts are a little softer — less crisp — than most NY-style hot oven pizzas, probably — more like their Neapolitan cousins in that way. But at 800 degrees, the little-oven-that-could gets a nice char on the crusts. On my first visit to Wy’East, one of my pizzas was burnt on the bottom, honestly. Both of these were cooked perfectly, however. Yet still I detected a bitter aftertaste on one of the pizzas. Not sure why and this may be more an issue with me than with the quality of the pizzas, but it’s worth noting in case you’re sensitive to the flavor.
Still, I really like these pizzas. If you’re a fan of Apizza Scholls, you should especially give these a try.
3131 SE 50th Ave
Portland, OR 97206
As Adam and I would say over and over on this crawl: five years ago, this would be the best pizza in Portland. That’s no dig. Pizza in Portland has come a long ways since Apizza Scholls opened on Hawthorne in 2005. There’s an excellent pizzeria in nearly every part of Portland now (if only someone would push out to the suburbs, they’d make a killing). These pizza carts are only adding to Portland’s status as the hub of resurgent pizza culture west of the Hudson.