Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: Ken's Artisan Pizza

304 SE 28th Ave
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 517-9951

After tasting the sublime pizzas over at Apizza Scholls in Portland's Hawthorne district, you may believe the City of Roses has nothing better to offer aficionados of the crust, sauce, and cheese. But as it happens, it does, and it's called Ken's Artisan Pizza.
KAP is an offshoot of owner Ken Forkish's popular Ken's Artisan Bakery in Northwest Portland. Every Monday night, the bakery opens its doors again and serves high-quality pizzas that are unmatched in the neighborhood. Now, with its own location south of East Burnside dedicated exclusively to the pizza, Mr. Forkish brings his yeast-and-flour know-how to Southeast Portland alongside the masterful skills of co-founder and head chef, Alan Maniscalco, and pizzaiolo Joshua Zach.
While Apizza Scholls does NY-style pies, and does them right, Ken's follows a more Neo-Neapolitan style, with a less-crispy, more pliant crust baked in a domed wood-burning oven. The oven really is the key to what makes Ken's pizzas so phenomenal, infusing them with wood-smoked flavor that's unattainable in a conventional oven. The intense heat leaves the pies with perfectly blistered corniciones, the flavor of which will make your eyes roll back into your head as you realize just what an outstanding baker of bread this Forkish character is. It's the kind of crust you want to finish after you've devoured the portion with toppings, rather than leave in a pile on your plate like bones.
It is quite possible to finish an entire pie by yourself at Ken's, as they round out at about 12-inch diameters. Their Margherita ($11) is spot-on, balance defined, with a tangy sauce augmented by just a touch of fennel seed and the heat of red pepper flakes. Thin, creamy discs of fresh mozzarella adorn the pie, which is finished off with fresh-picked basil and a swirl of olive oil. They'll be more than happy to pile a mound of peppery arugula on top of it, if that's your thing, though why you'd want to mess with perfection is beyond me ($13).
The Arrabiata ($13) is a deceptive beast. At first glance it appears to be the house Margherita with bits of red bell pepper spilled over it, but once you sink your teeth into it, those hot little Calabrian chilies will quickly make their presence known. Erupting with flavor with every bite, the chilies pack quite a punch, so take my advice and tackle them one at a time if you don't want a few holes in your tongue.
The Olive pizza ($13) melds black olives and rosemary into a pie not seen in the typical pizzeria, but the subtle combination works extremely well. Alone, either ingredient wouldn't be enough to distinguish itself as its own entity, but together, the olives and rosemary just click.
Veggie lovers should jump on the Eggplant pie ($13), which tops the plain pie with oregano, Pecorino cheese, and, of course, eggplant, roasted in the wood-burning oven (more on that later). Better still is the Roasted Pepper pizza ($13). The crust has its work cut out for it here, supporting a generous array of said peppers, onions, tomato sauce, oregano, and sheep's milk feta. Every ingredient sings in harmony with the others, delivering something even the most stringent vegetable-haters in your party will stand up and applaud. Figuratively speaking, of course, unless you have really enthusiastic friends.
Ken's may have mastered the vegetarian pizzas, but its meat-topped pies are where this restaurant truly enters the realm of pizza legend. Surely their most delicious creation is the Soppressata pie ($13), which is essentially the Margherita (basil and all) topped with a generous serving of spicy Italian soppressata. I simply cannot express to you the leaps of joy my palate takes with every bite of this pizza; it is without question the best thing I have ever eaten.
Carnivores in pairs should order the Soppressata along with the Fennel Sausage & Onion pie ($13), an impeccable amalgam of the sweet and savory. The divine fennel sausage is crumbled over the basic Margherita and punctuated with candy-sweet caramelized onions that literally melt in your mouth. It is outstanding.
Order the Prosciutto pie and the pizzaiolo will lay impossibly thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth Prosciutto di San Daniele on the pizza moments after it leaves the roaring flames of the oven, allowing the piping hot cheese and sauce to heat the salty ham. Speaking of ham, the Bacon pie sports house-smoked Guanciale, a rare find in Portland. These smoky, salty strips of hog heaven are the ideal substitute for Canadian bacon, an upgrade made even more phenomenal when paired with this pizza's surprisingly spicy roasted tomato sauce.
If I have one criticism of Ken's pies, it's that the tomato sauce is sometimes spread too thin across the crust, leaving but a deplorably thin red stain hinting at what could be. This is an uncommon occurrence, however.
More recently, Ken's has expanded their menu to include a number of fantastic appetizers. Many are seasonal, reflecting Forkish and Maniascalco's desire to use only local produce, and that commitment to freshness comes through in these dishes. Beyond the simple yet perfectly executed Caesar and Green salads ($8 and $9, respectively), the Heirloom Tomato Plate should not be ignored if you should be fortunate enough to see it on the menu. The already bursting-with-flavor heirlooms are doused in extra virgin olive oil and 10yr basalmic vinegar, then topped with basil. While the absence of mozzarella may displease those seeking a Caprese on the menu, the tomatoes are so juicy and full-bodied that you won't miss it at all. I didn't.
If you must limit yourself to a single appetizer, do not let the Wood Oven-Roasted Vegetable Plate ($12) pass you by. Three preparations of seasonal vegetables are roasted alongside the pizzas in the domed oven and brought steaming-hot to your table, and after you have tried Ken's versions, you will never look at vegetables the same way again. Recent selections have included chanterelle mushrooms, cranberry beans and sweet onions served with a fennel-chili salsa; eggplant in spicy tomato sauce and oregano pesto; and yellow wax and green beans with cherry tomatoes and basil. Trust me when I say your table must order the roasted vegetable plate whenever you dine here. No one else in Portland brings out the sweetness in the vegetables like Ken's, though be warned: you will find all other variations on them inferior after you've had the ones served here. Sorry, Mom.
Ken's desserts are limited but delicious across the board. A recent blueberry crisp was plentiful and spot-on, the tartness of the blueberries in perfect harmony with the sweetness of the brown sugar-and-oat crust. A dollop of subdued peach gelato on top catapults the dish from delicious to must-have. The oven-roasted peaches with whipped mascarpone will seduce you with the acumen of an Egyptian courtesan.
For my money, no dining experience in Portland tops Ken's Artisan Pizza, and few places in any city do. If you have yet to experience the culinary mastery taking place here, do yourself (and your lucky companions) a favor and get to Southeast 28th & Pine ASAP. Just make sure you get there after me -- the line's long enough as it is.
OVEN: Wood
RECOMMENDED: Oven-Roasted Vegetable Plate, Soppressata pizza


  1. This is a terrific review, inspired, descriptive, judgmental. I sit here in northern Michigan wishing i could bite into that Olive pie. I knew Alan Maniscalco in a different life, in artisan bread, more than a decade ago, and I'm confident your judgment on his work is spot-on.

  2. wow, you really brought ken's to life in those pics. i didnt know it was a must try. i knew about pizza acholls...but now ken's is on my Northwest Pizza tour 2010. great blog.


  3. Thanks, Skylash! Most of the pics are mine, but a few are from the Ken's site (I unfortunately don't know yet how to write captions for the photographs, but when I do I'll make sure they get proper credit). Anyway, thanks for checking out the blog, and yes, please, check out Ken's!

  4. Just found your blog! Love it! We are eating at Delanceys tonight...our 15th visit!

  5. Have fun at Delancey, Kimberly! You're gonna love it.

  6. So we are going back tomorrow...taking a friend who grew up in NYC and has NOT found great pizza in the pacific north west. I am saving the fact that Adam from Slice sat by us tonight at Delenceys. Can't wait for her to try it!!!

  7. Yes, take your friend there, then drive down to Portland and take her to Ken's Artisan and Apizza Scholls. She'll be a believer.

  8. FYI:

  9. @extramsg: Bummer! I hate it when my favorite places have an off night. I'm dining here sometime this week or next, so I'll write back to report on whether or not they've fixed the sauce problem.

  10. One of the best pizza restaurants in town.

  11. Pizza made at this restaurant is delicious and very tasty.

  12. Pizza hecha en este restaurante es delicioso y muy sabroso.

  13. Thank you very much for writing such an interesting article on this topic.

  14. Uno dei migliori ristoranti di pizza in città.