Saturday, March 6, 2010

Impressions: Pizza Depokos

2730 N Killingsworth St.
Portland, OR 97217
(503) 247-7499

(all photos by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

If you've been reading Nick Zukin's great food blog over at ExtraMSG.com (and if not, why haven't you?), then you already know that he and I embarked upon a Portland pizza crawl last Wednesday, in which we stuffed our faces with no less than six different pies. I got the chance to revisit a couple great local carts (Pyro and Wy'east) as well as a brand new one: Pizza Depokos up on North Killingsworth.

Perhaps "cart" is a misnomer. In owner Ethan Welt's mind, Pizza Depokos was always meant to be a food cart, but after the county told him he couldn't leave his wood-burning oven on a trailer outside year round, he moved into the old garage in the Refuel North Station food pod. So technically, Depokos isn't a cart. That said, the food comes out just as quickly as it does at most carts, so if you're looking to satisfy your pizza craving on the go, don't let the fact that this place isn't on wheels prevent you from swinging by.

Depokos was the first stop on our crawl, so my belly was empty and my spirits were high. Browsing the menu, I discovered that in addition to the more traditional Neapolitan-style pies, Ethan is also serving up Lebanese pies on his house-made pita dough. Naturally, we had to try one of each. Nick and I ordered a Margherita with fresh mozzarella and a half 3-cheese/za'atar pie. Ethan was working with a new employee that evening, and because of this our Margherita with fresh mozz ended up with fresh chopped tomatoes instead of sauce and aged mozz instead of fresh. I did eventually get to try the "normal" Marg, but I'll get to that later.

As our pies cooked, Nick and I got a chance to chat up Ethan about his dough (a several-day refrigerated ferment) and the oven, which he built himself (he used to be in construction before diving into the pizza biz). Talking with Ethan, you quickly realize what an immense passion he has for pizza. He spent months perfecting his dough, and mixes it entirely by hand (see the above photo for proof). He's familiar with the stories of pizza legends Jeff Varasano and Anthony Mangieri. He carefully monitors the oven's temperature, noting the differentiation between the front and the rear and how they gradually cool as the night progresses. There is no pretension here whatsoever; he is a genuine human being, as easy to talk to as a friend you've known for years.

Before long our two pizzas arrived piping hot from that wondrous wood-burning oven, and after the requisite photo shoot, Nick and I dug in. I started with our altered Margherita ($10). The first thing that hit me about this pizza was the crust: just delicious. It's got a great saltiness to it, and a nice yeasty bread flavor permeating its soft, chewy body. The oven had charred the bottom nicely. While I was disappointed about the mix-up with the new employee, I actually rather enjoyed the pie.

I agree with Nick's assessment that, out of season, freshly chopped tomatoes may not be an optimal choice (especially compared with the sweet punch of cherry tomatoes), but I didn't dislike them either. They cut the salt in the aged mozzarella just enough to maintain a nice balance of flavor throughout. The fantastic crust, with its puffy cornicione and slightly dense hole structure, was a little thick in the center of the pizza. I learned later that this was because the new employee wasn't quite stretching the pies enough, but to be totally honest I didn't mind at all; Ethan's dough recipe is so good that, thick or thin, it's going to taste great no matter what.

The second pie, the 3-Cheese/Za'atar ($8) threw me for a loop. On one hand, the 3-cheese half of the pie was outstanding. The aged mozz, feta, and Lebanese Akkawi blend together as smoothly as the voices of Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, a perfect equilibrium of the salty and creamy. I loved it. Curiously, the "house-made pita dough" used for this pie was exactly the same as the dough used on our Neapolitan pie. Either I am unable to detect the subtle differences between these two doughs, or the new employee's first-day jitters struck again and caused him to prepare both pies on the same type of dough.

(photo by Nick Zukin)

On the other hand, the za'atar half of the pie confounded my taste buds. Za'atar is a Middle Eastern blend of sesame seeds, salt, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and other dried spices. I have very little experience with Lebanese cuisine, so I can't speak firsthand on what za'atar is supposed to taste like; all I can do is convey to you my reaction to this version. I'll be honest: I didn't love it. The dense layer of herbs and seeds, so dry and crusty, wasn't getting into my palate's panties, so to speak. I'd be very curious to hear from someone who has eaten a few Lebanese za'atar pies; I'd like to know what to look for in terms of flavor profile, and how they feel Ethan's version stacks up.

Both tremendously satisfied with our meal, Nick and I continued with the pizza crawl, but I couldn't help but be disappointed that I didn't get to try one of Ethan's pies with red sauce. So two nights later, I stopped by Pizza Depokos again with my friend to get the scoop, and ordered the plain Margherita with Fresh Mozz ($12).

The pizza that arrived a few minutes later looked so vastly different than the pies we had been served two nights prior that it was immediately obvious someone else was working the kitchen. Sure enough, new pizzaiolo Jeremy (of Nostrana fame) was slinging the pies that night. He prepared the pizzas alongside a friendly young woman named Ferris (forgive me if misspelled your name...just shoot me a message if this is the case and I'll fix it!) who was working the front-of-house, as it were. Jeremy stretched the dough perfectly, leaving the finished pie with a pleasantly thin crust and a less-puffy-but-still-airy cornice that was given a nice crunchy exterior by the lick of the oven's flames.

I loved the flavor of the fresh mozzarella on this pizza, cheesy and creamy, without the blandness you often encounter when dealing with fresh mozz. The basil tasted fresh and vibrant. What threw me off about this pizza was the tomato sauce. This is a tomato sauce lover's wildest dream, and when I say that I do not mean it resembles anything close to a simple blend of San Marzanos, salt, and olive oil, but literally a sauce of tomatoes. It's chunky, heavily seasoned, and so unbelievably tangy (in an almost spaghetti-sauce kind of way) that, in the few areas on the pizza where it was doled out perhaps a little too heavily, it totally dominated every other flavor on the pie. Personally, I'd prefer it spread much thinner, but I know there are many people out there who are going to love it like it thick like this.

The night ended with Jeremy whipping up a pizza on the fly just as the place was closing, which began with a base of garlic, aged mozz, and feta, topped with basil, arugula, and a fresh egg. The egg was cracked over the center of the pie midway through its brief stint in the heat of the fire, then punctured to spread the scrumptious yolk across the whole pizza. Jeremy and Ferris graciously offered me a slice, and to call it good is an understatement. This was sublime, creative pizza. Normally I don't even like egg on pizza, but I loved this pie. I have my fingers crossed that Jeremy decides to stay on with Pizza Depokos, because he is a major talent and a key component to Ethan's already considerably realized vision.

Word about Pizza Depokos is going to spread rapidly. Both evenings I visited there was no wait at all, but I expect that to change once people realize what fantastic pizza they can get here, and how quickly they can get it. It's an asset to the neighborhood and an asset to Portland, and pizza aficionados throughout the city should take advantage of the tremendous food coming out of this tiny kitchen. Best of all, there is some serious love going into Ethan's pies, and you can taste it in every delicious bite.

As I mentioned earlier, Nick Zukin, the "ExtraMSG" of ExtraMSG.com and PortlandFood.org, has also composed a write-up of our journey, with full impressions of the pizzas we ate at Pyro and Wy'east. I highly recommended checking it out. He is extremely knowledgeable about food and knows what he is talking about, and I had a blast hanging out with him and hearing about both his past (growing up around restaurants) and his plans for future endeavors (if you think Kenny & Zuke's is the last you'll see of him, think again). Plus, he loves pizza. Along with Ethan Welt's unbridled enthusiasm for the craft, this made for an unforgettable evening, and I wish you all could have been there.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: 3-Cheese Pizza

(photo by Austin Haas)

Update 2/20/10 -- A return trip today with friends yielded two new pies: the Soppressata, and one of Jeremy's newest creations. The tomato sauce on the Soppressata pie, tangy to a fault the last time I'd tried it on the Margherita, was much more balanced this time around, and perfectly complimented the wide, meaty discs of soppressata.

(photo by Austin Haas)

The second pie consisted of smoked mozzarella, marinated onions, olive oil, Italian parsley, and sardines. Again, balance was spot on. The onions were cooked to perfection, with no sign of stringiness, and the cheese provided just a hint of smoke on the palate. The non-fish ingredients were pleasantly light, which worked quite well in tandem with the salt-bomb sardines. They may be a little too fishy for some, but if you think they're the bee's knees, then count your blessings if this pie makes it onto the Daily Specials board.

9 comments:

  1. Made my pilgrimage last night. Nice peoples. Tried the pesto, olive, fresh tomato, and cheese pie and their margherita.

    I really enjoyed the pesto pie. And their crust was muy delicioso. Your sauce analysis is spot on there. It was a little too rich for me, but then I'm more of an fresh sauce kinda guy. This one was heavily seasoned and cooked down—really pretty dense and also heavily applied. Generally, I thought they were a little heavy-handed on the toppings. But when the toppings are as good as that pesto, then I have very little to complain about.

    From eavesdropping on the other clientele, it seems like they already have some regulars. I hope this place keeps it up. It's a cool spot.

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  2. I have been to Ethan's place twice in the last two weeks, and have been extremely pleased with the pies he's delivered. On my first visit I had the Fennel Sausage pie, which also has fresh fennel added, and it was great. The second time I had the Sopressata, and again was not disappointed. The Caesar Salad was very good as well. The ingredients are fresh, the crust is delicious, and he has a passion for what he's doing.

    He told me that he hopes to be able to serve wine and beer soon, so that will be an added bonus. I hope he sees success beyond his wildest dreams.

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  3. It's been too long since I've swung by Depokos, and I really need to get over there soon. The fennel sausage pie sounds soooo good right now, and it's 11:30 at night!

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  4. Tried Depokos for the first time tonight. Had the #5-pesto, garlic, olive mozzarella and feta with fresh tomato sauce. Absolutely loved the crust! Toppings were well above average, but with a crust like think I don't care what you put on it. I can't believe I can get pizza this good with virtually no wait. This place now goes on the short list. I think this is better than Firehouse, but I need to get back up there again just to be sure.

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  5. Glad you liked it! Those guys really love pizza, and it shows. I actually haven't been back in a while, so I'm due for a return visit.

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  6. They need to get some micros, however. PBR just won't cut it for me.

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  7. Still going to see Ethan and consume his fantastic pizza, although he was closed for a couple of months (Dec and Jan). Went a week ago, and the time off didn't affect his touch at all. In fact he told me he has tweaked his dough recipe a touch. A friend and I shared the pepperoni with hot peppers and the soppresatta with olives, and both were superb. This is pizza at its best IMO.

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  8. @tomdorkey: Good to know. I don't live in Portland anymore, which is too bad because Depokos is some of the best in the city. Hopefully I can make it back again soon. Tell me, do you know if Jeremy is still working there?

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