Portland, OR 97217
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
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
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.
RECOMMENDED: 3-Cheese Pizza
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.
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.