Blazing new trails in the pizza world is tricky, but Portland is one of the best places to try.
With no particular style of pie to call our own, we've instead evolved into a melting pot of regional styles introduced by transplant chefs. At the onset of this decade, the crispy, coal-fired crust of New Haven-style "apizza" was poised to take over. And it was only a few years ago that the square-shaped, sauce-heavy slices from Detroit were deemed the new big thing.
And if veteran restaurateur Nick Zukin has his way, Mexican-style deep dish is next.
Named in homage to left-wing revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Zapapizza opened in a wayward storefront near Roseland Theater in September following a month of the usual internet hand-wringing over culinary appropriation. But unless you've personally paid a visit to Pizza del Perro Negro—the punk-rock pizzeria in Mexico City that Zukin says inspired him—the debate dies once you've actually sat down and tried the offerings yourself. (Full disclosure: Nick Zukin is an occasional WW contributor.) Sure, the slices are topped with taquitos and chilaquiles. But the heart of Zapapizza isn't the novelty of the toppings. It's the pizza itself. And that pizza is damn good.
Diners of a certain age may have fond memories of receiving a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut if they received straight A's or read enough books in elementary school. For those of us who suffered through cheap frozen pizza as a reward for good behavior, that thick, buttery crust with the light snap at the end of the bite was a rare treat. You're grown up now, and have been conditioned to worship fanatical pizza chefs who obsess over the vintage of their pizza dough starter and the terroir of the wood in their ovens. But it's still hard to deny the occasional urge to sink your teeth into the crust of a pillowy, buttery slice that's unashamedly unsophisticated.
For all its experimentation, those are the memories Zapapizza tugs at the strongest. At around $4 a slice, it just barely overshoots the threshold of what most would consider a good value. But the choice of toppings do plenty to justify the price.
The Taquito Pizza ($4.25 a slice, $28.50 for a whole pie) is a guileless display of excess, with heaps of smooth sour cream, tangy green sauce and chunky cotija forming a sort of chalk outline after the potato and cheese taquito slides right off the top on your first bite. The Zaparoni ($4.25 a slice, $28.50 for a whole pie) suffers a similar fate, but the spicy jalapeños and tiny, crispy circles of pepperoni are good enough to eat with a fork.
The structural integrity of the crust, however, is truly a thing of beauty. It's resilient and just crispy enough to maintain shape while loaded down with all the toppings, but without any sort of toughness that would turn each bite into a wrestling match. The end result shares more DNA with Chicago than Mexico. Skip to the "Traditional Pan Pizza" section of the menu, in fact, and you'll find a close approximation to Midwest-style casserole, minus the gobs of stringy cheese and nearly hourlong bake times. The Meat Lovers ($4.25) is a gluttonous, nap-inducing diversion from the Mexican fare. One slice is more than enough.
There's still room for improvement as Zapapizza steadies its footing. The warmth of each slice varied wildly on a pair of visits—understandable considering the modular fashion in which they're assembled to order. You're better off with a whole pie if you're willing to wait 20 to 30 minutes, which has the added bonus of unlocking access to a handful of whole-pie-only options. The fantastic Chilaquiles Pizza ($24.50) adds tortilla chips slathered in sour cream, cotija and green sauce to create what's essentially nachos on a pizza. There's also a weekend-only Chile Relleno pie ($38.50), which is a serious upgrade over the so-weird-it's-good Taquito Pizza.
The Valentina wings ($7.50 for six, $10.50 for nine, $13.50 for 12) lack the heat and tang most die-hard wing fans crave, while the ranch is herbaceous but otherwise bland. Only a handful of simple cocktails most proper bars wouldn't bother printing on the menu were available on our visits, and the bar itself appears to be in a state of purgatory. It's likely Zukin is still searching for an angle that won't step on the mezcal-heavy menu at his other restaurant, Mi Mero Mole, which is right around the corner. So for now, it's a generous tap list of 15 Mexican classics and local craft beer favorites.
For now, Zapapizza's strengths are the unorthodox toppings and the marvelous crust that keeps it all together. That should be good enough to keep the place afloat until the other areas improve. But even if the non-marquee items stay below par, Zapapizza cooks up some of the best pizza this side of the river has seen in a long time.
EAT: Zapapizza, 503 W Burnside St., 971-373-8287,
zapapizzapdx.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday, noon-
10 pm Saturday, noon-9 pm Sunday.