Josh Johnston, contrary to pretty much everyone else in Portland, is betting on downtown.
When the co-owner of Pacific Crust Pizza Company was presented with the opportunity to relocate his business from Northeast Alberta Street to the former Crown space adjacent to Hotel Lucia, he didn’t let the surrounding vacant restaurants deter him. Instead, Johnston envisioned the return of a thriving city center, and he’s planning to be there for it.
“If we do this right, we want [to become] some sort of hub downtown for tourism,” he says. “There’s not much more prime real estate than Broadway, and the hotel was desperate to get some food and beverage in there. It worked out as a win-win, so we moved.”
Four months in, that gamble appears to be paying off.
Stumbling across Pacific Crust right now can feel like a bit of a surprise—amid blocks of boarded-up storefronts, one corner of downtown has been roused from its pandemic hibernation. A vibrant orange awning and matching logo that mirrors the Pacific Crest Trail emblem—the rounded triangle has been replaced by pyramid-sharp pizza slices—beckon passersby. And if that doesn’t catch your eye, the 10-foot-tall doorman—a smiling Sasquatch carving—certainly will.
Though once you’re through the front doors, downtown practically evaporates behind you. That’s because Pacific Crust has fully embraced its Northwest outdoors theme and pitched a king-sized tent in its dining room by draping the interior in white canvas. To underscore the glamping motif, Coleman-style lanterns and climbing rope are here for decorative purposes rather than utilitarian ones.
Visiting Pacific Crust’s new home is vastly different when compared to what customers experienced at the original location. For starters, you can now have a seat indoors.
When Johnston and his team at Independent Restaurant Concepts (Paddy’s, Produce Row, North 45) were trying to figure out how to spend the remaining months of their lease at former sports bar the Station, they decided to launch a prototype of the pizzeria they’d long considered. Culinary director Aaron Dionne began experimenting with the company’s pizza ovens, and a delivery-only operation got underway in October 2020—literally out the back door.
“The feedback we were getting was really funny,” says Johnston. “It said, ‘Wow, really great pizza, but I feel like I’m doing a drug deal.’ Because they were walking up to the back kitchen door [and told to] ring this bell, stay here, someone will answer.”
Dark alley handoffs aside, Pacific Crust built a following big enough to justify the move to a more permanent location, where customers not only come and go through a proper front entrance; they can also now stick around and eat.
The relocation came with another perk: the Montague gas oven that powered the Crown, Vitaly Paley’s pizza joint, which folded due to COVID. The stove was a considerable upgrade.
“The one we were dealing with before was kind of a nightmare. It took a lot of manipulation,” Dionne says. “Each pizza, instead of being able to just drop it and turn it once, we were doing three, four, five turns. Vitaly was kind enough to leave me a nice oven.”
The pies now coming out of the Montague—set at 650 degrees—blur the line between New York and New Haven styles, which is a delightful hybrid for those who like to fold their slices as easily as a book yet appreciate a hefty rim for its chew and crunch. Dionne allows his dough to rise for three days and has dialed in a very precise 62% hydration, making for a springy bite.
Despite the time and effort it took to perfect that crust, you’ll likely take it for granted as just another sturdy vehicle to shovel toppings into your mouth, because those ingredients are what help Pacific Crust stand out in an ever-congested pizza town. The menu is modeled after a key for hiking trails and divided into three sections (“Easy,” “Intermediate” and “Expert”) to help you decide how adventurous you want your meal to be. And just know that here risk takers will be rewarded.
Take, for instance, the Peak Bagger ($24, $35), which is studded with fennel sausage that Pacific Crust elevates by use of a 50-50 elk-pork blend. The large crumbles would be just as welcome in a chili or with pasta, but Dionne makes the sausage the star by placing it on a pie. Its hint of sweetness amplifies similar notes in ribbons of caramelized onion and fontina, yet it also pushes back with a mild heat.
That pizza shares a base with the Switchback ($21, $30), though the sauce is more prominent in the meatless option. An arugula pesto prepared with pumpkin seeds as a nut-allergy workaround is herbaceous and refreshing, and thanks to the addition of halved tomatoes (cherry or grape, depending on what’s freshest), a slice eats like a summer’s day trip to the farmers market served as inspiration.
Pacific Crust’s greatest strength is its ability to allow each topping to have its moment. Save for the taste bud-searing Bear Spray ($23, $33), whose combination of chiles overpower the soppressata and green olives, no single component ever dominates.
Nowhere is that better exhibited than in the Traverse ($23, $33), a crimson-and-gold disc of lightly smoked tomato sauce and plump corn kernels adorned with a tuft of peppery arugula. The flavors come in welcome waves. First, there’s the fusel-like truffle shavings, then the sweetness of the black pepper honey rolls in. That’s followed by ripples of blue-cheese funk.
That standout pie also just so happens to be in the menu’s Expert category—proof that just like in hiking, taking the difficult route always results in a more rewarding experience.
EAT: Pacific Crust Pizza Company, 400 SW Broadway, 503-719-5010, pacificcrustpizzaco.com. 11 am-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday.