In just two short years, Ken’s Artisan Pizza has become the stuff of Pizza Legends on the West Coast. Having known and understood owner Ken Forkish’s food credo–essentially the best of everything, always–it was of little surprise to me that the restaurant has become an institution on Portland’s East Side. The building, the atmosphere and most of all the food have received ceaseless praise in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Ken himself is a Portland institution. His artisan bakery is the standard bearer for both pastries and loaves, and fortuitously founds itself in the heart of the booming Pearl District. At some point, though, Ken apparently decided that supplying bread for almost every savvy eatery in town was nice, but perhaps not enough. Thus he embarked on his pizza odyssey, cutting nary a corner along the way.
As a wood fired pizzeria, the oven was, of course, of paramount importance to the venture. Word has it that Ken tried several different ovens before eventually flying to San Francisco with his Pizzaiolo to give the Le Panyol Model 180 at the San Francisco Baking Institute a go. The response, was apparently good because a custom Model 180 built by Maine Wood Heat’s good friend Timothy Seaton of Timely Construction is now the heart of the restaurant.
A visit to Ken’s was a pilgrimage of sorts for me. I attended college in Portland and learned to love food and cooking while working in a few wonderful restaurants there afterward. Everyone, it seems, is a foodie in Portland, so I took my friend’s–beer brewers, chefs, wine makers, servers–ringing endorsements of the Ken’s food seriously.
On the night I visited the warm glow of the wood fired oven was particularly alluring due to the fact that Portland was blanketed in a very unusual 12″ of snow. The space itself was masterfully create by Fix Studio, a local restaurant design powerhouse that never fails to inspire awe while simultaneously eschewing glitz. Everything in the place seems to be made of the iconic Northwestern Douglas Fir–all of it salvaged from a once great roller coaster trestle that stood on the coast from 1928-1970.
The snow had done nothing to quell the notorious wait for a table, but it pretty much goes without saying that neither sleet nor snow nor rain will keep Portlanders from delicious pizza. So wait we did, and Ken and his staff graciously indulged “the oven guy” with his camera and crew of college friends in the wings.
The huge Le Panyol wood fired oven is the only cooking appliance in the restaurant, and the speed and dexterity with which the chefs manage the oven is impressive. Appetizers in fry pans slide in and out with almost the same frequency as the pizzas, all while salads are prepped rapid fire, captivating the legions waiting for a turn at a table. Lest anyone doubt the establishment’s commitment to fresh, high quality ingredients, just feet away from the oven sits a deli slicer, on hand to produce sheet after sheet of translucent prosciutto.
Upon being seated, our main priority was to avoid impulsively ordering one of everything on the menu. Wood fire roasted beets! Wood fire roasted brussel sprouts! Wood fired guanciale with greens! And that was just the appetizers. For pizza, you could literally close your eyes and stab at the menu with a finger and you’re guaranteed to have made a sound choice. The arugula margarita was a given, Pacific Northwest wild mushrooms beckoned, and roasted squash demanded to be enjoyed with a beautiful pint of Full Sail Wassail.
Many, many restaurant reviewers have thus far attempted to translate the Ken’s Artisan Pizza experience into words, and all have failed. I won’t bore you with further accolades and flowery language, I will just implore you to go. If pizza is important to you and if you’re at all interested in see just what a Le Panyol wood fired oven is truly capable of, just GO!