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Portland, Oregon: Ken's Artisan Pizza

You're probably wondering why it's been a bit quiet around here around Slice lately. Well, I'm on a crazy mission. I'm eating pizza in various western states this week on a whirlwind trip of five cities. Seriously, it's been nonstop travel with barely time to offload pics from my cameras. I'm just now catching up.

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Ken's Artisan Pizza, bacon pie, partial

Ken's Artisan Pizza (top) is in a quiet residential neighborhood in Southeast Portland, a couple blocks south of Burnside and the more hoppin' part of SE 28th Avenue. That doesn't stop people from lining up before the place opens for creations like the Bacon Pie (above). [Photographs: Adam Kuban]

Ken's Artisan Pizza

304 SE 28th Avenue, Portland OR 97214; map); 503-517-9951; kensartisan.com/pizza.html
Pizza Style: Artisanal. Somewhat Neapolitan but not really.
Oven Type: A massive wood-burning beauty
The Skinny: Ken's Artisan Pizza is the outgrowth of weekly Monday pizza nights that baker Ken Forkish used to do at Ken's Artisan Bread in Northwest Portland. So popular, he opened a pizzeria

Lines, lines, lines. I've stood in them at Frank Pepe's and Sally's Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut. I've frittered away countless hours of my life waiting for Di Fara's Dom DeMarco, in Brooklyn, to do his thing. The Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge is famous for its line. This is all somewhat understandable; all these pizzerias are in cities known for the cheesy pies they produce.

So the thought of Portland, Oregon, having not one but two line-worthy pizzerias flummoxed me. See, I lived in Portland in the late '90s, and back then, there was no wait-worthy pizza. But I'd heard in various pizza circles and from my new friend, This Is Pizza's Adam Lindsley, that you'd better get to Ken's Artisan Pizza shortly before it opened if you wanted to be in the first seating of the night. (Yes, I mentioned there being two places; I'll post about the second one in a future entry.)

And so, I found myself once again, after a nine-year absence, on Southeast 28th Avenue, a strip that was at once familiar and quite a bit changed by the real estate boom of the early aughts-zeros.

Ken's Artisan Pizza, exterior

I arrived at Ken's at 4:45 p.m. (it opens at 5 p.m.), and there was already a mini line consisting of a young couple and toddler and some other dude. Within the next five minutes, it was around the corner and past the windows you see on the left of the building.

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The place filled up fast (above), and even though I was third in line, we almost didn't get a seat. This Is Pizza's Adam Lindsley showed up just before opening, but two other members of our party were just a tad late and the hostess put us in a holding pattern, understandably, not wanting to give up a four-top table without everyone present.

But all was fine once my friends showed up. We got a table right by the window with perfect light and ordered the following ...

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An arugula pie, at my friends Guddy and Belle's suggestion. I'm usually not into salad on pizza, and I was surprised that Guddy, a hearty Chicago native, recommended it, so I figured it had something going for it. It wasn't my favorite pie of the Ken's visit, but I'd order it again. Plus, as the first pizza stop of this mad trip, I was preemptively trying to get some greens into my itinerary.

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Of course we did a Margherita. I want to sample a plain, stripped-down pie at all the places in addition to a pie that is considered the place's specialty. As longtime Slice readers know, I've found the Marghertia or a plain cheese pizza a good way to benchmark a pizzeria's performance. You can more easily taste the flavor of the crust, sauce, and cheese.

And Ken's Margherita didn't disappoint. Befitting its bakery roots, KAP's crust is flavorful, crisp, and chewy. Whereas with many pizzas, you feel sort of an obligation to finish the crust even if it's bland (well, at least I do), you'd have no such problem with Ken's crust. It needs no embellishment, though it doesn't hurt to sop up any fallen sauce with these "pizza bones."

Despite the trend toward "artisanal" pizza, Ken's is one of the few places I've seen use the term in its name. And I soon found out why. Despite the size of the pies and the use of a gigantic wood-burning oven, Ken's really is less "Neapolitan" than just plain "artisan" (whatever "artisan" means).

There are little embellishments on the Naples style. Like this: As I had read on Lindsley's blog, the sauce, a tangy swath of orange-red, takes on some heat from a little bit of chile flakes and some added savoriness from fennel seeds.

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Here's the Fennel Sausage, Onion, and Calabrian Chile Pizza. With the strong Margherita base topped with excellent sausage and fiery chiles, how could you not love this thing? This was my favorite of the Ken's portion of the evening.

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And here's the upskirt. Yeah, it's probably not as "leopard spotted" as some folks would like, but I assure you it was flavorful, crisp, and chewy.

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And here's the oven where the magic happens. This thing is gigantic. I've never seen a wood-oven as big as this one.

I'm going to have to cut this report short, as I'm writing from the airport and my plane to my next destination is about to board. I'll be back atcha later today with action from Apizza Scholls.

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