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Street Food Profiles: Wy'east Pizza, Portland, Oregon

Another installment from my recent pizza tour of parts of the western U.S. Here, a pizza report and a Street Food Profile all in one—from perhaps the best city for street-fooding in the U.S.

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Wy'east Pizza, exterior

Wy'east Pizza

3131 SE 50th Avenue, Portland OR 97206 (SE Tibbets/Kelly, parking lot of Ruthie's Weaving Studio; map); wyeastpizza.com
Pizza Style: Thin-crust, almost New York–Neapolitan
Oven Type: Small propane-fired brick oven
The Skinny: Great pizza FROM A TRAILER. Yes. A trailer. Could use a little more flavor to the crust, but the simple and excellent toppings make up for that a bit. Good crisp-chewy crust. Caveat: Get there early. They run out of dough fast. And, because the oven can only do one pizza at a time, there may be a wait
Hours: Tues.–Sat., 4 to 8 p.m.
Price: $12 to $14 a pie, $1 discount for those arriving by bike or foot

After finishing dinner at Ken's Artisan Pizza, my friends Guddy and Belle pointed us toward a pizza joint that made me lose my s**t. Almost as much for the pizza—which was good but could have used a little more flavor in the crust—as for the digs in which it's made.

Check out that camper above and tell me that that is not one of the coolest street-food vehicles you've seen in a long time. As far as I'm concerned, the New York hipsters rockin' converted mail trucks and quilted-tin carts or the Seattle folks doing it in Airstreams ain't got nothin' on the street-vendin' people of Portland, who seem to have gravitated toward some sort of aesthetic that's more reminiscent of 1970s clandestine weed growers shacking up on federal land than of edibles. Though this might have been one of the nicest corrugated-side Brady Bunch–era campers I saw in Portland, it wasn't the only one. It seems to be the mobile kitchen of choice among the young DIY street-food set in the City of Roses.

But, yeah, anyway, back to the story. We ended up getting to Wy'east Pizza at 7 p.m. on Saturday, an hour before it officially closes. But even with an hour to go, Wy'east was on its last ball of dough. See, husband-and-wife owners Squish and Red only make 22 balls of dough a night, so you have to get there early. We were lucky to have snagged that last dough of the night, but our luck didn't last: Red told us that Squish had had some problems with the propane that fires the oven and on top of that he had been slammed with numerous dinnertime orders.

It would be at least an hour and 15 minutes, Red said. Fine with us, we had to digest our Ken's food, anyway, and Guddy lives a few blocks from Wy'east, so we just went there to hang after putting in an order for a half-Margherita, half-pepperoni pie.

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When we finally got our pizza, I was surprised to find it was more a larger, sort of thin-crust New York–style rather than a small Neapolitan-style pie. That surprise was mostly for the fact that the oven in the trailer is REALLY small. In fact, it can only do one pie at a time, which is a factor in some of the hold-up you might experience if you've got people in line in front of you.

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Wy'east gets the "pizza upskirt" treatment.

But the crust was crisp-chewy, nicely browned, and the toppings and sauce were top-notch. If the crust would have had just a bit more flavor, I would have been completely blown away by the quality of the pie as opposed to very much impressed. Because, yeah, this is some good pizza coming from a really crazy outlet.

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Red and Squish, making the most of a very small working space.

But anyway, I had talked to Squish and Red a bit while we were waiting for our pie, and then I did a follow-up with Squish via email. I'm just going to let the questions do the rest of the work here ...

When did you start selling pizza? And what were you doing before?

We opened the cart on July 1, 2009, so four months now. I worked in a handmade tile factory, and my wife, Red, worked for a nonprofit organization.

Where did you learn to make pizza?

Experiments in dough and pizza-making happened in our home kitchen for 1 1/2 years, during this time I was reading Raymond Calvel and anything by Peter Reinhart. I also got a chance to fill in at Apizza Scholls for a little while and work with the owner, Brian Spangler.

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Did you have any pizza role models or style of pizza you were/are shooting for?

I'm interested in affordable, healthy, thin-crust, minimal-topping/maximum-flavor pizza.

I think you said you make the dough by hand? In the trailer? Do you make the dough same day or is there a slow rise?

All dough is made by hand in the Wy'east camper. The preferment starts the night before and goes 12 hours, then the final dough is mixed and ferments for another six, for a total of 18 hours.

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The "hole structure" or "crumb" of a Wy'east crust.

Didn't you say you kept it in a Coleman cooler? Is that your proofing box?

We are longtime campers. You gotta have a Coleman cooler! Strict temperature controls happen in the cooler—either ice packs in the summer or hot water bottles in the winter.

You get the pepperoni from Otto's, I know, but what about the cheese and tomatoes?

The cheese comes from Wisconsin (our home state!) and Italy. The tomatoes are hand-selected in California.

Besides your own pizza, of course, what's your favorite pizza in Portland? What about favorite pizza EVER?

Like most things, "the best" is contextual. I like places that feel comfortable and welcoming and play good music. It's hard for me to separate the "pizza" from the environment. We are lucky people and are passionately preserving the time-honored traditions of pizza-baking here in Portland.

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Now, the trailer. It's really cool. Did you have a hard time finding it? I noticed a lot of PDX vendors are using those old-school camping trailers. Are they still easy to find? Why use that instead of, say, a dedicated food truck?

Campers like ours are not difficult to find. Converting them to a working kitchen takes time and meticulous planning. The average dedicated food truck costs around $20,000. We got ours for $650. Many of our decisions were based on the fact we were working with a very limited budget. We had to do a lot of research about what the trailer needed to pass health codes, zoning codes, and fire codes. It's important to note that in a food cart situation you can not be hooked up to the sewer. You must aquire your fresh water and dispose of your waste water. We have no heat, (except for an 800 degree oven) or no air-conditioning. This can make dough production quite challenging.

You recently ramped up to 22 doughs a day from 13. First: Why the odd numbers? Why not, say, 14 or 15 doughs or 25 doughs? Second: Do you plan on making more daily doughballs or are you limited by your production method?

The numbers are just what the recipe turns out, and we are slightly odd people. Being open for four hours a night allows us to make 22 pizzas. We think we may have reached our max already without compromising the quality. Our goal is to make it through the dark, rainy season and then brainstorm how we might be able to tweek the business hours a bit in the spring to increase production.

OK. That's all the pizza-specific questions I have for now. Here are ... THE USUAL QUESTIONS ...

Are you on Twitter? If so, how has it affected business?

No Twitter. We have a Facebook page one can access through our website.

Why a mobile business over brick-and-mortar?

Money. We want to see how this works without a huge financial commitment. We believe in "micro-economics."

Who are your typical customers? Any special regulars?

Bicyclists and bipedals receive $1 off each pizza. We offer this discount to discourage automobile dependency and believe it is establishing the neighbors, bikers, walkers, and public transporters as our regulars.

Describe a typical day from start to finish.

My typical day looks like:

How would you define "street food"?

Fast, cheap, fresh, unique.

The best street food city and why?

Portland! It's the only one I know.

Your comfort food after a long day?

Beer brewed in Oregon.

Advice for aspiring vendors?

It's a great affordable way of getting started in the food service business.

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