Best Restaurants 2016: Pizza Punk

Portland’s Best Pizza Spot That Almost Flamed Out: Pizza Jerk

Tommy Habetz didn’t let a major fire stop him from making top-notch pizza.

By Kelly Clarke October 10, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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The Jerk's deep dish

The Jerk was toast. Flames licked the side of Cully’s Pizza Jerk while staffers hustled diners, including 15 Rigler Elementary grade schoolers, to safety. It was lunchtime in June, during one of the hottest, driest weeks of the year, and an electrical box on the north side of the ratty, 93-year-old building had caught fire. Later, as the roof sizzled and caved in, co-owner/chef Tommy Habetz looked on from across NE 42nd. He remembers thinking, “Welp, that’s it. I’m ruined. I’m done for.”

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Tommy Hebetz stands amid Pizza Jerk's reconstruction

Since last winter, the eccentric spot opened by the Bunk Sandwich cofounder and friends had been a magnet for foodies and families. Habetz topped his East Coast–style pies with bright, fruity marinara, puddles of Grande mozzarella, and teeny Molinari pepperoni. But he also spun wildly creative rounds, like a spicy Asian-inspired “Dan Dan” pizza slicked with chile oil and layered with char siu pork and charred mustard greens. Off-duty chefs packed the high-back booths while toddlers wobbled around the dining room to the guttural shouts of Black Flag. Out back, the crew was slowly transforming a weedy parking lot into a lush garden stocked with rare Italian tomatoes and Asian herbs.

“The morning of the fire, I’d been standing in the kitchen thinking how great things had been going,” Habetz recalls. “It’s crazy to be so helpless—unreal. Like the stuff of a movie.”

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Two knowledgeable fans

But, to misquote an actual movie: Fire cannot stop good pizza, only delay it for a while. Eight weeks later, even with the windows still boarded up, Bon Appétit crowned Pizza Jerk one of its 50 Best New Restaurants in the Country, singling it out as Pizzeria of the Year. Other restaurants found temporary jobs for Habetz’s staffers. And in early September, the Jerk reopened with a new roof, plans for an expanded pinball room, and a row of psychedelic lightboxes that look lifted from the 1980s-era basement in Stranger Things. The families returned, as did the chalkboard roster of signature pizzas, sauce-drooling eggplant parm sandwiches, stoner fried rice, and Dairy Queen–style soft serve, twirled with Flavor Burst syrups.

Once again, the Jerk is on fire. 

(For more, check out our March 2016 review of Pizza Jerk.)

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