Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: Leyla's Pizza - Austin, TX

Pizza may be the perfect pandemic food. Hot from the oven, it's certainly among the safer choices in takeout dining. Moreover, serious pizza eaters always reheat at home if they have to choose takeout over dining in. During covid19, pizza is the only food I've eaten that wasn't prepared in my home. 

When I order a takeout pie, I asked for it unsliced. After 5-10 minutes on a middle oven rack, it's ready for consumption, with crispness renewed. I've relied on some local favorites, mostly Casa Nostra in Spicewood and 'Zza in Bee Cave, but for the first time since February, I targeted a new place.

Fetch Food Park, Hamilton Pool Road

Hamilton Pool Road is the only path connecting two of Austin's western suburbs, Bee Cave and Dripping Springs. It's mostly rural, running through plenty of ranches, and it's the route to Hamilton Pool Preserve, an iconic natural swimming pool in a canyon below a 50-ft waterfall, surrounded by a grotto. 

Along this scenic road you'll find the eccentric Fetch Food Park, home to a dog park and different trailers including The Original Dog Treat Truck Company, Big Mex BBQ, Leyla's Kitchen (Lebanese food), and Leyla's Pizza. Fetch Food Park is pet friendly and committed to donating a portion of sales to nonprofits making spay/neuter and vet care more affordable and accessible. 

West Chester represents!

The name "Leyla" is tagged to a number of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurants in the Austin suburbs, including a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Cedar Park. I'm intrigued to try the Lebanese fare at Leyla's Kitchen, but we came for the pizza, of course. 

The white pie

Leyla touts "New York style" pizza, and even features the image of an east coast map spanning Philly-to-New York all over the side of its bright red trailer. Curiously, the map includes my pre-Texas home of West Chester, PA! Good omens. Leyla's also features salads, calzones, and an assortment of "Italian style" sandwiches.

Meat lover's pizza

I called ahead and ordered two large pizzas. One was a white pie with ricotta cheese, spinach, garlic, mozzarella, and Pecorino Romano cheese ($21 for a huge 18" pie); the other was the "Meat Lover's" pizza featuring house-made pizza sauce, mozzarella, sausage, pepperoni, and bacon ($22).  After a 15 minute drive home, they got an 8-minute reheat at 350. The pies were so big that they barely fit onto the oven rack.

Even cut into 16 slices, each slice was substantial on these big pies. Visually, they both sported the look of a New York style pizza, with a broad golden cornicione. Texturally, too, it had that "slightly crisp but mostly foldable" character of east coast pie. 

Underside reveals the screen markings

Ultimately, the success of any pizza is built on the crust. The crust here was medium thick and pliable, but sturdy enough to support the toppings. The flavor was OK for a supporting player role, but it was not so good that you'd eat it unadorned. For my taste, I'd prefer more salt, oil, and moisture.

Like another nearby east coast style pizzeria, Jersey Giant in Bee Cave, this huge pie was cooked on a screen, with the tell-tale marking on the underside of the crust. Was this New York style? It's really more like Jersey Strip Mall style, and I say that with love and respect. I appreciate that approach to pizza, so ubiquitous in the east, even more now that I'm in Texas. There's no shortage of great pizza in the Austin region, but this stuff is a taste of home.

Hamilton Pool

The white pie was a nice exercise in restraint. The toppings were well balanced and applied in the right proportions. The ricotta, not always a winner on pizza due to its high moisture content, hit the right notes here. The red "meat lovers" pizza was more typical of an east coast pie, featuring a vibrant red sauce melded into the generous amount of mozzarella, with plenty of salty umami coming from the three meats.

I never thought I'd find great pizza in the Austin suburbs, but there's plenty. We have St. Louis style at 'Zza, Detroit style at Via 313, New York style at Toss, and tons of great Neapolitan pie at places like Casa Nostra, Sorellina, and Pieous

More surprising is finding Jersey Strip Mall pizza, but with Leyla's and Jersey Giant, there's two out here in Hill Country. Even when I was in the east, strip mall style was not my first choice, but it's a solid option. When we finally get covid behind us, we'll bring the pooch and dine right there in Fetch Food Park. 

Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Tonari Japanese Deep-Dish Pizza

What would happen if an Italian restaurant in Tokyo customized a Detroit-style deep dish pizza to the tastes of its local Japanese customers? Perhaps the result would be something like the pizza on the menu at Tonari, a Washington DC spot for wafu (Japanese-style) Italian noodle dishes and pizza.

Tonari is not Japanese-Italian fusion food, but instead pasta and pizza wafu, meaning "in the Japanese way." Although the pizza was the draw, we made a point to sample the appetizers and two of the pasta dishes.

We had two appetizers, both of them simple, fresh, and uncomplicated. We enjoyed a small dish of warm olives that were adorned with a few cloves of roasted garlic and some mild peppers. Even better was a plate of roasted shishito peppers, enhanced only with salt and olive oil. These small greens served as a backdrop for the complex flavors and textures to follow.
Every pasta sounded wonderful; it was hard to turn down the "Napolitan" with onion, piman, kurobuta sausage, button mushroom, tabasco, ham, ketchup sauce, and pecorino over spaghetti. "Ketchup sauce" seems off-putting at first, but Spaghetti Napolitan is the earliest and most basic Japanese attempt at Italian food with its ketchup-based sauce that stays sweet but intensifies in the pan.
Shirasu pasta
We did lean toward the "most Japanese" dishes, which took us to seafood pasta choices. The Shirasu pasta, a dish of tagliatelle noodles, was both umami laden and elegantly simple with olive oil, baby sardines, garlic, and red pepper flakes. 
Uni (sea urchin) pasta
Several umami levels up was the Uni pasta, featuring uni (sea urchin), soy, mirin, butter, sake, kombu dashi, and aonori over bigoli noodles. One small bit of that earthy sea creature lent a depth of flavor to the entire dish. It was spectacular.

All of the pizza here is - deliberately or coincidentally - Detroit style. Each pie is baked in a deep pan greased with rice oil that yields a thick, square crust made from Hokkaido wheat flour. The edges are dark brown, crunchy, and caramelized but in the dim light we weren't sure if the edges were brown with overflowing cheese or just the oiled dough. 

Despite that formidable crunchy crust, the interior of the dough is white, soft, and pillowy.  Texturally, while it resembles some of the best thick and airy pizzas like the ones at Rize in West Chester PA and Via 313 in Austin TX, it was distinctly different from any pizza crust I've ever eaten. The dough is fermented for up to three days to develop a structure that is common to Japanese white bread. Beyond its delectable silky interior and crunchy edges, it had a wonderfully complex flavor even without the toppings.

Like our pasta strategy, we also sought out the "most Japanese" pizza, opting for the Mentaiko & Corn pie that included brick cheese, mentaiko (cod roe) cream, Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) corn puree, and scallions. Riding atop this sturdy base was a lavaflow of that creamy concoction. It was quite slathered with this rich topping, but the crust was up to the task, even as it was messy to eat without knife and fork.

This pizza was almost as spectacular as the uni pasta with its wild mix of textures and flavors. We savored every bite, and I'd love to go back to try the clam pie or the simple pepperoni version that includes canned Jersey tomatoes.

We finished with a dessert called grapefruit granite, made with shaved grapefruit ice, campari, vanilla gelato, and shiso (an herb from the mint family). Just as the green appetizers served as a platform to dive into the deep end of the umami pool populated by the pasta and pizza, this cool concoction was the perfect exit ramp, tart and sweet and crunchy and creamy.

We came for the pizza, but this was a transcendant meal from start to finish. Go out of your way to get to Tonari; wafu waiting for?

Daikaya Izakaya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: Midtown Pizza (by H-E-B)

H-E-B, a chain of 350 supermarkets in Texas and Mexico, ranks 12th among the largest American private companies. I describe it in east coast terms as "Wegmans quality at ShopRite prices." It has quickly become one of my favorite things about Texas, and so I had some confidence in buying an H-E-B branded frozen pizza.

While the low end of frozen pizza isn't much better than it was 30 years ago, today there are some still-cheap versions that are worth the calories. Some of the best ones are replicas of the pizzas sold at iconic pizzerias like Roberta's (Brooklyn) or Gino's East (Chicago). The other reliable path to a decent frozen pizza is to seek out those that are imported, like the Italian varieties at Trader Joe's or the surprising German imports at ALDI.

Midtown Pizza at H-E-B boasts that the stone-baked crust is imported from Italy, which makes for an interesting hybrid when the toppings are sourced and added in Texas. This particular pie is topped with spicy Italian sausage, red peppers, caramelized onion, tomatoes, provolone, and mozzarella. H-E-B carries several varieties of Midtown Pizza; they clock in at 14-16 ounces and are priced from $5 to $6 (more for pies with meat). 
Frozen pizza, before baking at home
It looked promising even before I baked it, but I did need to redistribute the sausage and the red peppers, which had clustered on one side of the pizza surface. It had spent a few months in my freezer and some of the toppings may have come loose on the trip home from the store. 
Remarkable texture
The entire pie clocks in at 880 calories, which is pretty modest by frozen pizza standards. Like a typical Neapolitan, this pie was personal-size, but big enough to share for two.

Visually, the crust had the look of a genuine Neapolitan pizza, with a puffy leopard-spotted cornicione. I baked it at 425 degrees for 12 minutes, directly on an oven rack, and sliced it into 8 small pieces.

The flavors of this pizza were spot-on. The mozzarella had a creamy element and the provolone added some nice sharp notes. The sausage was both plentiful and tasty; the tomato sauce was a role player to bring it all together.

The crust itself had an excellent flavor; in fact at some H-E-B stores you can buy a two-pack of these crusts to concoct your own custom pizza. Mine was a little moist in the center and dry at the edges, but I suspect that the imperfect moisture distribution was due to the fact that it had been in my freezer too long.
Authentic Neapolitan style crust
There was remarkable flavor, texture, and balance for a frozen pizza. Imagine you froze leftover slices from a legitimate Neapolitan pizza in your neighborhood; this pizza tastes like that reheated leftover Neapolitan might. Not as good as oven-fresh, but better than the stuff from the big chains.

It's hard to beat a legitimate $6 Neapolitan pizza in your freezer; H-E-B has a winner with Midtown Pizza.

Café Mueller by H-E-B Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato