Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
Pizza By Alex
5040-44 W. Montrose Avenue, Chicago IL 60641 (map); 773-427-8900; pizzabyalex.com
Getting There: Blue Line to Montrose, walk half mile west; or take #56 Milwaukee Ave. bus to Montrose
Pizza Style: Chicago thin crust
Oven Type: Wood-burning oven
The Skinny: Decent pizzas worth trying for innovative Mexican toppings
Price: 14-inch specialties, $13.95
Note(s): It's BYOB; liquor store around corner on Milwaukee Avenue
Inspired by a recent mini-run of nontraditional pizzas that has included macaroni and cheese pizza and bulgogi beef pizza, I headed to Portage Park to continue the trend. The neighborhood has long been home to Chicago's largest Polish community, which is saying something, given the city's huge Polish population, but inexplicably does not, to my knowledge, have a pizzeria with distinctly Polish pies (anyone besides me up for sauerkraut and Polish sausage pizza?). Recently, there has been a rapid increase in the neighborhood's Latino population and businesses, including Pizza By Alex, which has been serving up Mexican-influenced pies since 2004.
Alex Pinega learned the pizza business at Caponie's, where he rose from dishwasher to general manager. After developing his pizza-making expertise, he went out on his own and founded Pizza By Alex. Caponie's is home to one of the oldest still-active wood-burning pizza ovens in Chicago (which, at less than 20 years, isn't saying much), and Pinega opted to continue the tradition at his pizzeria, where he did well enough that, less than two years after opening as a take-out-only operation, he expanded into the storefront next door and added a sit-down restaurant.
I had been to Pizza By Alex before and knew what I was there to order: the Pizza di Pastor, which is advertised as having steak pastor, grilled onions, pineapple, and a choice of red or green sauce. I asked if it would be possible to have the red sauce on half the pizza and green on the other and was told that would not be a problem. Both sauces are more salsas than pizza sauces. The red is a smooth red salsa, while the green is a salsa verde with some guacamole mixed in. Both sauces have a decent kick to them, but the red, which does not have the cooling avocado mixed in, is a bit spicier.
When my pizza arrived, I was surprised to make a couple of discoveries. On the bright side, they decided to add some Mexican chorizo to the pie (spicy cooked Mexican chorizo is vastly different from the cured Spanish and Portuguese varieties). Chorizo is a topping that I think should be offered much more often, particularly in a city like Chicago, which has such a large Mexican population.
The other discovery I made was a disappointing one—the steak pastor was a basic roast beef. Pastor (whether beef or the more common pork) is supposed to be cooked on a spit, which results in outstanding crisp, chewy goodness from the parts of the meat that were exposed to the heat. This meat had none of that. It was fine roast beef, although a little dry, but even a good roast beef is a far cry from steak pastor. I really enjoyed the toppings despite the lack of true pastor. The spice from the two sauces and the chorizo was softened by the cheese and complemented well by the sweet pineapple.
In addition to the pie I had on this visit, I am a big fan of the Pizza Ranchera (chipotle sauce, chorizo, beans, mushrooms, and onions). Both the Pizza di Pastor and the Pizza Ranchera offer solid evidence of pizza's place as one of the most versatile foods, and they are worth checking out. On the other hand, Pizza By Alex's pies that use traditional tomato sauce have been OK in my experience but not worth the trek out to Portage Park.
Unfortunately, despite the wood-burning oven, I was not a fan of the crust at Pizza By Alex on this visit. It was not terrible, but it was rather bland and, despite some light charring, had virtually no crispness or chewiness on the bottom. In fact, the middle pieces of the tavern-cut pie were a little soggy. I have had better crusts there, texturally, but never a great one. I think the oven, which cooks at between 500 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit, does not get hot enough to fully crisp whatever flour-water ratio is used in the crust, but I am far from a bread expert.
A few final notes: Pizza By Alex has offered a pretty good special each month. From April 17 through May 12, they are offering two 16-inch one-topping pizzas and a two-liter bottle of pop for $15.99. They do sell stuffed and deep-dish pizzas, and while I can't comment on the stuffed, I have had the deep dish, and it was not particularly good. Last, and most important, Pizza by Alex is BYOB, and there is a liquor store right around the corner on Milwaukee Avenue.