Raleigh, NC: Step into the Van with Klausie’s Pizza

By Jeremy | NewRaleigh.com

One of the truly under-appreciated food scenes in the Triangle is that of food trucks.  The Triangle boasts some innovative and great-tasting food from trucks like Bulkogi, Only Burger, and Raleigh-based Klausie’s Pizza.  In addition to daily challenges—from acquiring product to finding places to maximize their business potential—food trucks in Raleigh are also dealing with a legalization fight that doesn’t allow them to set up their businesses downtown.

In an attempt to find business outside of Raleigh, Klausie’s owner Mike Stenke has begun setting up in Durham regularly. He was kind enough to allow me to sit in on the truck for a Saturday night at Fullsteam Brewery to see how his pizza is made.

In only six short months of existence, Mike Stenke has been featured on NPR’s “The Story”, the Raleigh News and Observer, and in segments on WRAL and NBC 17.  My initial curiosity was all about the pizza, but I came to realize that you can’t talk about food trucks without considering the unique challenges that their owners and employees face daily. While cooking, Stenke and his crew have to be ready to take on customers, weather, local events, and—sometimes—just plain bad luck.

On the Saturday I spent in the Klausie’s truck, business was slower than usual because of the Duke vs. UNC basketball game.  But that didn’t stop Mike from making conversation with everyone who stopped by.

“I always ask everyone how they are doing today,” he says. As a food-truck owner, Mike possesses a blend of cooking and social skills. He takes orders and makes small talk with the customers while getting the food out as quickly as possible. Those interactions help to cultivate regular customers and encourage word-of-mouth promotion, which he relies on to expand his business.

Mike also knows how delicate the trust between regular customers and food operators can be. With regulars come expectations, so you can imagine Mike’s dismay when he was unable to get his regular cheese for a week. After mending relationships with some unhappy customers, Mike was able to put the problem behind him, as a small speedbump in the silver 1977 step van’s road.

But back to the pizza.  After all, that’s what I was there for: to try to understand how the best pizza that I have had in the Triangle could have possibly come from a truck.

Klausie’s, a Detroit-style pizza, features a thick crust more commonly associated with Sicilian-style pizza.  The bottom of the crust is golden brown with a crunch, and topped with a thick layer of cheese beautifully caramelized on the sides.  The sauce—a satisfying balance between sweet and tangy—is added atop the melted cheese at the very end. Mike wraps up each individual slice in a square of foil, to be eaten immediately.

Mike’s process for creating a pizza has been battle-tested and incrementally improved over time.  “There’s no manual for how to make pizza in a truck,” Mike explains with a smile.

After a trip home to Detroit gave him some insight into the beloved pizzerias of his youth, Mike spent months coming up with a recipe of his own that could be made in the short turnaround needed for a food truck. He starts with the most important pieces of equipment: 40 year-old steel pans. They must be seasoned and re-seasoned regularly in order to keep their nonstick qualities, but they are well worth the effort.  These pans maintain incredible amounts of heat, becoming so hot that the dough seems almost to fry during the baking process. This is what leaves the slices with a perfectly crunchy crust on the outside while preserving a focaccia-like middle. If you’ve ever made friends with a cast iron skillet, you can relate. You just can’t find this quality in other baking pans.

Mike uses a deck oven, the same style you would find in a standard brick-and-mortar pizza restaurant.  Although his oven has to be smaller in order to fit in the truck, it doesn’t, I quickly learned, hamper his ability to churn out pizzas. Mike installed the oven himself, replacing the conveyor oven that came with stepvan when he purchased it in Tampa, Florida.  He tells a Murphy’s Law-esque tale about his first inspection with the conveyor oven. Within minutes of starting up the oven (which is open on both sides) for the inspector, the temperature inside the truck had risen above 120º. It was immediately obvious that he had to replace the oven, but this unfortunate event seems to have served him well in the end.

Mike describes his pizza creation process as “triple bake, double proof.” Mike allows the dough to proof once, then again in an oiled steel pan. He has individual crusts ready before he begins service, completes the baking process in the pan, then adds the cheese.

Mike uses something called brick cheese, which originated in Wisconsin. Brick cheese has a high butter fat content, with a slight sharpness depending on the age of the cheese. It melts, browns, and caramelizes very well—crucial to a slice of Klausie’s pizza. Once the cheese melts and hits the side of the hot pan, it begins to caramelize, and the best part of the pizza is born.

Mike cuts the cheese into cubes and tops the panbaked crust with them. Then he bakes a second time, long enough for the cheese to melt. After that he adds the sauce and desired toppings before a final bake. He then loosens up the pizza with a spatula, slides it onto a cutting board, and cuts it with a large mezzaluna—a long, curved blade with handles on each side—to ensure a straight cut. True to his Detroit roots, he wraps the individual slices in foil.

The bottom crust turns out brown and crispy.  “It’s all about the crunch,” Mike says as he divides up slices. When the mezzaluna breaks through the bottom crust, Mike can tell by the snap if the crust is done.

Beyond the making of the pizza, there is a technique to eating it. In Detroit, you start with the caramelized cheese and work your way in from there. I can appreciate tradition, but I like to save the cheese to look forward to at the end of the slice. Mike has had a hard time finding suppliers for brick cheese, and he’s been forced to make do with some less than ideal cheeses during his time in the truck. He knows just what he wants, and finding someone to meet those culinary demands is currently a big challenge.

Now that Mike feels comfortable with his base pizzas, he’s started experimenting with menu options. He recently added a Greek-style pizza, which has quickly become his top seller.  Topped with minced garlic, Kalamata olives, and Feta cheese, it is certainly a departure from his standard toppings, but its success has inspired new ways to get creative with Detroit-style pizza.

In addition to running his truck, Mike is one of the biggest proponents of legalizing food trucks’ ability to operate in downtown Raleigh. Currently, the proposals for legislation and regulation of food trucks are stuck in a bureaucratic mess.  Amidst a web of what looks like stalling from the outside, Mike stays optimistic. The first time he presented a proposal to legalize food trucks and find respectful boundaries between trucks and restaurants, City Council proclaimed that they supported the idea of food trucks in Raleigh.

Mike and several other trucks, including Only Burger, Slippin Sliders, and Bulkogi, will offer a Free Food Truck Feeding during lunchtime in downtown Raleigh before the April public hearing. They will offer free food to attendees in an effort to generate public support for food truck legalization in Raleigh. The trucks will also have information and petitions to sign regarding the push for legalization.

The date of the Free Food Truck Feeding will be announced soon. Meanwhile, you can follow the truck’s whereabouts on Facebook, Twitter, and klausies.com, and catch Klausie’s and other local food trucks on Thursday, March 17, at the Food Truck Rodeo at Big Boss Brewery—1249 Wicker Drive, Raleigh.