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Aloha! Pulehu Pizza carves out new space

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COURTESY: PULEHU PIZZA  - It's Portland at its best: A food cart expands into an actual kitchen at The Lumberyard indoor bike park in Northeast Portland, through the power of community. Pulehu Pizza's grand opening celebration is set for Feb. 20. 
Portland boasts some of the best pizza in the country, but this month there’s one more pie spot to love.

Pulehu Pizza, a Hawaiian-style Portland food cart of three and a half years, just expanded into its first restaurant space in a unique spot — inside The Lumberyard, an indoor bike park in Northeast Portland.

With food cart locations downtown and in Southeast Portland, Pulehu is one of the city’s dozen or more food carts that opened as brick-and-mortar locations in 2015.

That’s out of the 850 or so total food carts in Multnomah County, sharing space among the 40 or so pods in the city and suburbs, according to Food Carts Portland, the blog that tracks such trends closely.

Several carts have closed, but many more are forging ahead in their tiny kitchens thanks to Portlanders’ seemingly endless appetite for cheap, authentic and soulful food.

So what’s the secret ingredient to rising from food cart to brick and mortar?

It’s all about connections to the right people, and a groundswell of community support, says Annebelle Eastling, who runs Pulehu Pizza with her business partner, Pierre Prevost, a former chef at the Four Seasons Resort in Wailea, Maui.

Pulehu started as a mobile pizza cart in Maui before coming to Portland three and a half years ago.

“I wasn’t looking to expand into brick and mortar,” Eastling says. “I was thinking maybe two years.”

But out of the blue, she got a message a couple of months ago from Rick Gencarelli, chef/owner of Lardo — one of Portland’s most successful food cart-turned-restaurant owners.

Eastling had met Gencarelli through his food, of course. Upon moving to Portland, she and her partner ate at a ton of food carts, fell in love with Lardo, and became regulars.

They got to know Gencarelli, who graciously offered to help with anything they needed as they started out. They kept in touch over the years.

While Lardo’s specialty is sandwiches, Eastling also checked out the abundant pizza scene here, and felt like there was a niche for their particular style.

“There was a lot of wood-fired, Neopolitan,” but no one was grilling pizza, she says, as they did at their cart on a giant Lion gas barbecue.

Now in their restaurant, Pulehu uses a pizza oven but still serves it Old World-style, paper thin — a hybrid between what’s known as a tart flambée and a typical American thin-crust pizza.

Eastling doesn’t consider the bountiful pizza scene here as competition — she sees it as community.

“We like to say OPP — Other People’s Pizza,” she says. “I love to support other pizza people. It’s a really fun subculture. Any combination of delicious bread and cheese, I love.”

Gencarelli had emailed Eastling two months ago to ask if she was interested in leasing the restaurant space at The Lumberyard, which had been vacant for several months.

The Lumberyard owners Will Heiberg and Michael Whitesel reached out to Gencarelli, looking for a potential pizza operator for a family-friendly, high-volume place.

Gencarelli wasn’t interested in it for himself — he just signed a lease to open a second Grassa restaurant, on Northwest 23rd Avenue, set to open April 1, and also is working on his bottle shop and beer bar called Beer Belly, in the former Racion space downtown, set to open in late April or early May.

But Pulehu Pizza popped into his head, Gencarelli says. “They’re super-nice people, hardworking, the product was delicious, and it seemed like a great fit.”

Gencarelli gets calls and emails all the time from food cart owners looking for guidance, and loves to pay it forward, knowing their experience well from his two years in a food cart.

It was too good a deal for Eastling to pass up. Since opening the 2,500-square-foot space (compared to their 8-by-20 food cart) on Jan. 8, the response has been phenomenal, she says.

In true Portland style, they’ll serve brunch pizza on the weekends (bacon, egg and cheese), as well as fresh pastries, French press-style coffee from OleLatte Coffee, and a full beverage program with help from their industry friends.

Local craft brews will include Culmination, Alameda & Double Mountain Brewing, among others, and the bar will turn out craft cocktails like lemongrass ginger vodka and homemade Bloody Marys.

During their grand opening celebration, Feb. 20, they’ll have free locally made Shirley Temple soda for the kids from noon to 3 p.m., and free face painting.

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Culmination Brewing will offer beer tastings to go along with the special appetizers and pizzas cranking out.

The evening, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., will feature appetizer specials and house cocktails.

Thanks to industry friends’ gracious help — cooking, cleaning, marketing, developing and taking on other odd tasks — Eastling says she has high hopes Pulehu Pizza, and envisions the space as a family-friendly gem in the neighborhood for years to come.

As matchmaker, Gencarelli, of Lardo, also is in their corner. “I love that it worked out,” he says. “It seemed like a good stepping stone to get into brick and mortar without a huge investment. It’s Portland at its best.”

@jenmomanderson