The number of food trucks operating in Champaign-Urbana has quintupled in the last few years. No, really, it has — it’s totally easy to do when starting with one. Math aside, the point is that there are now multiple food trucks in our parts, with more on the way. I recently ventured out into the cold to try Dragon Fire Pizza, which serves wood-fired pizza.
Dragon Fire Pizza is a very large green kitchen trailer hauled by a big black truck. The kitchen contains a built in wood-fire oven that heats to 1,000 degrees, which is pretty impressive. (And maybe a little warm for the pizza makers.) The menu is pretty straightforward: 10-inch individual pizzas (toppings include standard favorites mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, olives), with daily specials. The day I grabbed lunch there was a pizza special that used ‘dragon sauce’ instead of pizza sauce, but it was all gone, so I was unable to sample this spicy green delight.
I find that the true test of deliciousness often lies in gauging how well a restaurant does simple, so I ordered a margherita, or, in keeping with the dragon theme, the Classic Dragon ($8). The dough and tomato sauce couldn’t hide beneath the assertive flavors of sausage, pepperoni, or onions. If those two things were off, I was going to find out. The hubby ordered the Red Dragon ($8): tomato sauce, pepperoni, red onions, cheese. My friend ordered the daily special called the Dragon Fire ($9), which consisted of tomato sauce (in the place of the aforementioned fiery green dragon sauce), sausage, peppers, onions, and jalapeños. Because it was freezing, I also opted for a cup of hot chocolate ($1.50). Strange combo, yes, but it was cold.
As we waited for the pizzas to be freshly made and cooked in the wood stove, we struck up a conversation with Dave Saam. He’s one of the four owners of the truck; it’s a family-owned business, but he and his wife are the ones overseeing the day-to-day operations and making the pizza. From what I can tell, he’s very outgoing and friendly, and I’d go so far as to call him chatty. He makes the dough daily and from his own recipe. He also makes his own hot chocolate mix. According to the DFP website, he uses locally sourced ingredients, and he’s uses Ludwig Farmstead Creamery’s fresh mozzarella.
The pizzas were ready in just a few minutes — five, maybe, for all three — and each was packaged in its own box. (Saam recently Tweeted that a pizza is done in 84 seconds, which is quite fast.) Because it was crazy cold, we opted to sit in the car and eat our pizzas. I was immediately impressed with the aesthetics of mine. It looked amazing. There was plenty of sauce, the cheese was melty, there were whole leaves of basil on top, and I could see — and smell — the wood-fire char on the dough. This was the most promising pizza I’d seen or smelled in all of my time in C-U. I took a bite. It was awesome. The crust was appropriately charred and chewy. It was delicious, honestly. The outside had that nice wood-fire taste and was a little crispy, and the inside was light and airy. The tomato sauce was acidic and tasted like tomatoes. Too often I’ve had pizza with sauce that’s entirely way too sweet or over-spiced with gross, dried herbs, or too salty. This was not that. The tomatoes were a little large, but not cumbersome to eat. The fresh mozzarella used on my pizza was from Ludwig Farmstead, and was amazingly delicious and creamy. The basil was fragrant and fresh. Together these simple ingredients provided a well-balanced deliciously simple pizza, with each component retaining its flavor. The pizza was really well balanced in flavor and in seasoning.
The hubby’s pizza (pepperoni with red onions) was also perfectly charred and extremely well balanced in flavor. The spicy pepperoni was enhanced and mellowed by the sweetness of the diced red onions, and the salty cheese brought it all together, but as a whole it wasn’t over salted. The cheese was modestly distributed across the dough, further emphasizing the pizza maker’s sense of moderation and self-control. It would have been easy to skimp or overload the dough with toppings, but each was nicely balanced in flavor and in ratio of topping to dough. My friend’s pizza was robust and flavorful: hers had sausage, peppers, jalapeños, and onions, after all. I’m curious to see how this pizza tastes with the fiery dragon sauce.
The hot cocoa was pretty good, and I appreciated the mini marshmallows floating on top. It wasn’t the most decadent hot chocolate I’ve ever had, but it was hot, and I was cold. DFP also serves Curtis Orchard hot apple cider.
Let me go off on a tangent for a moment: I almost went on a polite rant about how the Matthews and Nevada location is super inconvenient for me, a non-student, non-U of I employee. But upon further investigation, I’ve learned that in addition to parking at Gander Mountain on North Prospect on Saturdays, Dragon Fire was at Springfield and Mattis (Champaign) for lunch earlier this week, and will be parked at Springfield and Matthews (Urbana) during the week. While I’d prefer to avoid campus, I understand the need to park in a place with foot traffic. So to campus I will go. (Dave and co., if you’d like to revisit Springfield and Mattis, that’d be cool.)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Dragon Fire Pizza might be the best pizza I’ve had in C-U. I really, really, enjoyed my pie, and plan to make this food truck a regular in my restaurant rotation. If Saam can keep up the high quality of the food, I’m sure it will do well in this community. I’m definitely going to go back very soon and try something else, including that fiery dragon sauce.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.