The Taste Bud: The King of pizza

As I was growing up in Southern Indiana, Steve’s Pizza King was a staple. It just was. So when I moved to Louisville a number of years ago, I was surprised by how few people here even knew it existed. Given that Louisvillians tend to believe there is nothing in Indiana worth crossing the bridge for, I guess I should not have been surprised.

Well, I’m here to tell you, as a former Hoosier, there is at least one destination that’s worth the adventure.

I recently decided to revisit the tiny, dank Steve’s Pizza King at 1066 Kehoe Lane in Jeffersonville, just a few blocks from where I spent the first 11 years of my life. I was a shy, neurotic kid who would only eat cheese pizza, and I recall going there with my mother once to get a carryout pizza for dinner and seeing a woman with a glass eye. It scared the hell out of me.

I took my girlfriend, Cynthia, along with me for her first Steve’s Pizza King visit, and she wondered aloud if Southern Indiana is “the land that time forgot.” Yes, the tiny Pizza King space is still steeped in the 1970s in a tiny white structure that used to house a quickie food-mart called Cliff’s Market, back before Thornton’s ruled America.

The super-thin and unique Pizza King seemed almost as tasty as when I was enjoying the splendor as a pre-teen. Yes, I said “almost.” Because really, as Cynthia pointed out, is anything ever as good as it seemed when you were a kid?

The Pizza King crust is cracker-like, always crispy and a bit charred. Hey, it’s part of the charm. Toppings are finely diced and spread over the tomato sauce, which means more balanced flavor on the pie — for example, instead of getting two or three round pepperonis per slice, you have a layer of diced pepperoni.

What happens in practice, however, is you end up with the bulk of your toppings in the middle, the amount tapering off as you move toward the edges. As a result, the edge pieces slowly but surely focus more on the sweet tomato sauce. As for the middle part of the pie? Since that area of the crust doesn’t get as crisp, the result is a gooey, thicker hunk of pizza that may even need to be folded like a New York-style slice. (I am drooling as I type this.)

Oh, and did I mention Pizza King pizzas are cut in squares and not traditional slices? Yeah, that’s also part of the charm.

Anyway, when we ordered our pie during our recent visit, the harried cashier/cook/carryout coordinator said, “It will be about eight minutes.” So we sat in one of the curiously high-walled booths and waited. Napkins are stacked on the booth’s edges, above diners’ heads. If you pump a quarter into a slot in the wall, you can watch TV while you eat. I am not making this up.

After about, oh, eight minutes, our pizza was brought out on a timeworn and heavily warped pan.

Cynthia noted that Pizza King appeared to be the perfect pizza for kids, because crust isn’t wasted. It’s also economical because a small pie starts at around $7. Plus, the smaller pieces also mean your young ones won’t get halfway through a slice, only to suddenly belch and say, “Mommy, I’m full.” Brilliant.

Oh, and it should be noted that while we stuck with the time-honored pepperoni pizza (although the double pepperoni option is always tempting), it is worth trying Pizza King’s sausage pizza. The sausage is laced with fennel seeds, adding a unique flavor to the mix.

There’s also a more dine-in friendly Steve’s Pizza King at 3825 Charlestown Road in New Albany, which even has a toy train that — when in operation — brings drinks to your booth.

If you go and happen to see an 11-year-old boy there enjoying his first Pizza King pie — well, know that in all likelihood that kid will be me someday. (But hopefully without the neuroses.)