WILKESON, Pierce County — The doorknob at The Carlson Block is a little tricky in that it only opens if you turn it a certain way. This causes first-time customers to step a little to the left and peer in the full-length window to ensure that this wood-fired pizzeria in the middle of nowhere isn’t just a figment of the imagination.
This finicky doorknob makes sense, as it is the original gateway to a restaurant housed in a building that was built in 1910, located smack dab in the middle of Wilkeson, population 490 (give or take).
Once you twist the doorknob correctly and swing the heavy wooden door open, you are rewarded with sunlight streaming through the wavy glass of 6-foot-tall windows spanning the length of the building, the unmistakable smell of saucy, cheesy, wood-fired pizza, and laughter from 7-month-old baby Cleo, all smiles and a shock of glorious red hair.
I’ve eaten hundreds of pizza slices around the Seattle area in the last year in search of pizza excellence. I’ve had tavern pies, Neapolitan, Detroit-style and pizzas that seem to defy definition. My verdict: The pizza that comes out of this oven in a small town nestled close to the base of Mount Rainier might be the best pizza I’ve had in the state of Washington.
The leopard-spotted, sturdy crust is honeycombed and foldable. It has enough flavor that I’d happily eat it naked, unadorned. The perfect ratio of cheese, sauce, toppings and crust allows you to taste each component and not feel like you’re eating a kitchen’s worth of toppings layered on a loaf of bread. There’s restraint in those toppings, and a real Alice Waters-style approach — peak season ingredients and not too many of them competing in flavor. Classic pairings like sausage and fennel, but also shaved Brussels sprouts with bacon, or even pizza dusted with ranch powder or finished with a squirt of housemade hot honey.
It’s got everything I love in a pizza and then some.
I’ve wandered out to this unlikely Washington pizza paradise when the dining room is still shut due to COVID-19 restrictions, and the lack of other customers coupled with the building’s shotgun style means I have a near-unadulterated view of chef Ian Galbraith sliding a pizza into the penny-covered wood-fired oven he built before opening the restaurant four years ago.
Ian Galbraith, 41, and his wife Ashley, 31, own the building and live on the second floor of what used to be a 16-room hotel with their daughter, Cleo. Galbraith moved to Wilkeson after his parents told him about the enigmatic, century-old building that was up for sale. Something about the building spoke to him of possibility, and he bought it in 2010 for $215,000 and spent the next six years scraping off layers of paint and slowly renovating the main floor.
“All the wood was covered in red, white and blue paint, and multiple layers of it. Just picture America threw up all over this building,” Ashley Galbraith says.
Now, chair rails, booths, wainscotting and window panes shine, restored to their original glory much like when Gus Carlson first built the hotel more than 100 years ago. They’ve even restored the original “Carlson’s” neon sign, which is affixed to the front of the building over a new striped awning.
More than 140 years since Wilkeson was founded as a railroad town, this little restaurant is quietly making a case for its town to become known for something other than coal in this century: pizza.
Come for the pizza, stay for the history
Take a few minutes to look around Wilkeson, and you might get sucked into its interesting history. The main street is just a short block long and its buildings date to the early 1900s, save for the old Martha Washington Hotel, which was built in the late 1800s. Multiple town sites, including the school, a large sandstone arch and the coke ovens, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and as you explore, you might decide learning about the town’s storied history is a worthwhile complement to the excellent pizza that you came for.
Gus Carlson, the namesake of the Galbraiths’ hotel-turned-pizzeria, was of Swedish descent, a small, fastidious man with a neat little mustache and slick, dark hair. When he opened his hotel and cafe in 1910, Wilkeson was a bustling center of commerce with a thriving downtown and thousands of loggers, miners and quarry workers living within the town boundaries. There was a bank, a movie theater, a grocery store, a barbershop, even a brothel (the aforementioned Martha Washington Hotel).
Wilkeson was first established in 1877 and named for Samuel Wilkeson, a Northern Pacific Railway secretary who noted coal veins in the area and lobbied the company to extend the railroad line out from Tacoma. The town was fully incorporated in 1909, and at its peak, Wilkeson was even on the shortlist of towns being considered for the state’s capital.
Through its first 60 years, Wilkeson prospered. The coke ovens at the far end of town smelted and refined over 10,000 pounds of coal monthly, logging operations boomed and Wilkeson sandstone was in high demand — most notably used for the Capitol building in Olympia. The Northern Pacific railroad line terminated at Wilkeson, and visitors who came to visit Mount Rainier National Park (the country’s fifth established national park) were met at the train station by outfitters looking to take them on the trails.
The Wilkeson School, built in 1912, was one of Washington’s first multiclassroom schools, and is the oldest still-operating school in the state. Its impressive three-story sandstone building with a copper-jacketed cupola was designed by Frederick Heath — who also designed Tacoma’s iconic Stadium High School, Stadium Bowl and the National Realty Building.
When Prohibition took hold in 1920, Carlson began operating an illegal saloon on one side of the Carlson Hotel bar, and notices of his arrests for violating liquor laws appeared frequently in newspapers.
He died in 1927, and after a few years of his son attempting to keep the business running, the Carlson Hotel building sat vacant for over 40 years until art professor John Hillding — one of the founders of Bumbershoot — and his wife Mary bought the building, opening the main floor as a small cafe for a short time.
Today, the building is split in two; a glass-topped wall that Carlson added to hide his bootlegging activities transects the restaurant from a space that was once a coffee shop operated by Ian’s mom, but now mostly serves as storage. In pre-COVID-19 times, the dining room had a maximum occupancy of 46. Ian’s ceiling is about 125 pizzas a day.
In a town of under 500, that’s plenty — for now. Because this pizzeria is starting to acquire quite the reputation.
The man who has become Wilkeson’s pizza whisperer attended high school in Fife and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After spending some time working in restaurants in the Hudson Valley, Ian moved to Colorado to work for his commercial photographer uncle and took a break from cooking to “see if there was something else.”
“I had no idea I would end up, nor meet my wife, in a town of less than 500 people,” Ian says.
He decided to open his own restaurant, and once he found the empty Carlson Hotel building in Wilkeson, he took the plunge.
Six months into renovations, Ian met Ashley, who was running a bar in town that has since closed.
Ashley grew up in Sumner and was living in Seattle when her parents bought a bar in Wilkeson. She moved to town about a month after Ian and was told to meet him by “a very, very drunk girl.”
Committed to Wilkeson in personal and professional life, the couple put roots down. Ian served on the town council for five years. Ashley joined the historical society (which has since closed).
“I didn’t do it out of civic duty, I did it because you guys don’t know me, but I want to be part of the community, I want to live here,” Ian says. “That led to genuinely enjoying it and making genuine friendships.”
They married in 2015, and in December 2016, after years of scraping paint, restoring wood and assembling a commercial oven Ian had ordered from France, they opened The Carlson Block.
By that point, even the neighbors were excited.
“There was this anticipation leading up to the pizzeria opening because they owned the building and were doing repairs slowly and meticulously,” says Marie Wellock, the Wilkeson town clerk. “People — small-town nosy — they wanted to see it, and by keeping it under wraps it gave people the chance to get excited.”
While opening a restaurant in a small community might seem like a lower-stakes proposition than signing an expensive lease in a bustling Seattle neighborhood, the venture was risky in its own right. Could the small population in its remote location sustain their business? Would anyone come eat their pizza?
“We invested in the community and they invested in us. Now they are our biggest fans, biggest advocates,” Ian says. “But that didn’t mean they didn’t think we were going to fail. It was like after the first year where some of our closest friends were like, ‘We love you, but we thought you were going to fail.’”
Could pizza key a Wilkeson resurgence?
From boom to bust, Wilkeson has weathered it all: good times, bad times, pandemic times.
Long before the Hilldings bought the The Carlson Block, the town was slowly folding in on itself. The Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, and as electricity and fuel oil replaced coal as a preferred heat source, demand for coal dropped just as the coal veins around Wilkeson reached the end of their productivity. Most of the mines closed by the end of the ’30s, forcing many families to leave in search of other work.
By the time Wilkeson Mayor Jeff Sellers’ family moved to town in 1958, when he was 2 years old, trains were only running through Wilkeson to ensure the lines were clear. Housing for miners was razed and the last mine closed in 1972. Its operator, Robert Peloli, commonly known around town as the “Last Coal Miner,” died in June 2020, just days before his 97th birthday. While logging is still active in the area, trends have turned away from sandstone and the sounds of blasting haven’t been heard from in the quarry since the mid-’80s.
“In general, they exhausted the majority of the resources in this area,” says Wellock, whose husband Ben was born and raised in Wilkeson.
Today, a half-century after the demise of the coal mines, Wilkeson’s biggest pull is its location as a gateway to the outdoors. Just 20 miles from the Tolmie Peak Trailhead at Mount Rainier National Park’s northwest border, and settled in a (still) heavily wooded canyon near the Carbon River, Wilkeson has always had potential to be an adventure capital. There’s good mountain biking in the area, and much of the railroad tracks have been converted to gentle, paved biking and walking trails. Yet Wilkeson’s population has continued to dwindle.
Sellers, who is currently remodeling an original mining house from 1898 with his wife, says an influx of young couples with families have settled in Wilkeson, though that’s not all that unusual in the grand scheme of things.
“The cycle has always been that way,” Sellers says. “Things stay the same forever, but then all the sudden a new family moves in, and it’s always a young family. Then you start to see all these little kids running around. It’s no different than when we moved to town.”
The mayor notes that many elderly people leave Wilkeson because they need a town with more conveniences. There is no hospital in Wilkeson, no proper grocery store, no bank. There’s one gas station (the last on the road to Mount Rainier), a general store and a handful of restaurants, The Carlson Block included.
Over the past year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses have closed.
But Sellers remains a believer. He has big plans for Wilkeson. Sellers has obtained county, state and federal grants to fix the downtown streets, parking and lighting, which should all be finished by the end of the year. He wants to rename state Route 165 “The Glacier Highway.” And while he wants to keep the town looking much the same with a historical feel, “my vision,” Sellers says, “is to open up every business still standing. If someone had a little money, the buildings could be a bakery, a microbrew, anything.”
Sellers envisions Wilkeson as a destination location. There’s history here, he says, and with a little “if you build it, they will come” mentality, he thinks it can happen.
“Now,” he says, “it’s up to the businesses to come and [help us] be that destination.”
Making pizza magic
Ian Galbraith’s pizza is helping Sellers’ case.
The Carlson Block’s Yelp page boasts 58 five-star reviews and its enthusiastic fans write things like “Best in PNW!” or “Hands down the best pizza I’ve had.” Its Instagram account shows perfect, blistered pizza after perfect, blistered pizza, bringing people from Bonney Lake, Tacoma and beyond to the small pizzeria.
On this cold, sunny day, a black Porsche with a license plate that reads “EATPZZA” sits in the parking lot across from the Carlson building. Its owner is John Xitco, a Tacoma restaurateur who sports a pizza cutter tattoo on his right forearm and fancies himself a pizza fanatic. As he enters The Carlson Block, Xitco chatters excitedly with his companion, neighbor Scott Carroll, about a recent pizza-eating trip to New Haven, Connecticut, and gives Ian and Ashley a hearty wave.
The pair frequently makes the drive from Tacoma to Wilkeson because they regard Galbraith’s pizza as the best in Washington. Xitco, who owns E9 Brewing Co., Engine House No. 9 and Asado restaurants, first heard about Carlson Block from one of his chefs — this is not unusual, as Ian’s pizza is well regarded within the restaurant community.
Xitco was so impressed with Galbraith’s pizza that he tried to hire the chef to run the pizza program at one of his restaurants.
Galbraith demurred, and Xitco had to hire someone else. But “the inspiration was here, this is the best,” Xitco says.
Galbraith is an affable, easygoing man, but he is very serious about his pizza.
“People have a sense of memory about pizza,” he says. “You just say ‘pizza’ and people have an image of a type. It’s super challenging because we do a naturally leavened pizza.”
That means it’s tricky to achieve the sort of consistency that most chefs prize.
“Every day the weather is different, every day the dough can be different,” Galbraith says. “How do I manage those variables? There are some days the dough is magic, but others it’s not as good. The challenging thing for me is how to eliminate variables and get a replicable product that is that magic dough.”
The dough is created with a starter that Ian began shortly after he moved to Wilkeson (it turns 10 in October). He comes down to the restaurant each morning around 7:30 a.m. to ball the dough, giving it time to rise and be ready by the 3 p.m. opening time. Most of his prep work is done in a non-climate-controlled shack tacked on to the back of the original building.
Galbraith makes mozzarella from scratch from curd he sources from Ferndale Farmstead. He makes the sausage in-house; ditto for the salad dressing and desserts. He goes to Seattle once or twice a year to visit Merlino Foods and stock up on Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, and because Wilkeson is so far off the Charlie’s Produce delivery route, Galbraith has to meet the produce delivery truck 5 miles away in Buckley once a week.
His tiny kitchen houses a triple sink, the penny-covered oven (sourced from many locals — Galbraith chose pennies because they were practically free, while glass tiles would have cost between five and 10 cents each), and a compact granite worktop where he swiftly forms dough. A framed poster of Patrick Swayze hanging over a bookshelf stuffed with pizza cookbooks looks down over the whole scene.
The pandemic has brought a number of challenges for restaurant owners everywhere, and Galbraith is a bit of an outlier when he says “honestly, this last year has been a real blessing.”
But his situation is also rather unique. The cost of living in Wilkeson is lower than that of many metro areas. Having more time off during lockdown to bond with a new baby (Cleo was born last June) was a huge bonus, and living above the restaurant in a building the Galbraiths own has been advantageous.
There are also pizza-related silver linings. The pandemic has given Galbraith time and space to tinker with his dough, and the result has been electric.
“The pizza is far and away better than it was the year before last,” Ashley Galbraith says. “I don’t have the most discerning palate — before him, I was a pizza roll girl — but [after] little things like changing the flour, changing the sauce and the hydration of the dough, I can start to tell the difference. I can tell when he has a good dough day.”
This past year, Ian Galbraith has experimented more than ever, making his dough differently and anticipating weather-related challenges without the pressure of a packed restaurant, where he’s grinding to churn out pepperoni pizza after pepperoni pizza.
The alchemy needed to create Galbraith’s magic dough is happening more frequently these days.
The location and the old building this one-of-a-kind restaurant is housed in lend their own magic to the whole experience.
The Carlson Block just wouldn’t be the same if it was in a trendy Seattle spot like Ballard or Capitol Hill, Ashley Galbraith says.
“There’s something about this town. For us, this town, this building that can’t be replicated. We’re so passionate about the town and the building, I don’t know if I could find that again,” she says.
For me, the magic isn’t in the building or the town — although both are charming — it’s in the pizza. I’ve burned the roof of my mouth excitedly eating Galbraith’s pizza in a camp chair in the parking lot on a cold winter afternoon. I’ve asked him to leave the pizza uncut, and then reheated it in my own oven after it’s spent a night in my fridge — can confirm, there was no compromise in quality. Regardless of toppings, regardless of time of day or day of the week, each bite is saucy, cheesy perfection.
I’m convinced there is magic in this dough.