Whenever a new cheese vendor comes knocking on the door of Zalat — a DFW cult classic pizzeria — hoping to get their businesses, owner Khanh Nguyen has one simple response: “If you think you can best our cheese, hand it to the cook and we’ll do a blind taste test.”
All he cares about is what tastes best. This method has led to them switching cheeses twice. He doesn’t remember asking about cost before signing the deal either time.
Consequently, Zalat spends more on cheese than rent.
Zalat is a New York-style late night pizza joint with eight locations across DFW, and a hugely loyal following because of its unique style and unforgettable tastes. Its newest location is a ghost kitchen in Plano on Parker Road, and it opened on Sept. 30.
Nguyen says he arrived at his career as a restaurateur because of a “pretty bad case of adult ADD: if I’m not passionate about it, I can’t do it.”
A former lawyer, he found his interest in his old work waning as he discovered his love of cooking in his own kitchen. In 2011, without any knowledge of the restaurant industry, he opened DaLat, a Vietnamese restaurant, and three years later, despite never having made a pizza before, when the pizza restaurant next door closed down, he decided to buy it.
He and his team spent six months developing the dough, working up a batch a day until it was as good as they could make it. It took another month to develop a sauce. Over a weekend, they ordered pizza from anyone they’d ever heard of, Cane Rosso and Coal Vines to Papa Johns and Pizza Hut.
“I’m a romantic at heart, and I wanted to do it right,” he says.
Thus, Zalat was born.
The new Plano location is a ghost or cloud kitchen, a place where food is prepared and delivered by third parties like Grubhub, UberEats, or DoorDash. All the staff’s energy is in food preparation, and there is no need for costly build outs. Zalat has sit-down restaurants, but all their new locations are these cloud kitchens. While it isn’t a unique move for a pizza place—they practically invented the ghost kitchen—it’s also a clever move during a pandemic, when fewer people are eating out, and more are ordering.
Still, he says, he wants it to feel like a NYC pizzeria. The differences are all in the business model. He adds that Zalat is planning to keep expanding across DFW, but they’re in no rush.
“We’re getting requests all the time from fans,” he says. “Every time we announce a new location, people are like when are we getting one here? We’re patient about our locations. We don’t want to overspend, or go into too expensive places.”
He also wants to ensure quality doesn’t drop. New Zalat fans will notice that every box should come with a signature of a Zalat employee who has personally inspected and signed off on their pizza.
“We’re going to war with a hand-made product,” he says. “We rely on those hands.”
Everyone has to be on board to make sure every pizza meets their high standards. They offer employees full benefits, a 401K, and stock options, giving everyone ownership in the company. Plus, after a year, every employee is eligible for a free tattoo.
Their cashiers and expo workers are in charge of quality checks and while they’re typically the lowest on the food service totem pole, at Zalat, they’re the last line of defense between customers and a poorly made pizza, and he makes sure they all know that. They are the sheriffs of pizza and no one, not even Nguyen is above the law.
He remembers once in their first year, he was working the ovens while a 17-year-old senior in high school was working in expo, which put his philosophy to the test.
“We were an hour backed up and I dropped a pizza in, barely missed pulling it out in time—long story short, it wasn’t pretty but would taste fine. I put it in expo, and moved on to the next, but I see this kid eyeing my pizza and I know he’s going to call B.S. on it. He shakes his head and he goes, ‘Khanh, sorry, we can’t sell that.’ I thanked him and remade it.”
The pizzeria is known for its most crazy pizzas, like the Reuben, the Pho-inspired Pho Shizzle, and Elotes, inspired by Mexican street corn. In a world where most pizza places live and die by the build-your-own option, less than two percent of Zalat’s orders are customer-designed. Most fans trust Zalat’s impeccable, if wild, signature pizzas.
But for traditional pizza fans, Nguyen has worked hard to ensure that you can’t go wrong with pepperoni. In fact, 40 percent of profits are from people ordering just pepperoni pizza. For all the jazzy signatures on the menu, that’s the result he wanted: a classic pizza that can go toe to toe with the best of them. There are a few variations like NYC-style pepperoni, the Simple Basil, and The Crave.
Nguyen hints that there’s a new pepperoni pizza coming to the menu, the first new pie Zalat has debuted in four years.
But for those who walk on the wild side, The Hottie, he says, is one of their under-rated but most electric pizzas. It’s not nearly as spicy as most fans seem to fear; it’s about the combination of flavors, particularly the tinge of vinegar from Tabasco sauce that makes this little number special.
Really, though, you can’t go wrong.
Zalat, Parker Road
- Mon – Sat | 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.
- Sun | 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Where: 3909 W. Parker Rd. Ste. 102, Plano