On one of the High Desert’s spectacularly sunny spring weekday afternoons, hours after the lunch rush has come and gone, Pie for the People, a frontierland-meets-industrial-looking pizzeria along Joshua Tree’s Twentynine Palms Highway, is still jamming with an eclectic crowd. In a dining room done up with strings of multicolor light bulbs and a Dr. Seuss–style desertscape mural sits a family of hiking boot–clad park visitors refueling with a couple of veggie pizzas. Two young women decked out in flowy Coachella-esque ensembles gaze at the menu board just as a fit gray-haired man marches out the front door with a large cardboard pizza box in his hand. He hops into the front seat of a waiting RV and slowly rolls out of sight. Out on the patio, diners linger over nearly devoured slices.
“It’s such a global, artistic, unique mix that makes up this community,” says owner and pizza grandmaster Ryon Weber. “The people who live here and who visit are open and they’re worldly and they have varied palates. It offers me artistic freedom. It lets me expand what I can do with pizza.”
He’s meticulous about his homemade dough recipe … “The philosophy is you can’t build a gorgeous house on a shitty foundation. It starts with the crust.”Ryon Weber
This passionate pizza maker first opened the shop in 2010 after a stint slinging slices out of his “pizza trailer” in a nearby parking lot (more on that nomadic adventure in a minute). The experience proved locals were as much for his pie as his pie was for them. “Just by opening up my windows on the corner, I was slammed,” he recounts. While a few independent pizza places have opened since, he notes that area residents were relegated to national chain pizza before he arrived on the block.
“There was finally someone serving real pizza here and I realized I was filling a niche.”
That niche, quite simply, is making really good New York–style pizza — those thin, foldable, perfectly-crispy-but-slightly-chewy pies layered with a light pureed tomato sauce and a high-quality mozzarella — that Weber (a Jewish kid who grew up in the “incredible, great, great pizza town” of Kingston, New York) is happy to talk about for hours. He’s meticulous about his homemade dough recipe, for example, and the amount of water he uses and how cold it is often shifts based on the air temperature and humidity (he adds ice in the scorching summer). His super-specific rolling technique is a whole other story, focused on creating a tight “elastic-yet-forgiving” ball of dough that eventually gets hand-tossed. “The philosophy is you can’t build a gorgeous house on a shitty foundation. It starts with the crust.”
It’s also his often out-of-the-pizza-box toppings that bring the people in. Yes, you’ve seen pineapple on pies before, but Weber wants you to know that he roasts his before adding it to the “David Bowie,” the shop’s most popular variety, which also boasts onions caramelized in Guinness beer, jalapeños, bacon, and a drizzle of Asian plum sauce (the latter ingredient popped into his head while he was driving to Coachella one year. “I tried it and it worked and I stuck with it”). There’s also a cheese-less vegan pie piled with rosemary-roasted potatoes, artichokes, chickpeas, and pumpkin-seed pesto, as well as a strawberry-and-feta-topped “Barry White.” “The Plaza” (named after his favorite hometown pizzeria) is a play on a classic everything pie, with sausage, pepperoni, onions, olives, mushrooms, and peppers.
The 44-year-old perfected his pizza long before he arrived in the High Desert, spending many winters in the ski resort town of Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, selling slices from his trailer outside the mountain’s ski area entrances. He now operates another brick-and-mortar Pie for the People shop there. “It was before the whole food truck fad,” explains Weber. “I designed a pizzeria in a 20-foot-by- 8-foot trailer with my ovens, a fridge, a three-compartment sink, and my dough mixer inside.” During the spring and summer he’d hit the road, towing the trailer to music festivals up and down the West Coast and eventually expanding to events nationwide.
Did I just land in the Mission District? The attentive staff who make it all happen.
Weber began making pit stops in Joshua Tree in 2003 on his way to and from Coachella (where he sold his pizzas until 2013) after his friend Barnett English — a fellow festival vendor who runs the JavaGoGo Coffee Company — moved to the area to launch the now biannual Joshua Tree Music Festival. Weber, English, and their crews had become fast friends on the festival circuit, where they’d ask organizers to put their booths next to each other. “That way we could all work and play and laugh and dance together,” says English. “When I moved to Joshua Tree … he was one of the first people I called.”
But Weber wasn’t so enamored with the desert town at first. “I was like, ‘This is hot and dry.’ I was shocked that there were people even living here,” he recounts. “But every year I came down, it grew on me a little bit more and a little bit more.”
Of course, he’s not the only one the High Desert has grown on. The string of communities that feel worlds away from some of the glitzier towns of the Coachella Valley has been luring a new crop of creative types from cities around the country in recent years. They’ve been buying up (and building) homes on large plots of scruffy desert land to double as studios for everything from photography to indie music to olive oil making. Along with its burgeoning art and music scene has come plenty of media coverage, and, in turn, an influx of visitors.
“I’m definitely seeing increased business,” Weber says. “I just did a wedding in Pioneertown. I have 22 catering requests to do weddings, film shoots, parties up here.” A few weeks ago a delivery driver came back gushing over having just handed a pile of pizzas to comedian Russell Brand, who was renting a local home. “Every weekend there are stars up here now.”
The Kingston, New York–born Ryon Weber got his start selling slices out of a converted trailer at music festivals. Now, he calls Joshua Tree home.
Up next, Weber plans to open a new location inside a former Japanese restaurant in Yucca Valley, where he’ll have a deli, bakery, and café in addition to pizza. He’s also slated to have a pizzeria in his hometown of Kingston (which has become a haven for Brooklyn expats) up and running by next year. And, of course, he’s still got his well-oiled festival business, now armed with a fleet of outfitted trucks and trailers he and staffers use to transport his stone-deck ovens to around two dozen music gatherings a year, including biggies like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, which attracts upwards of 80,000 attendees. But his favorite is still the local Joshua Tree Music Festival, where he gets to be part of the flourishing community. He doesn’t really have a choice. “There would be a revolt,” says English, “if Pie for the People weren’t there.”
The David Bowie with its drizzle of plum sauce is definitely a space oddity.