Welcome to Hidden Gem, Gut Check's short love letter to restaurants, coffee shops and bars that lie off the beaten path. These places soldier on in relative anonymity, beloved by their regulars, but largely overlooked by the greater populace. Hidden Gem will attempt to rectify these terrible oversights. Have a Hidden Gem of your own to share? Tell us in the comments.
"Where'd you get that pizza from?" some hungry construction workers yell from the top of an adjacent building as they see us loading a box of leftovers into a getaway vehicle.
"There. Right there," says my dining companion in response, pointing to the 100-year-old church we just walked out of. The men reply flabbergasted, unsure if they heard us right: "Where?!"
The red-and-yellow banner that reads MRCKA's Dojo Pizza (4601 Morganford Road; 314-351-0935) seems minuscule in comparison to the towering former Christy Memorial United Methodist Church, but those that take notice will find a unique community and worthwhile eats inside the historic building.
MRCKA stands for Ma-ji Christian Karate Association, a non-profit organization that purchased the church building two years ago to provide a safe place for neighborhood kids to hang out and take free karate lessons.
Shortly after opening its lower-level gym as a dojo last year, the group inherited all the makings of a pizza kitchen via a student's parent -- convection ovens and all -- and quickly put it to use cooking up pizzas for students and community events.
Now, anyone can stop in to have a pie and simultaneously lend a helping hand. All proceeds go toward keeping the youth center up and running, and the kids even get to keep the tips.
On April 19, the doors to the chapel officially opened to the public as MRCKA's Dojo Pizza's refurbished dining room, a setting of intricate stained glass windows, hardwood floors and pews situated around hand-built tables.
Volunteers in full karate garb including Copp and his daughters, Ashlee and Kathryn, act as hosts and servers, offering up a full menu of hand-tossed pizza, salads and chicken wings available in barbecue, buffalo and spicy honey flavors.
Copp developed several of the recipes himself through trial and error, fielding ideas from his kids, who just came up with the pizzeria's latest concoction: a double-stuffed pan pizza featuring two entire layers of cheesy flavors.
Cook Lorraine Bala and her husband, Calvin Bryant, keep the kitchen running while Copp has his hands tied with classes, whipping up what he describes as gourmet Italian-style pan pizzas with a stuffed crust option. A thin and crispy crust is also available.
Though the dough isn't made in house, the sauce is, and it's of the sweet and slightly spicy variety -- "with a kick," as Copp puts it. Dojo Pizza also offers a buffalo chicken pizza with a cream cheese and hot sauce base, topped with bacon. Sizes range from 8-inch personal pizzas to 20-inch family-size pie.
The house specialty drink, "Dojo Ice Tea," gets its sweetness from some brown sugar and cinnamon, the result of running out of regular sugar while making cinnamon rolls one day. So far, the food aspect of the concept has come naturally for the karate teacher, and getting the word out could really pack a punch.
"The hardest thing is people still think this building is a church.... I'm Christian and I believe in my Christian beliefs, but I don't want people to feel like we're preaching. That's not what this is about," says Copp.
"Everything goes to support kids in the neighborhood, so not only are you getting a great tasting pizza, you're supporting a great cause."
Dojo Pizza's current hours are Tuesdays through Thursdays from 4 to 9 p.m., Fridays through Saturdays from 4 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m. Open mic nights take place in the dining area on Saturdays from 7 to 9 p.m.
Delivery is also available within a twenty-minute radius -- but why waste the opportunity to stop in and see it for yourself? For the full menu and additional information, check out the Dojo Pizza website and follow it on Facebook.
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