America’s Best Pie Joints

Published in Gourmet Live 03.14.12
Road-food authorities Jane and Michael Stern name 10 pie palaces from coast to coast for sweet, heavenly slices of cherry, apple, blueberry, and much more

“Apple pie and ice cream, that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country,” Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road. “I knew it was nutritious and of course it was delicious.” Twentieth-century America’s foremost wanderer discovered what so many road-trippers have since come to know: that pie sustains us as we roam (so much the better if à la mode). It can be dessert or a snack, it is right at midnight or at breakfast; and those places that make it a specialty are travelers’ beacons. Here are 10 of the nation’s top pie destinations, from Down East Maine to San Diego County, California.

Helen’s Restaurant; Machias, Maine

Since 1950, food pilgrims have joined locals at the counter and tables at Helen’s, a friendly small-town Maine café where a meal might be no more complicated than a bowl full of buttery fresh-caught lobster meat on toast. Helen’s pies are legendary, especially her blueberry, which comes loaded with a combination of cooked and uncooked wild blues, the pride-of-Maine berries that are smaller and more intensely fruity than those commonly found in grocery stores. Pie slices arrive under billows of whipped cream. (111 Main St., Machias, ME; 207-255-8423)

Henry’s; West Jefferson, Ohio

Located in a defunct gas station on old U.S. 40 (now superseded by Interstate 70), Henry’s looks forlorn. The parking lot is lumpy; the building needs paint. But the staff members are warm and welcoming, and the lack of exterior beauty is more than balanced by the finest pies in all Ohio. Rhubarb is a precarious balance of sweet and tart, built upon a crust that flakes into shards so savory that you’ll pick every crumb off the plate when the fruit is gone. Custard pie is pure and simple, sunny yellow with a dusting of nutmeg. Real butterscotch (made from brown sugar, butter, and cream, not from a mix) is palomino gold, dense, and intense, topped with airy meringue. (6275 U.S. Hwy. 40, West Jefferson, OH; 614-879-9321)

The Cherry Hut; Beulah, Michigan

The Cherry Hut opened in 1922 as a farm stand in the midst of Michigan’s cherry orchards. It has since become a destination café with a menu that includes peanut butter and cherry jelly sandwiches, cherry BBQ pork, cherry-ade floats, and, best of all, cherry pie. Each unwieldy serving is one quarter of a whole pie, with fruit spilling out from underneath a savory crust. The Cherry Hut is easy to spot from far away. A sign towering high above the family-run enterprise shows a giant red happy face: Cherry Jerry, the Smiling Pie-Faced Boy. The restaurant is closed in winter, but the Cherry Hut’s Web site sells jam and other cherry products year-round. (211 N. Michigan Ave., Beulah, MI; 231-882-4431)

The Elegant Farmer; Mukwonago, Wisconsin

Housed in a cathedral-size 1930s dairy barn, the Elegant Farmer is a full-service country market favored by savvy shoppers from Wisconsin and Illinois—as well as by everyone in search of the ultimate apple pie. The signature creation is pie baked in a brown-paper bag. This curious technique yields crust that is as crunchy as a sugar cookie and an Ida Red filling that radiates flavor. Not-to-be-missed variations include multifruit, streusel-top Berried Treasure, peachy apple, rhubarb apple, and apple adorned with melting caramel. Apple pie can be ordered via Elegant Farmer’s Web site or by phone. (1545 Main St., Mukwonago, WI; 262-363-6770)

The Farmer’s Kitchen; Atlantic, Iowa

Let’s get right to the point: peanut butter chocolate explosion pie. Blue-ribbon winner in Crisco’s National Pie Championship, this multilevel marvel demarcates its layers of smooth peanut butter cream and chocolate cream with a stripe of dark, devilish fudge. Farmer’s Kitchen baker Charlene Johnson is also renowned for sour cream raisin pie—a fave in Iowa dairy country—as well as for crumb-topped apple pie that is guaranteed to have a whole apple in every slice. Pre-pie, don’t miss Charlene’s son Mark’s chili, also a blue-ribbon winner—of the People’s Choice Award in the 2007 World Chili Championship. (319 Walnut St., Atlantic, IA; 712-243-2898)

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