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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Located in a defunct gas station on old U.S. 40 (now superseded by Interstate 70), Henry’s looks forlorn.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)

Family Pie Shop; De Valls Bluff, Arkansas

The hours of operation at Mary Thomas’ Family Pie Shop are erratic (call before you go) and her home business in rural Arkansas is not exactly designed for public dining (just a few stools at a short counter in a storage room near the kitchen). Most business at this ramshackle roadside bakery is takeout, but the good news is that in addition to making full-size pies (which both Governors Clinton and Huckabee regularly procured from Little Rock, an hour away), Mary makes ready-to-go single-serving sizes suitable for eating off the dashboard. There is nothing simpler or more perfect than her featherweight egg custard pie, and sweet potato pie is a Dixie classic. Mary’s is the place to savor that Arkansas favorite, fried pie—apple, peach, or apricot filling inside a crescent of pastry dough, deep-fried until brittle. (U.S. Hwy. 70, De Valls Bluff, AR; 870-998-2279)

Candel’s By-Way Café; Stanford, Montana

Baker Sheila Candelaria of Candel’s By-Way, in the crossroads town of Stanford, Montana (population: 399), credits her pie prowess to her mother, from whom she learned to cook growing up on a ranch 17 miles south of town. She explained that no machine can work dough the way expert hands can, because only a seasoned pie maker can feel when it’s been kneaded just enough—or as she calls it, “hand-squished.” Coconut cream, lemon meringue, and sour cream raisin are among the prizes that lure fans from far and wide. (36619 U.S. Hwy. 87, Stanford, MT; 406-566-2992)

Blue Bonnet Cafe; Marble Falls, Texas

At the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Texas Hill Country, a sign mounted on a wall in the dining room advises, “Try Some Pie.” Excellent advice! Of course you want a slice of pecan made with big Texas-grown nuts, but also not to be missed is the house specialty, peanut butter pie, which is a silky-textured whipped peanut filling topped with a thick ribbon of ivory white cream. It is sent to the table accompanied by a paper cup full of chocolate sauce for diners to pour on or use as a dip for each forkful. (211 U.S. Hwy. 281, Marble Falls, TX; 830-693-2344)

Royers Round Top Cafe; Round Top, Texas

Between Austin and Houston in the middle of nowhere, Round Top (population: 89) is known for its colossal quarterly antiques show and for Royers Round Top Cafe, which is nothing less than pie paradise. Bud’s chocolate chip is the dreamiest variety, but you can taste several by ordering a pie sampler of four different kinds (all except the fruit pies) with plenty of Texas-made Amy’s ice cream. (The menu threatens a 50-cent surcharge for anyone who does not get their pie à la mode.) Royers is set up to mail-order pies, and devotees enroll in one of Bud Royer’s pie plans. They range from a pie every two months for a year to pie-of-the-month for life. (105 Main St., Round Top, TX; 979-249-3611)

Julian Pie Company; Santa Ysabel, California

For anyone with a nose that works, the sign on the door of the Julian Pie Company is redundant: “Begin Smelling.” The moment you enter this suburban San Diego spot, the spicy scent of apple pie oozing from the oven is so voluptuous you can’t even inhale without feeling lascivious. Varieties include Dutch apple with a crumb top, boysenberry apple, strawberry apple crumb, and apple rhubarb crumb. If you don’t have time to sit for a wedge, take heart: The Julian Pie Company makes one of the greatest snack foods anywhere—bite-size pieces of pie crust sheathed in cinnamon sugar and baked to become savory-sweet cookies. A variety of pies can be mail-ordered via the company’s Web site. (21976 U.S. Hwy. 79, Santa Ysabel, CA; 760-765-2400)

Jane and Michael Stern are the authors of Roadfood, now in its the eighth edition, and Roadfood.com, a source for reviews, recipes, and tasting tours of good eats nationwide. Longtime contributors to Gourmet magazine, they last wrote for Gourmet Live about the best beach food in the country.