Rebecca Flint Marx
Vegan Apple Rhubarb at Mission Pie, San Francisco
Last month, I drove from New York to San Francisco, and although the landscape, accents, and climate changed as my friend and I moved west through 13 states, one thing remained constant: pie. Blueberry, rhubarb, pumpkin, chocolate. We were hard-pressed to find a dining establishment where pie of some kind or another was not available.
I was amazed by this consistency: not only has pie infiltrated seemingly every nook and cranny of the country, but it is, overwhelmingly, delicious. One of the chief delights of driving 3,519 miles was discovering thick slabs of it almost everywhere we paused, from diners and truck stops to hotel casinos and that Christian bookstore in Nebraska. Regardless of the beliefs and politics that divide Americans, we are truly united in our pursuit and enjoyment of the perfect slice of pie.
What follows are the 10 slices of pie we ate over the course of our travels. Some were good, some were great, and some were sublime. But all of them provided delectable evidence to support the theory that wherever you go in this country, pie will be there to greet you warmly.
1. Coconut Custard, Minella's Diner, Wayne, PA: Minella's is a veritable institution along Philadelphia's Main Line, having offered 24/7 service for more than 40 years. And as at any good diner, its enormous menu includes several varieties of pie. To say that its coconut custard more closely resembles a flan than a pie is not an insult: on the contrary, its caramelized surface and eggy, agreeably sticky consistency broadcast all that's great about flan, while its flaky, savory crust serves as a delectable reminder that you're eating a damn fine slice of pie.
Apple, Keystone Diner, New Oxford, PA2. Apple, Keystone Diner, New Oxford, PA: There's not a huge amount to do in New Oxford, located in southeast Pennsylvania. There is, however, the Keystone Diner, a rambling, unassuming place right on the Lincoln Highway. Front and center is a big display case exhibiting numerous pies, all of which are reassuringly homey. The Keystone's apple pie is all-American as can be, with a thick, buttery lattice crust and a simple, straight-up cinnamon-spiked apple filling. It's the kind of apple pie you expect to find at any diner in any part of the country--even one that sells lottery tickets, like the Keystone does--and a comforting reminder that sometimes expectations can be met, and even exceeded.
3. Chocolate Meringue and Razzleberry (Blackberries, Raspberries, Blueberries), The Original Pie Shoppe, Laughlintown, PA: Although it also sells cookies, brownies, and various other baked goods, the Original Pie Shoppe's namesake is the true draw here. Among its more unusual offerings is the razzleberry pie, a combination of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. An intensely juicy, fruity concoction, its flavor is heavy on the berries and light on the sugar, complemented by a tender, savory crust. The 66-year-old store's chocolate meringue pie is similarly unusual, in that it substitutes meringue for the more traditional whipped cream topping; the result is a pleasant contrast between the fluffy, airy meringue and the intense chocolate custard filling, a textural interplay that makes the pie a standout.
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4. Rhubarb, Cindy's Diner, Fort Wayne, IN: Rhubarb pie is rarely just rhubarb; there are usually strawberries or cherries to counter its tart edge. Cindy's makes a convincing case for why straight-up rhubarb pie should be way more common. Here, the plant is cut into satisfying chunks, combined with just enough sugar to tame its tartness, and encased in a crust so tender it all but melts into its filling. The good people of Fort Wayne have been bellying up to Cindy's counter for decades; with pie like this, it's little wonder.
5. Cherry and Apple Nut, Lampstand Coffee Shop, Christian Books and Gifts, Ogallala, NE: Hidden among the Lampstand's crucifixes and shelves of Christian literature is some first-rate pie. Although the cherry slice's filling is almost nuclear in appearance, its flavor is reassuringly homey, and its cargo load of juicy black cherries is plentiful. The crust is sweet, shortbread-like, prone to falling apart upon contact with a fork, and utterly delectable. The apple nut, meanwhile, is another winner. Like the best apple pies, it plays on the tension between the natural tartness of the apples and the sweetness of the sugar. Add the earthiness of the walnuts and a good, old-fashioned flaky crust, and you've got a well-balanced combination of flavors and textures. It couldn't have been better had Jesus baked it himself.
6. Blueberry a la Mode, Little America, Little America, WY: Little America is basically a massive highway rest stop on the Wyoming plain. You can find a hotel, convenience store, and pay-per-use showers there; more important, though, you can find blueberry pie a la mode. Served at Little America's restaurant, it's as agreeably old-school as the red vinyl booths and wall-to-wall carpeting. The ice cream is Breyer's vanilla, and the blueberry filling, though generous with the actual berries, is a little heavy on both the cornstarch and sugar. Still, it's hard to find too much fault in anything served warm with ice cream.
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7. Pumpkin, Hotel Nevada, Ely, NV: Although the Hotel Nevada is known primarily as a gambling hall, it Pumpkin, Hotel Nevada, Ely, NValso happens to serve a very fine slice of pumpkin pie. Generously proportioned and properly attired with a lavish toque of whipped cream, it's the pumpkin pie upon which Thanksgiving dreams are built. Its filling is firm but yielding, its crust flaky and savory, and the whipped cream binds everything together in the way that only excessive amounts of whipped cream can. You could reasonably claim that it's the only safe bet at the Hotel Nevada.
8. Vegan Apple Rhubarb, Mission Pie, San Francisco: There are few foods that say "San Francisco" more eloquently than a slice of vegan pie filled with thoughtfully sourced fruit. And Mission Pie's vegan apple rhubarb makes an elegant statement indeed, both about the values of the city's food scene and the beauty of a well-baked piece of pie. Although the bottom crust is almost an afterthought, it serves its purpose in providing a vehicle for the excellent fruit it cradles. And in a delectable departure from the tried-and-true double crust, Mission's bakers have substituted a crumble shot through with oats and a bit of cinnamon. Altogether, it's like eating a slice of early summer--and, as I found, the perfect ending to a long drive.
Rebecca Flint Marx lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Saveur, and The Wall Street Journal.
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Rebecca Flint Marx