Hot Take/Cold Pie: A Journey in Slices
There's an essential part of my being that needs to fixate on something stupid until I burn out in a big way.
Lately I fixate on pie.
It began when I spent a month in Shreveport working on a film and living on mediocre craft services and, in my treasured spare seconds, ice box pie from Strawn's Eat Place, which is a so-called institution. I began a compulsive relationship with diner pie, which served me well as I drove across the world (the southwest) in pajamas (long johns and my leisure glasses) with a baby (a dog).
So there’s filled pies (lemon meringue, banana cream, etc) and then there’s two-crust pies (apple, cherry, etc). Within that there’s all kinds of variations, but for this article’s purposes, I like filled pies—which are almost always cold and creamy—more than two-crust fruit pies—which in their cheapest, diner-iest incarnations I find to be cloying and syrupy. Two-crust savory pies are a whole other story, a story I like very much, a story you’ll get a glimpse of in chapter 10: the pie hole.
Let's start this off by saying Pie Town, New Mexico is closed for the winter so don't even ask me about it, thanks!1
strawn's eat place
The crown jewel of the freezer pie diadem. I'd die for the strawberry or the banana. Holy shit, it's just a lot of homemade whipped cream on top of fruit but it's cold and it's perfect. I have had in total 9 slices of their pie, not including slices I've shared with others. I speak with authority. Damn good coffee too, endlessly refilled by kind-hearted waitresses who rib you as you become a regular, as they should.
Red vinyl booths, yellowy wood, bizarre mural of famous people rendered not quite recognizable by their painter, giant strawberry-shaped sign. nostalgia-fueled frenzy material. I deeply love this place.
There’s an unexpected freshness to Strawn’s pies. Do you know that it is an incredibly rare thing for banana pie to taste only of fresh bananas? The whipped cream compliments instead of smothers. It’s a big deal; I pine for it daily.
If it's of use, a rating of their regular flavors:
1 strawberry (narrowly, because red is more a pie color than mush yellow)
5 butterscotch (my sentimental heart is deeply charmed that they even have it, and I have visions of the man who orders this pie—old, widowed, now married to his diner routine. It’s future me.)
My pictures of Strawn’s are woefully few, so I’ll take you through the photo album in my mind. Here is the photo of the strawberry-shaped sign out front; here my very first order, one slice of strawberry, one cup of coffee, one side of fries accompanied by my library book B is for Burglar. and here is the photo of the “rounder” of pies (all 5 flavors) I ordered with three beloved coworkers, and here the time I ordered two slices of strawberry and no fries at all, to the great delight of Jessica, my regular waitress. and last is the photo of her—blonde, beaming, warning me of the weight gain that is certain to hit me once I enter my thirties.
Meh. Good warm fruit pies, everything else is sudsy meringue and so-so flavors. If you must, order blueberry or chocolate. Banana is a close third, but once you've had Strawn's banana you will never want another. good coffee but small cups.
Diner vibes are pretty good, checkerboard floors, a little more woodsy than Americana, a little more 1970s than 1950s, which means, like the decade itself, there’s an unspeakable sadness to it all.
My youngest sister recommends the blueberry.2 The rest of us (mother and other sister) agreed on chocolate and banana.
What is much more remarkable about Lea’s is that it is located very near what is sure to be a treasure: Ugly Café. Unfortunately this treasure was closed when I passed through. If you have the chance to go, please write me a detailed review and mail it to:
c/o aaryn coker
655 carved terrace
colorado springs, co 80919
This is a *city diner*, so it's like...gritty and busy. Really, it was so intensely packed that it stressed me out and made me realize I'm a small town diner kinda girl. I got my chocolate pie to go and ate it in my car in the parking lot (an emerging pattern, you will note).
They're known for their "Mile High Meringue" pies, so I was disappointed to find that it was maybe three inches. A stiffer, less sudsy meringue than Lea's (thank god) but all this meringue begs the question: why go meringue when you could go whipped cream it's the lesser of two fluffy white toppings and so easy to bomb? The chocolate sprinkles were a weird touch. Did they add anything notable? Texture-wise they got kinda goopy while touching the meringue. Flavor-wise it’s just more sugar.
It shouldn’t have tasted as shitty as it did. But Norma's brought the loss of Strawn’s into sharp relief, and it was the first stop I made on my drive west, all alone, after being pounded by rainstorms on the border of Louisiana and Texas. If I could do it all again, I would not order chocolate. The pressure of the bustling counter drove me to madness a little, and I hate those stupid sprinkles.
To be fair: the waitress was thorough and excellent. The coffee was shit.
The aesthetic is good, but like I said: city diner. You can see the sheer volume of customers who've passed through in the grimy tile, the worn out vinyl booths. There's some profundity in that—that’s the appeal of institutions right, their use?—but this one felt kinda soulless. The endless flood of customers swings exhaustive rather than comforting. It smacked of transience, not familiarity, maybe because I was, as it were, just passing through as I hurtled across Texas.
el paso, tx
Apparently certain American states are peppered with Village Inns: Arizona, Texas; there's even one in Guam. There are none however in Louisiana or California, hence my lack of knowledge regarding the chain.
Kudos to this location for allowing a dusty, bare-legged girl wearing a knife on her belt and drenched in road sweat order pie to go. Minus points for the bizarre inspirational food quotes on the walls (said by everyone from Paula Deen to Mark Twain) that I assume are a mandated chain-wide idiocy and not just this restaurant’s.
I ordered not one but two slices at this strange chain—“lemon supreme” and “french silk."
As for the atmosphere, there's something to be said for the clean shininess of places like this. Is this what diners were like in their heyday? All clean tile and trendy-colored vinyl and an excess of uniformed servers with well-groomed hair? There's an authenticity to that possibility, though a distinct lack of charm, which is almost exclusively a byproduct of age. Chains aren't as likely to age gracefully; they get remodeled before they're allowed to.
Anyway, I consumed these pies in the parking lot, car door left open for a breeze. Normally I would alternate bites between the two, but the logistics of that in a car with a dog are fucked, so I ate lemon first. and hellllllll yessssss to no meringue. Whipped cream on top and some kind of underlayer of (is it?) cream cheese. Sweet for a lemon pie, but after the first crushing taste of "oh it's not tart.”3 I could dig it. Good, flaky crust. I don't often find the crust worth mentioning, but good crust.
But this french silk shit tasted of trash chocolate, y'know what i mean? the kind of chocolate that has no chocolate in it. And those chocolate curls on top were just a half-assed way of saying "fuck you there's no chocolate in this pie." I ate the whipped cream off top and, dare i say it, threw the rest out. (The lesson here is: i should stop ordering chocolate pies!!!)
I should've ordered banana cream pie, I've got a hunch it's amazing. Luckily my next drives are through states with numerous Village Inns. I'll see where the road takes me.
PS - coffee somewhere between good and acceptable. New question: can good coffee come in a styrofoam cup? I think not.
silver city, nm
Yelp promised pie. No pie, a dessert menu consisting solely of flan and rum cake. But it was here I realized in two days all I'd eaten was pie and raw carrots and some spoonfuls of peanut butter. Ordered carne asada, no regrets.
A Mormon family watched me stumble in and eat like a rabid animal. Then I got a nosebleed. Coffee in an actual mug! This review is meaningless.
5 & diner
Hello, this is a good diner name. Hello, I never made it to one of these.
hopi travel plaza
This is the second time I've come into a diner intending only to order pie and realized I haven't eaten anything but carrots all day. Oops, I ordered the meatloaf special for $6.99.
To set the scene: this is one of those enormous gas station megaplexes with a trucker cafeteria attached. There were straight up tumbleweeds rollicking across the parking lot, and this was my one stop between the painted desert and meteor crater. It'd been gusty as hell all day.
Anyway, a sign said "pie special $1.99". Little did I know the only pies they'd offer would be pumpkin and pecan. (Ew, Thanksgiving much?) So I went pecan with great trepidation because it is so easy to mess up. But no, fuck my doubt, it was great. Cold, sweet, notes of caramel, and served à la mode. Another surprisingly good crust—firm and not flaky. Pecan pie doesn't need to flake y'know? It's got that texture thing going already with the nuts.
Coffee came in a brown betty mug that almost tipped the atmosphere scales in their favor, but these heinous Route 66 themed upholstered booths made me want to die.
The sole waitress was chipper-edging-on-annoying. But she was ON those coffee refills, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Coffee was good too, had some toasty tastes going on, but I've very nearly maxed out on fake creamer.
The total cost of my meal was $9.53.
Overhearing actual cowboys talk: priceless. "If you ever need someone to shoot a coyote, give me a call." And cowboy manners, wow. The coyote shooter paid for two stranger cowboys' meals and walked out with a tip of his hat. So rogue, so inspiring.
yabba dabba doo! fred's diner
bedrock city campgrounds
I camped at this Flintstones-themed campground one night. The proprietor was scandalized that I was tent camping by myself in the winter. She had to invent a price for a single tent camper, as they'd never had one before. (It was $9. $12 for a couple. Fuckers.) Once she realized my commitment (read: desperation, I'd been driving for hours and I adore the Flintstones), she simply offered me the spot closest to the wall to protect me from some crazy-ass Arizona wind.
I read the diner menu by lantern light in my tent that night and was delighted to note they offered pie.
It was so fucking cold when I woke up that I paced around the Mobil station across the highway just to feel my feet again.
Finally the café opened—dimly lit pastiche of stucco, vinyl tile, plaster, real tile, fake plants, valentine's day decorations (though it had passed). It's attached to the gift shop, which was so dark I doubt they expect anyone to shop, and there are two fireplaces, one of which was clearly a routine cowboy (a pattern!) meeting place. Six or seven old white guys crowded around and notably only consumed coffee, talked work and town gossip, which mainly consisted of who had been filling the holes on some road.
There's only one kind of pie here—gravelberry. The menu describes it as "apple, cherry, berry, and more!" which I mistakenly thought was a list of available flavors rather than the ingredients of a singular pie.
It was disgusting, like straight up every kind of canned fruit in syrup dumped in a crust garbage pie. The masking tape holding the cellophane over the styrofoam plate in which it languished was dated 2/12/16 (a week before). I could not finish it.
But guess what? The coffee was amazing, disproving my styrofoam cup coffee can't be good theory! If you get an 8 oz it's only 5 cents ("caveman prices!") and $1.75 for 16 oz. The cashier was surly as hell, but I was paying a $4 tab with a debit card so no wonder.
Also, this is the last two-crust fruit pie i eat for this review. Fuck anything but filled pie, fruit syrup in dough is not what I'm about.
Side note: Bedrock City is an incredible place in all other regards. Skip the pie, pay $5 to see the park which is a garden of surrealist art disguised as a roadside attraction. I took about a hundred photos and cried at its strange beauty.
peggy sue's 50s diner
California is the perfect state for the kind of militant nostalgia that runs a place like this. It's all 50s junk inside. The waitresses wear teal and pink uniforms, tightly done buns, and big name badges. They reek of false cheer. I can get behind the color scheme, but maybe not the clutter.
This is also a place with a lot going on—lights, music, a gift shop, a dinosaur park?, etc.—all of which chafe my Strawn's-bred sensitivities. I like simple and quiet. While there's something cutesy about a song you have loved your whole life coming on the jukebox (‘baby love’ by Diana Ross and the Supremes, of course), I'd just spent 6 hours blaring podcasts in a car, and my ears were bleeding. The writing on the wall kept talking to me. Take that last sentence as literally as you can.
Plus sides: they have like 13 kinds of pie in a glass case. And 7 of those on this day were cold, fluff-topped pies (chocolate, banana cream, banana split, coconut cream, peanut butter banana, lemon meringue, cheesecake). I ordered banana cream. Another plus: a counter, which I kind of enjoyed sitting at.
The pie itself was pretty OK: sweet, topped with tons of whip (yay), and full of some sort of appropriately stiff banana pudding mixture. Actual banana slices appeared in the cream every now and then. It held together well, still resembling a triangular pie piece several bites in. It was satisfactory banana cream pie, as I had to remind myself when I automatically began comparing it to Strawn's banana icebox pie. Fake banana flavor can get nauseating fast, as this one did, and I started to feel queasy.
I quite liked the coffee (more brown betty ware). And the overall experience was mediocre but seemed like an important stop overall, pie- and culture-wise. But I had a sort of stark remembrance in the parking lot: I don't actually like pie that much. I started eating pie in Shreveport because it was David Lynch's birthday and it felt like an honorary thing to do. I kept eating pie because it lent some structure to the weird fluid mass that is my life right now.
Now people think I'm a pie person. I'm not! I'm a chocolate malt person. I like ice cream. I'm fairly sure this phase will end soon as the smell of pie is starting to make me gag. However, my rigorous commitment to things that don't matter means I have to finish this journey with at least one slice of pie in Los Angeles, even if I don’t particularly want it, even if I feel queasy. [ed.—the Omakase editorial staff notes and appreciates Mollie's commitment to the piece.]
I took a lot of pictures at Peggy Sue’s, and yet I have no room to show you the dinosaur park. I think I felt overwhelmed.
the pie hole
los angeles, ca
Yummmmmmm.4 Let's be fair, this is a change of genre. This pie place is hip. You can tell because there's brown butcher paper everywhere—on the wall with the menu scrawled across it, on the tip jar, under each slice of pie. Plus, all they make are pies. No side of fries, no diner meatloaf. Just sweet and savory pies, some full size, some quiche, some hand pies.Let's be fair, this is a change of genre. This pie place is hip. You can tell because there's brown butcher paper everywhere—on the wall with the menu scrawled across it, on the tip jar, under each slice of pie. Plus, all they make are pies. No side of fries, no diner meatloaf. Just sweet and savory pies, some full size, some quiche, some hand pies.
Another change in genre: this was pie with friends. Or rather friend. Gone was the dusty girl alone in the diner, hello two women friends eating pie and catching up in a big, new city. It makes a difference, really warmed my heart up because I think this is what I imagined adulthood to be as a child. Living somewhere cool, having coffee at an outdoor café table, talking about jobs, careers, the sun shining. This is what it means to be a woman.
Uh OK: we ordered Mexican chocolate pie, shepherd's pie, salted caramel pecan pie, and a chorizo breakfast hand pie. The shepherd's pie was so good, wow, everything I want out of every meal: hot, potatoes, salt, cooked dough, oozing hot liquidy sauce. and the Mexican chocolate pie tastes like chocolate at Christmas, festive and full of spices. Satisfyingly rich and topped with whipped cream, of course I liked it. It was like—I don't know yet, but it was intense and good. The best comparison I can think of really is Christmas—the Christmases of my youth, family parties in my grandparents’ gold-toned parlor, everyone dressed in velvety dark colors, singing by candlelight, that spangled Christmas feeling.
Salted caramel pecan pie was more my friend's thing than mine (we've discussed my pecan pie timidity). But all the food was honestly amazing. The least notable was the chorizo hand pie, and only because everything else was so good.
Café au lait more lait than café if you know what I mean, plus I pang for New Orleans coffee. But good iced coffee, which my friend ordered.
I touched on the aesthetic of this place re: butcher paper. But generally it's that clean hipster coffee shop aesthetic: white walls, nice wood, clean surfaces, shiny metal. That's probably one of the reasons it felt so adult after a string of kitschy pie joints/gas stations where I was "baby" or "sugar" and the walls were covered in autographed photos of dead film stars. Here I was myself, ordering pie like a non-compulsive, non-junkie human adult in the world. No one there had to know that I've been living out of hotels, couches, and tents for four months now. I got to be the image of collected young womanhood, which is inaccurate but appealing. The kind of young woman who has a small but tidy apartment, who buys her lipstick at Target and takes it home in a reusable bag. The kind of young woman I absolutely have never been.
What I'm saying is, the Pie Hole experience (niche porn title?) affirmed my long move to Los Angeles. It was like: "Hey you did it, you're here now. We respect all the hard shit you've done lately." And I kinda needed that after my soul-splitting sprint west, which though magnificent and all-inclusive, felt a little bit unlike life.
postscript: pie hole again
It was February 24th, the sort of unofficial Twin Peaks Day, so we went for pie again. Thanks again to David Lynch, who started me on this path.
Earl grey pie: delicate, sweet, good with iced coffee. Again and again and again. ❧
This place is pie Mecca, and I missed their open season very narrowly and even though I intend to return one day, who can say if I'll have the same relationship with pie on that day? (I almost certainly won't.)↩
To be clear: my youngest sister's favorite foods include the tiny powdered sugar donuts that come in a paper bag and ketchup.↩
The standard by which I judge all lemon pies is my Aunt Julie's lemon meringue, which is amazingly tart and has soaring peaks of the only acceptable kind of meringue: structured, toasted on the outside, a little chewy. ↩
This place was a friend's recommendation from a while ago, and I'd misremembered the name as "Shut Your Pie Hole!" which I believe to be an equally good, if not better, pie restaurant name.↩