Life of Pie: Texas' most tempting treats
Few edibles rank as high among Texans in the category of necessary foods as pie. One of the dishes we require at every celebration or Sunday dinner, it belongs up there with chicken-fried steak and cheese enchiladas. When we need the comfort that grandma’s hugs once supplied, we reach for a slice of homemade pie. Pie has also held a significant role in the community; as pie suppers were important fund-raising events, along with cakewalks, fish frys, and chicken dinners. A look into vintage Texas cookbooks reveals recipes for syrup, pecan, peach, apple, buttermilk, mustang grape, and osgood (raisin-date-pecan) pies that were popular as much as a century ago.
Texas Pie Hall of Fame
Blue Bonnet Cafe (Marble Falls)Open since 1929, the Blue Bonnet has gained a lofty reputation for some of the Hill Country’s finest home-cooking and exceptional pies. By noon each day, you’ll find at least a dozen kinds of pies fresh from the oven, ready to eat. Favorites include fudge, chocolate cream, chocolate meringue, lemon cream, and lemon meringue. My pick: German chocolate, a mountainous cream pie filled with milk chocolate, coconut, and pecans.
Koffee Kup Family Restaurant (Hic0)
Trembling triangular towers of meringue draw thundering herds of visitors on a regular basis to this burg some 90 minutes southwest of Fort Worth. Even in mid-afternoon, you’ll find diners tucking into big pieces of gorgeous pie (12 varieties daily). Choices include coconut, chocolate, peanut butter, and lemon meringue, as well as pecan, apple, Black Forest, banana-blueberry, and sugar-free coconut. My pick: caramel meringue, a butterscotch-y filling crowned with a huge, feather-light meringue that added up to a four-and-a-half-inch-high piece of pie.
Royers Round Top Cafe (Round Top)
A cafe since 1947 in tiny Round Top, near Brenham, the town square’s gathering spot has been run by the Royer family, formerly of Houston, since 1987. Upon taking over, Bud and Karen Royer made it a popular destination eatery with their “sophisticated comfort food,’’ which includes a luscious lineup of world-class pies with elegant crusts. The Royers serve hundreds of pies in-house weekly, and ship thousands all over the nation every year. Bud’s signature creation is the chocolate-chip pie, a dense delight that’s best eaten warm with a big scoop of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla on top. My pick: strawberry rhubarb, made with fresh fruit and covered with a crunchy granola topping.
House of Pies (Houston)
In heaven, I plan to have pie for breakfast.
In Houston, this 24-hour restaurant will accommodate me whether I have breakfast at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m. The moment you walk in, shelves of pies greet you, reaching toward the ceiling. Fruit choices include wild blueberry, Dutch apple, and sugar-free boysenberry; meringue works include lemon and coconut; cream pies include French silk and Bavarian chocolate-banana; and specialty selections include egg cream and sweet potato. My pick: Bayou Goo, as decadent as it sounds, with a pecan crust topped with sweetened cream cheese, vanilla custard studded with chocolate chunks, and a cap of whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
Essentials: Texas PiesJeff’s, 500 S. US 87, Kress; 806/684-2333.
Hamburger Store, 101 Market St., Jefferson; 903/665-3251.
Paris Coffee Shop, 704 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth; 817/335-2041.
Coney Island Cafe, 114 W. Foster St., Pampa; 806/669-9137.
Blue Bonnet Cafe, 211 US 281, Marble Falls; 830/693-2344.
Royer’s Round Top Cafe, Round Top; 877/866-7437; www.royersroundtopcafe.com.
House of Pies (Houston), 3112 Kirby Dr.; 713/528-3816; 6314 Antoine Dr.; 713/680-1641; 6142 Westheimer Rd.; 713/782-1290.
Koffee Kup Family Restaurant, US 281 at TX 6, Hico; 254/796-4839.
After a long, hot afternoon of driving around the Panhandle, Jeff’s served as a true oasis between Amarillo and Lubbock. Surveying the pie possibilities, all meringue, I thought hard about coconut, chocolate, cherry cream, and banana. Until spying the pineapple, that is.
My pineapple-snob friend, who gamely drove on this day’s search, pronounced Jeff’s pineapple meringue pie a five-star winner. (See recipe below.) Customers come from Tulia, Silverton, and Plainview for meals, as well as the fine pies.
“On a busy day we’ll go through 10 to 15 pies,’’ Rhonda says. “And the holidays can be crazy. We sold 200 pies at Christmas one year.’’
Hamburger Store (Jefferson)
Luck rode shotgun with me the day I wheeled into Jefferson. It was a weekend, and it turns out that that’s when you’re most likely to get a slice of Buck Ouchley’s beloved lemon meringue pie. Its creamy lemon filling captured the optimal balance of sweet and sour, and it was capped with a beautifully browned, picture-perfect meringue.
Buck’s personal favorite is the sugar-free lemon pie, which he has perfected since becoming diabetic.
Paris Coffee Shop (Fort Worth)
Fans of the Paris know three things: First, you must go on Thursday to get great chicken and dumplings; second, you have to get there for lunch by 11:30 a.m. if you don’t want to stand in line for a table; and finally, you’d want to get there early, anyway, before they run out of chocolate meringue pie.
While I am fond of the lemon, peanut butter, and coconut meringue pies at the Paris, the chocolate knocked me out on my last visit. Mike Smith, owner and pie man, arrives at work at 3:30 a.m. to bake that lush example of chocolate heaven every day, along with his coconut meringue, egg custard, apple, and cherry. Regulars know they’ll get peanut butter and banana pies on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, pineapple cream on Monday, and lemon on Friday. Sugar-free fruit pies are regularly featured, too.
Coney Island (Pampa)
Great pie inspiration somehow blossoms in the glow of Greek heritage, as my visit to the Coney Island Cafe in Pampa, northeast of Amarillo, further revealed. Begun in 1933 by immigrant Bill Coronis, the Coney Island became known as a pie place under the guidance of brothers John and Ted Gikas, who inherited the cafe from their uncle Bill.
The Gikas brothers were known to make and serve 45 pies daily, with 17 varieties to choose from, along with chili-covered hot dogs. In 2001, they sold the restaurant and pie recipes to Brenda and Roger Donelson, who continue to serve the pies that wowed me when I first wandered in a couple of winters ago.
Shelly Smith, Brenda’s niece, bakes around 20 pies daily, in 16 varieties, from chocolate cream and apricot to lemon meringue and pumpkin. Egg custard is the biggest seller, but buttermilk comes in a close second.
Jeff’s pineapple meringue pie
Beat egg yolks at high speed with an electric mixer, adding 1 c. sugar slowly while continuing to beat. Gradually add cornstarch, salt, milk, and 1 tsp. vanilla. Transfer mixture to a saucepan, and cook over low heat, stirring gently and constantly with a whisk, until mixture boils and thickens slightly. Add drained pineapple, and continue to cook and stir gently for 1 minute. Pour mixture into baked pastry shell, and set aside.
Beat egg whites at high speed with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually add 6 T. sugar, 1 T. at a time, beating until stiff (but not dry) peaks form and sugar dissolves. Beat in vanilla. Spread meringue over hot filling, sealing to edge. Bake at 400° for several minutes or until meringue is browned (watch closely). Yield: One 9-inch pie.