I am almost as obsessed with seeking out pie as I am with making my own and so far this summer, I’ve sought out and sampled four (and a half) different pie purveyors with varying results: the Comet Cafe in Milwaukee, WI; the Aroma Pie Shop in Whalen, MN; Richman’s Cafe in Bellevue, IA; Turtle Bread (the Linden Hills location) in Minneapolis, MN; and thrown in there at the end – pie samples being handed out at Whole Food at the Edina, MN location.
Opportunity to visit the first three locations came as a result of accompanying Pretty Boy on three racing road trips this June, and I always put in extensive food related research before leaving. What route will we be driving and how close will said route take us to any culinary points of interest? The first trip was to RedBud in Buchanan, MI which resulted in two super successful food detours. Although we drove through Chicago en route and could have chosen any number of establishments in that culinary haven, the timing didn’t work right for stopping, so instead we visited one of Andrew Zimmern’s favorite bakeries in the US (Bit of Swiss in Stevensville, MI) located just miles from the track as well as a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives feature (Comet Cafe in Milwaukee, WI) which we stopped at for a late brunch on our way home.
Comet Cafe was supposed to be a mecca for bacon lovers with bacon fat being a prominent ingredient in their famous meatloaf, free baskets of bacon for happy hour, and a bacon apple pie or so I was told via the Food Network. Pretty Boy and I arrived when only Sunday brunch was being served, and we shared the Meat-n-Eggs breakfast which consists of meatloaf, sausage gravy, eggs, hashbrowns, and toast and finished the meal with a piece of blackberry peach pie and a chocolate cupcake. I was excited for the meatloaf and pie; mostly ambivalent about the eggs, hashbrowns, and cupcake; and just hoped the gravy stayed away from whatever I was eating. Turned out, the gravy and hashbrowns were some of the best I’ve ever had and I actually wiped the gravy dish clean with toast it was so good, which is quite a testament to the sausage gravy since gravy is one of the few things I almost always don’t enjoy. The eggs, toast, and chocolate cupcake were enjoyable as well. Strong, basic staples executed well. I was a little disappointed in the meatloaf and pie. Maybe I just hyped it up too much, but the meatloaf was on the dry side and tasted mostly of green bell peppers to me. As for the pie, the filling was perfectly acceptable, but I thought the crust needed a lot more flavor, substance, and flake. As we were about to leave, we noticed on their wall menu board, a boast that several of the pies, including the blackberry peach, were vegan. Vegan pie crust!? I don’t expect to find lard in commercial establishment pie crusts like I use in my pies, but at least butter! For a vegan pie crust, it wasn’t bad, but I just don’t believe that those type of substitution sacrifices are worth it. So in summary, the best sausage gravy I’ve ever had. I recommending making the trip for the gravy and following with a cupcake (or the bacon vanilla ice cream their website started advertising after our visit!).
Next, Pretty Boy raced at MC Motopark in Mt. Carroll, IL back to back weekends. The first weekend we planned to take the route suggested by Google which took us very close to a number of good bakeries and restaurants down the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, and I settled on stopping at the Aroma Pie Shop in Whalen, MN. I first heard about the Aroma Pie Shop in this Star Tribune piece about Southeastern Minnesota last summer, while researching a different pie roadtrip adventure. I ordered a whole blueberry-rhubarb pie and a whole Elvis peanut butter pie (Pretty Boy’s request) in advance since we would be arriving after the shop closed. The gracious owner and baker, who lives in the apartment above the shop, would be there with pies for us at 6 pm (one hour after close). After an adventuresome drive practically right through a few farms in a trailer-pulling pick-up truck, we arrived hungry in Whalen.
I sat the blueberry rhubarb pie on my lap as Pretty Boy drove and had probably eaten a third of the pie all by myself before it occurred to me that Pretty Boy might want some and I should share. This pie ranks up there with the Stockholm Pie Company as best purchased pies I’ve ever eaten! The filling was excellent – good strong flavor, nice texture, not too sweet. The top crust was a lattice crust, which makes it hard to judge thoroughly, but overall it had nice, complimentary texture and flavor to the filling even if I would have prefered a full covered top crust. We ate a good two third of the pie before I forced myself to stop (I could have put the whole thing down) and turn my attention to the peanut butter pie.
I felt a little bad for the pie because Pretty Boy had something very different in mind on account of the Elvis pies I have made in the past. When I make Elvis pie, I put peanuts, grahams, and pretzels in the crust, a layer of chocolate pastry cream, a layer of bananas, topped with peanut butter mousse, topped with dried banana chips and chopped pretzels (a la Hoosier Mama Pie Company). This is what Pretty Boy had in mind. What we got was a chocolate cookie crust with peanut butter pie filling. Period. It was a good cookie crumb crust, very nice peanut butter filling, but just not enough compared to what Pretty Boy was expecting. And I must admit, I can forgive a lack of chocolate filling, but how can you call it an Elvis pie without bananas? Maybe there was banana in the filling and it was just too subtle for us to pick up on it. I was ready to close the box and return to the glory that was the blueberry rhubarb pie, when Pretty Boy proposed an astoundingly good idea: next time we stopped for gas, buy a bag of pretzels and a banana and do it up right. So we did. And it was delicious. Both of the pies made it to the next morning but much longer. And time actually helped the peanut butter pie. On the second day, the crust seemed to get saltier and more flavorful and I really liked it.
The next weekend came up so fast that I barely has time to pack the cooler, let alone research and find another place to stop on the new route we decided to take to Mt Carroll. My only food-guiding inspiration was in the form of a serious fried chicken craving. On our drive home, we passed through the small town of Bellevue, IA and saw a promising, home-y looking small town diner with a sign that said things like “Pie” and “Ice Cream” and “Homemade,” and Pretty Boy made the executive decision to stop at Richman’s Cafe. After I was that obnoxious customer and asked about 50 questions about the menu, the broasted chicken, the waitress’s personal preferences, and the pies, we ordered a two piece broasted chicken meal with fries, a piece of peach pie, and a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie. We took the pies first, right out of the refrigerator case. That should have been the first sign the meal wasn’t going to live up to the promising sign. Then I saw the highly processed, unflake-y crust. That should have been the next sign. And I tried a bite of each. And didn’t eat much more of either. The fries came out next and were in need of ketchup and rather nondescript. The chicken came out next, hot out of the fryer and was the highlight of the meal but it was just chicken. It was disappointing on both the pie and fried chicken ends. But such is life. The place was friendly, the view of the river was nice, I bet the ice cream was good, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.
After returning home and to busy life, I have been too busy cleaning out my dad’s basement and harvesting and freezing berries from my garden to plan much about pie (let alone make any). It wasn’t until Sunday when Dr. Sam picked a little Italian restaurant in Linden Hills call Trattoria Tosca for dinner that opportunity for pie arose again. Dinner at Trattoria Tosca was pleasant enough, but the exciting pie related part is that the restaurant is attached to Turtle Bread’s Linden Hill’s location. I’ve done my research and know that Turtle Bread pie ranked high in both of the Heavy Table’s Great Upper Midwest Pie Tasting (berry pies and pumpkins). So instead of getting dessert at Trattoria Tosa, Dr. Sam and I went next door to Turtle Bread to try a ginger molasses cookie, a peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie, a Mexican chocolate brownie, a piece of blackberry peach pie, and a piece of blueberry. My impulse was to get the strawberry rhubarb but the sight of the soup-y looking mesh in the pan made me steer clear. I’m vowing now to someday order a whole pie from Turtle Bread and request that they do not put it in their refrigerated case, because I’m hoping that will redeem them in terms of pie. The blackberry peach pie was ok: the filling was runny but flavorful and pleasant, the crust was gummy on the bottom and a little tough on top with the liberal layer of decorative sugar on top of the lattice crust,which I usually am not a fan of but in this case, made it just palatable. The blueberry pie didn’t fair as well. The blueberries in the filling lacked any blueberry taste while being surrounded by an unpleasantly thick, gummy, and also kind of tasteless goo. The bottom crust was undecernable from the filling goo and the edge crust was too tough. The filling was tasteless enough that no one elected to finish the pie. I didn’t even suggest Pretty Boy taste it.
After that, I thought the early summer pie tour had concluded and it might be about time to make my own pie. But Dr. Sam and I visited the newly opened Whole Foods on the Fourth of July. I had seen signs advertising pie with some curiosity leading up to the visit, but not enough to prompt me to buy a pie to investigate. Turns out I didn’t have to: the day we went, Whole Foods was sampling their apple and cherry pies. Dr. Sam and I tried a small sample of each. Dr. Sam’s one comment was: “Yours is better.” I would say they were respectable grocery store bakery pies – decent filling but reminding me of canned pie filling more than anything else and an okay but unremarkable crust and on the grain-y side (maybe fancy whole wheat flour or something like that). I would rank them just below a Lund’s or Byerly’s bakery pie.
I’m pretty excited about the amount of new pie I got to try this early in the summer given how busy I’ve been, regardless of the quality of the pie. Trying new pie is always an adventure, and so much possibility for greatness and so much potential for disappointment makes it such a great adventure!