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Life of Pie 

Thursday, Aug 7 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

It ain’t on Atkins. In fact, pie isn’t sanctioned on any diet. It’s fattening. Darn fattening. Unless you’re baling hay or digging ditches, you definitely won’t work off that slice you had at lunch. Pie, for most of us, is a special-occasion treat. At its best, though, a good fruit pie is worth every calorie, for it has the rare, uncanny ability to make a person happy. I know. I’ve been happy a few times this summer, thanks to a slice or two.

It all started with some homemade peach pie at a party. Made by a practiced pie maker from ripe farmers-market orange peaches, this pie contained such a distilled, intense, beautiful moment of summer, I became fixated. Where could I go — or send people — in restaurant land to rekindle that lovely moment?

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Since then, I have sampled 22 pies from 11 different places, and on the whole, the news is not good. I can say now, with authority, that restaurant pies and even store-bought pies are usually a disappointment — except on the rare, heady occasion when they’re not. Pie making is clearly a vanishing art.

Nevertheless, I started out hopeful — on a quest for summer in pie form. I tried to limit my search to single-crust fresh-peach pies and double-crusted berry (preferably boysenberry) pies to make comparisons easy — although I adapted my order according to what was available at each venue. I brought 11 pies to a gathering of tasters. Other slices I ate solo, or with friends in restaurants.

If eating good pie can make you happy, bad pie has the reverse effect. After two or more mediocre pies, all of my tasters decided they’d rather not eat pie again for another year — or ever. That’s what they said, at least, until the next slice.

Du-Par’s peach pie was generally despised, as the peaches tasted of the tin, and the lattice crust, while flaky, was soft and gutless. Its double-crusted boysenberry pie was voted least visually appealing for its pale, plain-Jane crust, but once we tasted it, we all agreed that this was all around a very good pie. The unremarkable-looking crust had body and flakiness, and the filling was tart and juicy, with just the right degree of “spill” (by which I mean how the filling oozes out of the crust); you want some spill and juiciness, but not too much.

Marie Callender’s mixed-berry double-crusted pie was almost as well-liked as Du-Par’s boysenberry. It lacked the tartness of the berries, and its crust, preferred by some, was a tad saltier and much flakier — the crust, in fact, had a kind of soft, golden flake that is found only in commercially made pies. We also tried Marie’s fresh-peach pie, a short, cooked buttery shell heaped very high with fresh peaches held in place by a gelatinous glaze. The peaches, however abundant, were hard as apples and tasteless, which led all of us to speculate with wonder if there might not be one person in the corporate chain of command — if not the cook, then the cook’s helper who peeled the peaches, the counterperson who boxed the pie — who could tell, as we could, that the pale peaches were utterly unripe?

At House of Pies in Los Feliz, the fresh (uncooked) peach pie came wreathed in a white stabilized crème that had the cold white sparkle and taste of marshmallows. The peaches themselves were coated with a thick amber-tinted glaze that, according to the teenager among us, gave the pie the look of a “gel candle.” At least these fresh peaches were ripe and flavorful. As House of Pies offered no two-crust berry pies, we tried a lattice-topped cherry pie whose filling, once bleeding onto a plate, proved to be a frighteningly sweet, deeply artificial crimson, a pie painted by Wayne Thiebaud.

Four N 20, a two-location coffee-and-pie shop in the Valley, had a lighter-tasting, more creamy-looking, non-dairy-tasting white substance piped around its fresh-peach pie. The crust was flaky, and some of the peach slices were almost ripe — though they lacked any real peach flavor. Much worse, however, was a boysenberry pie that had no “spill” at all; the filling was as solid and bouncy as Jell-O cubes, with a predictably dulled flavor.

I had often eyed pies at Costco, the huge lattice-topped creations that weigh a veritable ton and cost, comparatively, next to nothing. The day I swooped in to actually buy one, I had a choice between apple and strawberry-rhubarb and chose the latter for what was to prove the nadir of our pie-sampling experiment. This was a pie on steroids — the rhubarb in huge, hard chunks, the berries sour, the crust too thick, quite tough and bland.

At The Apple Pan, we tried a double-crusted apple and a boysenberry cream. The apple’s crust was thin and oily, overcooked and tasteless; the oversweet fruit tasted of tin can. Meanwhile, the cream-topped pie boasted of overthickened, flavor-dulled boysenberries that, once cut, formed a perfect isosceles triangle.

The pies looked huge and beautiful in the pastry case at Babalu on Montana. The peach-raspberry had a lovely rustic-looking lattice crust — but it turned out to be doughy and soggy; the fruit, its color boosted with fluorescent-orange thickener, was nowhere near as juicy and ripe as it had appeared in the case. A crumb-topped mixed berry pie was almost 3 inches of pure sturdy filling — yet again we found the berries’ flavor muted by thickener, and there was way too much cinnamon in the crumble topping.

But take heart. Things get better. Apple Mountain Pies are not transcendent, but they do the trick. The operation specializes in apple crumb-topped pies, and all the crumb-top pies contain apples, along with other fruit. The crumb is very sweet; the apples, too. But the boysenberry-apple crumb top is pretty darn good, though the peach-apple, with a measly few peach slices tucked under the too-sweet apple, isn’t. The two-crusted fruit pies suffer from a soft, pale, bland crust.

Happily, it is possible to find a very good piece of pie, a piece of pie that is actually so good it’s fun to eat, worth a drive, and accomplishes that ineffable thing: pie that makes you happy, happy to be with friends, happy to be in the middle of summer eating a fruit pie. The fresh-peach at Pie N Burger in Pasadena was a revelation — of ripeness, the right amount of salt in a crust, the synergy of a few basic ingredients, even if one of them is a weird orange glaze (at least this glaze tasted like peach). And the boysenberry was everything we wanted: The crust had body and flake, and the berries, well, as one friend said, “I don’t care if they’re frozen or canned or fresh off the bush. They have juice and body, every little one of them.” Finally. Pie N Burger. Yes.

Apple Mountain Pies, 12519 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 980-5334.

The Apple Pan, 10801 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 475-3585.

Babalu, 1002 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 395-2500.

Costco, 2901 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater, (323) 644-5201, and other locations.

Du-Par’s, Farmers Market, 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 933-8446, and other locations.

Four N 20, 5530 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 988-1152; 4723 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village, (818) 761-5128.

House of Pies, 1869 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 666-9961.

Marie Callender’s Restaurant and Bakery, 5773 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 937-7952, and other locations.

Pie N Burger, 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 795-1123.

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