L.A.'s New Wave of Pie Shops 

Thursday, Jan 5 2012

In this time of economic privation, it seems fitting that the 99 percent of us who didn't win the economic lottery remember what it means to "cut corners."

The etymology of the phrase, an idiomatic way of saying "to do something as cheaply or quickly as possible, often sacrificing quality," isn't precisely known. But one theory, certainly the most appetizing, is that the phrase refers to sheets of pie dough that were rolled out and trimmed — their corners literally cut off — to fit shallow, circular pie dishes.

The phrase may have migrated to North America along with the Pilgrims, but it hit a certain vogue during the Great Depression, when pie became a staple of American cuisine, a way for thrifty cooks to stretch meager ingredients.

click to flip through (2) Assorted minipies from Simplethings
  • Assorted minipies from Simplethings

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Savory or sweet, workaday or exalted, boasting precision layering or a clean-out-the-refrigerator aesthetic, the pie, in all its humble homespun glory, is back. In truth, it never left. Los Angeles is replete with eateries at all tiers of the culinary spectrum, from truck-stop diner to snazzy bistro, where pie finds a tasty niche.

These days, you'll also find pie sitting proudly at the crossroads of nostalgia, comfort food and a faddishness for all things homemade. Beyond metaphor or metonymy, however, pie exists as a pure and persistent craving.

Good pie is hard to fake. So the wave of restaurateurs and cooks turning pie-making into an art form is a welcome trend. Unlike the regulatory agencies and government watchdogs that were supposed to guard against unchecked greed, this is the kind of corner-cutting we'll gladly stomach.

Here are four newish pie shops that will leave you scraping the tin.

4. The Village Bakery & Café

The hand pie is a simple concept: Encase the filling entirely in a flat pocket of dough so it can be eaten easily and without mess while on the go. If it's good enough for our favorite Fox-animated Southerner, Bobby Hill, it's good enough for us. Barbara Monderine's Atwater Village bakery specializes in a preservative-free version aimed at the discerning Angeleno. Filled with apples, cherries or assorted berries and sometimes festively shaped into hearts, these are flaky wonders, sprinkled with large sugar crystals. It's hard not to love them. It's even harder not to down two or three at a go. There's the rub. These baby pies are so adorable, it's altogether too easy to forget they're a serious dessert. An easy solution: Order two hand-pies, one to eat before your main course and another for after. 3119 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater Village; (323) 662-8600, thevillagebakeryandcafe.com.

3. I Heart Pies

Why top your pie with something as banal as a crust when you could top it with a springy layer of caramelized marshmallow? Under the I Heart Pies moniker, itinerant piemaker Emily Cofrancesco, who traded in the long hours and high pay of a TV editor for the long hours and low pay of an artisanal baker, makes her way around special events and farmers markets. Even without a storefront, her pies have amassed a cult following. It's due to creative inventions like the maple cream pie, the Cracker Jack Pie with two kinds of mousse (salted caramel and chocolate) and the aforementioned Peanut Butter S'mores Pie, with a layer of fluffy peanut butter cream and an impossibly moist graham cracker crust. Then there's the Purple Forest Pie, made with black currants and speculaas, Dutch spice cookies traditionally served on Christmas Eve. iheartpies.com.

2. Simplethings Sandwich & Pie Shop

Opened in November 2010 along Third Street's "café corridor," Simplethings specializes in the mini-pie, perfect for commitment-phobes or the glutton who demands unending variety. The menu changes daily, rotating through an assortment of pies. For example: key lime on Sunday and Monday, coconut cream on Wednesday and Thursday, Missouri mud on the weekends. (Fortunately, the stunning salted caramel is available four days a week.) It's no sacrilege to assert that the standout is, actually, the whoopie pie. It's a craggy beast, resplendent in its asymmetry. The dough somehow combines the best of both worlds: the chewy crumble of a cookie with the soft, spongy delicacy of cake. Where other pies settle for frosting that seems to harden instantaneously, Simplethings' frosting is light and spry. In December, they made a particularly stunning whoopie pie: dark chocolate cake and peppermint filling crusted with candy cane chunks. Too large for one person, it's also too good to stop eating. 8310 W. Third St., L.A.; (323) 592-3390, simplethings restaurant.com.

1. The Pie Hole

Recently opened in the northeast corner of downtown L.A., the Pie Hole makes a lovely strawberry hand pie. It's served as a skipping stone-sized disc of flaky dough surrounding preserves made months prior from berries picked during the high season. (You can also buy the jarred preserves.) Pie Hole doesn't skimp in the savory pie department, either. They make a veggie curry pot pie dotted with golden raisins (and it works!), a carnitas turnover and, in case one genre of carbohydrate isn't enough in a single sitting, an individually sized mac 'n' cheese pie that oozes with tart, creamy sauce. As for the best pie, it's a toss-up between the chocolate peanut butter pie resting on a crust of crushed, salted pretzels or the lemon meringue, made with a dense, almost croissant-like crust, a base of creamy lemon curd so rich it makes Frank and Jamie McCourt look frugal and a voluptuous meringue that puts the usual Styrofoam padding on such pies to shame. 714 Traction Ave., dwntwn.; (213) 537-0115, thepieholela.com.

Reach the writer at elinashatkin@gmail.com

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