The apples in the filling are crisp, the spicing pitch-perfect, the crust reasonably flaky at unpretentious but agreeable Tony’s Southern Comfort, and the restaurant’s smooth, firm sweet-potato pie is equally worthy of a slice. And don’t overlook the peach cobbler, plenty sweet, with cinnamony crusts on top and bottom and made by Tony’s mother, Rossie. It’s hard to obey the rule to never eat anything larger than your head when faced with the monumental dessert portions at Dot’s Place, including an irresistible yam pie and a deliriously sweet peach cobbler with a fabulous crust. Ordinarily, a too-sweet, gooey confection like the peach cobbler at big, rambling Threadgill’s wouldn’t qualify, but its crust—thick but tender, covered in cinnamon-sugar-nutmeg crumbles—is just amazing.
Casa Linda Cafeteria, gay in pink and green and flooded with sunlight through big windows, sets the local standard for pies. The firm chess is ultrasweet and naturally egg-yellow; blessedly served just cooler than room temperature, it has flavor you can truly taste. The flaky-crusted caramel-nut pie has deep brown-sugar flavor and is topped with a cloud of meringue and scattered with chopped pecans. The amount of butter and sugar in each bite of the chess pie at Vern’s Place, a cozy little dive in the shadow of Fair Park, means serious time on the treadmill later, but you’ll never regret your decision to order it. South Dallas Café can fairly boast the finest peach cobbler on the planet, with big pieces of juicy fruit and flaky strips of crust nestled throughout the deep bowl.
Paris Coffee Shop owner Mike Smith, who greets every table he can get to, begins the daily baking routine at three-thirty in the morning. It’s no wonder people are gaga for his tart lemon-meringue pie and his smooth egg custard. Regulars at the Eighth Avenue landmark Massey’s know that it’s smart to order pie at the beginning of the meal. Waitresses set aside pieces of the sweet, nutty coconut pie with its impossibly high meringue so folks don’t bolt their food in fear of missing out.
The House of Pies maintains its original bright, seventies-coffee-shop look. Of the many offerings, Bayou Goo remains the top guilty pleasure. Its elements are a pecan crust, sweetened cream cheese, and chocolate swirled into vanilla custard, with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top. For something less go-for-broke, try the understated lemon icebox. Mama’s Café, with its Southern roadhouse theme and video-game room, offers your choice of cobbler, including mellow, fresh-fruit peach (in season), agreeably tart blackberry, or cherry that’s not overly sweet.
In its heyday, the Doll House packed a standing-room-only lunch crowd into its downtown location, and wise diners knew to order pie first. Three years ago a new owner reopened the restaurant in its office-suite location, continuing the tradition. Best of a good lot: a chilled banana cream pie and a dreamy peanut butter cheesecake (true, it’s not a pie, but it walks the walk).
The best, flakiest piecrust in the city is at unpretentious Mr. and Mrs. G’s, where a winey apple pie and a fluffy, wonderfully fragrant sweet- potato pie top a daily list of five or six highly acceptable flavors. Cozy Apple Annie’s is pie heaven. Of nine tasted, the best were French lemon (like a subtle lemon chess), Key lime (no oozy sweetened condensed milk here; the filling’s more like lemon curd), French coconut (imagine macaroons crossed with custard), and supersweet coconut cream (must love coconut). A slew of pies fills the dessert menu at the 410 Diner, with its vinyl accents and neon art. The excellent crumb-crusted rhubarb pie has no soggy, wimpy strawberries; it’s a purist’s dream.
Soul Survivor—Dot’s Place
Technically, Dot’s Place doesn’t qualify as a Small-Town Gem. After all, it’s in AUSTIN. But we felt owner Dot Hewitt deserved recognition for her tremendous tenacity. In October 2004 her 24-year-old institution was destroyed by fire. On top of that, it was uninsured. But anyone who thought Hewitt was finished was badly mistaken. She rounded up a little trailer and got a restaurateur friend she calls “my fake son” to let her use his commercial kitchen. For the past year, she and her niece Chastity Washington have been cooking lunch for all comers. These days you get a to-go box and choose from a list that might offer meat loaf, baked chicken with dumplings, greens, candied yams, okra and tomatoes, cornbread muffins, and more. And just like always, it’s some of the best soul food you’ll find in the state. Dot swears she’ll rebuild. If she says so, you can count on it. PS