By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Gan Suebsarakham and his spouse, Steven Torres, could have given us another trendy ramen house or cool taco shop when they opened their eatery in October.
But they dared to be original and immediately stole the hearts of both hipsters and everyday consumers with sweet and savory pies crafted in individual sizes.
Pop Pie Co. is the only urban kitchen in metro San Diego devoted exclusively to pie making.
The pies are stamped with all-butter crusts and contain house-made fillings that can include on any given day braised beef in mushroom-ale gravy, jackfruit in herb sauce, guava cream cheese or German chocolate fudge.
The classic chicken pot pie is one of their mainstays. It’s augmented with peas, carrots, celery and herbs, and exceeded in flavor any I’ve had from a homey diner — or when buying them from frozen foods aisles in my younger, shameless days.
The sauce wasn’t starchy; the veggies were garden-fresh; and the flaky crust added a buttery oven-baked essence as it collapsed into the filling.
Suebsarakham is the culinary maestro in the business. He grew up in Thailand savoring an array of fillings slung from an Australian pie shop that catered to an international community.
He then studied pastry at Grossmont College when coming to San Diego and began pursuing the concept with Torres, who was previously a business banker.
Torres heads up the coffee program and sources the beans from local roasters, such as James Coffee Co. in Little Italy and Ironsmith Coffee in Encinitas.
His drink selection includes everything from cappuccino and pour-overs to cold crews and flavored lattes. Matcha and un-sweetened ice teas are also available.
Hubby and I squeezed onto one of the shop’s communal tables during a full house to eat a trio of savory pies, which included the aforementioned chicken, plus two side dishes.
We toted home a few sweet ones for later.
Our favorite savory was the Green Hog & Cheese featuring a mix of tomatillo-braised pork, three different types of de-seeded chilies and jack cheese. If the fillings were served alone on a plate they’d make for a spirited meal.
Encase them in Suebsarakham’s pie crust and they become deliciously surreal, like nothing America’s pie goddesses ever conceived — meaty, tangy and with sneaky bits of chili heat for good measure.
The Steak & Ale pie was also memorable, like what I wished for when eating versions of it in visits to England, where good-quality beef rarely appears in casual fare.
Here, the pie is filled with deftly braised chuck swaddled in dark-ale gravy sporting an earthy tinge from mushrooms.
The pie isn’t as saucy as you might expect. But the tender, cubed meat and well-constructed gravy compensates for the slight lack of moisture.
A side of firm mashed potatoes with lighter brown gravy paired naturally to all three of our pies, especially when spooning some of the spuds on top of them.
The kitchen will actually do this for you if requesting the entire serving of potatoes on a pie.
We also devoured an order of creamed corn, which was beautifully “creamed” and both sweet and salty at the same time. That too jived well with our savory pies when errant kernels fell into them.
Our love for these pies resumed hours after leaving, when forking into the lemon meringue in particular.
The curd’s sunny-yellow color matched the high level of juicy citrus flavor, which was expertly balanced by the semi-sweetness of the meringue and crust.
The strawberry-rhubarb pie was nostalgically sweet and tart while the German chocolate fudge pie was dense and toothsome to the point of requiring a glass of cold milk to wash it down.
At last, a new culinary concept in San Diego has emerged. Pop Pie Co. exposes us to meal pies that are gourmet without tasting flamboyant and to sweet ones that transcend the sugar-loaded options produced by grocery store bakeries.
No more of those for me.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.