Recipe for success
After 50 years, same ol’, same ol’ is what makes Pie ‘n Burger special
By Erica Wayne 11/21/2012
Forgive me, Lord. Back in 1998, on my first visit to Pie ‘n Burger, I almost committed an unpardonable sin. I was going to denigrate the restaurant on the basis of a greasy patty melt with unexceptional potato salad and an overly Thousand Islanded, scrawny grey burger with fries. Of course I was going to rave about the fries, some of the best I’d had in years: crisp surfaces but soft middles, hot enough to burn my tongue, accompanied by a whole bottle of Heinz ketchup for maximum indulgence. In fact, I thought about asking my editor to call the column Fry ‘n Burger and suggesting that the restaurant deep-fry everything to avoid the excess fat on the griddled stuff.
But I knew, in my heart of hearts, that Pie ‘n Burger couldn’t be nearing its 35th birthday chock-full of customers from morning to night unless it was serving something a lot more satisfying than the food we’d had for lunch, especially since the acoustic-tiled, wood-paneled, Formica-countered decor (I use that word loosely) was hardly a draw. So I dragged my husband back for breakfast the next morning and, as I digested and wrote, I also repented my hasty initial conclusions about the culinary skills of Pie ‘n Burger’s cooks.
This doesn’t mean the patty melt or burger (now $9.90 each) were better than my first assessment. A decade and a half and a couple of samplings later, I stand by my lack of enthusiasm. There are plenty of thicker, juicier, tastier burgers to be had elsewhere in town. But, it became obvious to me on that second visit that the best meal to have at Pie ‘n Burger is breakfast. Order bacon and eggs ($8.95) as we did, and you’ll get double-length strips of crisp bacon with hardly any fat at all, perfectly-done eggs (again without excess grease), a huge pillow of hash-browns (with superior homemade salsa if you want) and thick slices of homemade bread (white or wheat) that are alone worth the price of the whole meal.
The bread arrives buttered with a trio of jams and jellies. The coffee is filled and re-refilled every couple of minutes, the TVs over the counter are mute and the clientele seems engrossed in preparing for the workday or catching up on their newspapers. At that hour, Pie ‘n Burger’s dim interior, seemingly unrenovated since the ’60s, feels downright cozy. The odors of syrup and cinnamon (from homemade yeast rolls — $3.95) are seductive.
(Lunchtime, with the same number of diners present, strikes me as crowded, mostly because of the noise level.)
There were only two problems with our first breakfast at Pie ‘n Burger. First, we didn’t order pancakes. Usually, this is no problem. Whenever and wherever I order pancakes, I regret it. They come five or six inches in diameter and a half-inch thick, soak up butter and syrup like sponges and sit in my stomach for hours that seem like years. But Pie ‘n Burger’s “thin” pancakes ($6.95) are different, a lot more like crepes than flannel cakes and fetchingly overlapped. (My mate, who at 7 a.m. wanted no part of Pie ‘n Burger, suggested after spotting them that we return that weekend. Since then, it’s been one of our best-loved breakfast spots.)
Our second problem was pie. I wanted to try some so I could write about it, but I would have felt like an idiot ordering it at 8 a.m. So I forewent the pie till that afternoon, when I retuned to get some carryout slices. Making the selection was grueling. Apple, pecan, butterscotch meringue, boysenberry, mince and at least five or six more from their master list of 20 were available. While I was making my decision, I polished off a real old-fashioned medium thick milkshake (chocolate syrup, but vanilla ice cream, the only flavor Pin ‘n Burger stocks — $4.40) which brought back fond childhood memories.
At last I picked rhubarb (another favorite from my early years) and peanut butter (with a towering cap of meringue), each $3.85. When I got them home, the Styrofoam box top had ruined the beauty of the topping, but the wonderful flavor of the filling was intact. Hubby and I polished them off for afternoon tea. After that there was nothing to do but happily digest these treasures and ponder which ones we’d try next. At present, we’ve eaten just about all of them: I still love warm rhubarb best although fresh olallieberry, ($4.65), when it’s in season, is a close second. Alan swears by mincemeat and lemon meringue — both $3.85.
We’ve vowed never to calculate the calories in a Pie ‘n Burger meal. Everything we eat there is suffused with butter, oil or shortening. The fat in their pie dough makes their crusts platonically flaky. And as little as we care for the grease in the burgers, we’re addicted to the equally unctuous grilled Swiss with mayo on rye ($7.95) and grilled tuna ($9.90) that have taken their place in our hearts (perhaps literally) and which we frequently order (with fries) pre-pie. And this Thanksgiving, among other things, we’re grateful that our initial negative snap judgment of Pie ‘n Burger didn’t cause us to miss out on 14 years of great comfort food meals.