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May 4, 2012

Hunger Strike | A pie in the house of love

Maybe coming here on 4/20 and ordering over half the menu sent mixed messages. Maybe vibing to the beats of British reggae coming through the speakers gave the wrong impression. Maybe my hoodie and beard scruff did not exactly convey an aura of “reputable gentleman.”

But then again, maybe pies weren’t the only things getting baked in Pleasant House Bakery’s kitchen.

Let me backtrack for a second. A quaint, little pie shop on a quiet corner in Bridgeport; it’s a tiny British oasis in this working-class Mexican/Chinese industrial district square in the middle of Chicago. The exterior proudly boasts “nothing to see here,” and the interior is comparable in its dimensions to an oversized tool shed, perhaps best suited for a poker game between local crime bosses in a Guy Ritchie film. An open commissary-esque kitchen takes up a bulk of the already limited square footage, and if you want eating irons (that’s cutlery for you Yanks), go get it yourself, you lazy bastards. Food can be, and often is, taken to-go, but for the true “experience” grab a seat at one of the eight or so wooden tables lovingly adorned with a single bottle of malt vinegar. Pungent and mildly offensive, it’s an acquired taste, perhaps intended to discourage you from ruining any of your food by actually using it.

Despite my expert use of British slang and pop culture, it may shock you to learn that I have never actually been to England, eaten a Cadbury Crème Egg, or even watched an episode of Doctor Who. And I certainly don’t claim to be an authority on the “authenticity” of Pleasant House Bakery’s food as a bastion of British cuisine—which does not exactly have the best reputation worldwide. Haggis, blood pudding, greasy newspapers wrapped in fish (or is it the other way around?)…and pies. I mean… how good can a pie even be, right?

Bloody damn good, I tell you. For these ain’t no run-of-the-mill peasant pies; these are Royal Pies. So let me just dust off my monocle and bring out the good silver. Ethel would you be a dear? Unfortunately, my faux-British charade must end here. There is no need for these British affectations or delusions of grandeur. I assure you this is pleasantly rustic and simple fare for a decidedly stoner affair.

The first component that strikes you is the shockingly light and flaky dough that gently caresses the filling of each and every pie. It’s a magical puff pastry (that may or may not live by the sea), imploding like a soufflé with a gentle tap of the knife. Your nostrils fill with a haze of savory smoke and spice, and all you can think is “Excuse me while I eat this pie.” And while the pies may be few in variety, which is great when counting past three becomes a challenge, they more than compensate in execution.

Starting with the “least” successful of the bunch, though that’s like saying a bronze medal at the Olympics constitutes failure, I would have to go with the Steak and Ale Pie; a classic, straightforward take on beef stew complete with ample servings of carrots and booze. Slicing the pie in half, the contents came pouring out like the most beautiful evisceration I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. Also, the most delicious. The beef and carrots were stewed long enough to reach that perfect state of tenderness bordering on mushiness, while the ale’s flavor became something more complex, akin to a red wine braise or something equally fancy and French. Yet, was the concoction possibly too “homely”? I mean, it brought me back to a comforting taste of (a non-existent) childhood on a snowy New England winter’s eve. But as much as nostalgia is a good thing (like a bowl of Campbell’s soup) it can also be incredibly mundane. Picture, if you will, a bazillionth bowl of Campbell’s soup.

Fortunately, any negative thoughts were quickly silenced, stuffed in a suitcase and drowned in the Thames, by the lush and hearty mushroom and kale pie. Scallions and white wine help to round off the flavors, but, as the Dude would say, parmesan, the “king of cheeses” (as befitting Royalty), really tied the pie together. And there was certainly a copious amount of it, as the kale and mushrooms were suspended in that salty, umami-rich white goo. It was perhaps the best match for the buttery pastry, almost like a traditional Southern pairing of biscuits and creamed spinach.

And finally, I have to mention the Chicken Balti pie—you know, the one that saved that town in Alaska from diphtheria. Oh that was Balto? Well this pie could have done just as good a job. Filled with chicken and tomatoes simmered down with curry spices, one bite and you’ll have that stupid Punjabi MC song stuck in your head all day. The flavors of this pie are familiar and comforting, certainly identifiable as Indian curry, but perhaps slightly simplified for the Anglican palate. Not that I’m complaining; paired with some coriander chutney, I loved and treasured this slightly deformed offspring of Anglo-Indian cuisine as if it were my own.

If for some bizarre, munchies-induced reason you need to shove more food in your pie-hole, there are some excellent sides to stave off your paranoia. Deluxe gravy chips called “poutine” (a.k.a. stoner fries) may be the last thing you need after this leaden mass of a meal. Thick-cut fries, steak, gravy and cheddar; it’s a low blow that could bring any customer, no matter how gastronomically prepared, to his knees. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t absolutely worth it. The Scotch egg—an egg wrapped in sausage and deep fried—was a salt bomb, nay, a sodium nuke, that rendered my palate a vast uninhabitable wasteland. Luckily, minted peas make a good palate cleanser even if they don’t sound or taste particularly exciting.

Biggie always warned us to never get high off our own supply—but he said nothing about getting pie. Plus, making pies is time consuming and better left to the pros. And since your grandma is probably thousands of miles away, it’s okay to develop a good relationship with your local pie dealer. Pleasant House Bakery, in addition to weeknight specials like a Fish Fry, Burgers and High Tea, offers special pies twice a week—maybe even a Pot Pie every now and then—so you’ll never miss the chance to get your fix. But even an upstanding chap such as myself cannot say that I escaped Pleasant House Bakery completely unscathed, without at least a minor dose of contact pie. I may have been completely fine when I came in, but I couldn’t help walking out completely and utterly pie-faced.

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