It’s a Northwest tradition to pile fresh berries into a pie tin, slap on a flaky crust, and bake it until it’s a bubbling mass of sweet-tart splendor.
Another summer Northwest tradition? A trek to Mount Rainier.
I intersected those traditions in my recent search for great pie in the South Sound. What I found was this: If searching for truly comfort-style pie, the kind your grandmother may have made, the treasure trove of pie bakers can be found along a meandering 50-mile plus stretch through East Pierce County – from Bonney Lake to Spanaway to Ashford. And this time of year? Ashford is a splendid destination whether you’re going for pie or a trek.
Blackberry is the kind of pie we Northwest natives grew up eating and the most popular pie I found along the pie trail to Mount Rainier, but South Sound cafes and bakeries all the way to Mount Rainier National Park’s front door specialize in everything from raspberry to huckleberry, rhubarb to apple and funny quirky pies like Willy Wonka and Logger’s Pie.
For blackberry lovers like me, every bakery or cafe featured here served that kind of pie. But most every cafe had something else in the pie case that I liked.
Here’s where you should eat pie as summer winds to an end.
Stop 1: C.J.’s Deli, Bonney Lake
18401 Veterans Memorial Drive E., Bonney Lake, 253-826-0672, cjsdelibonneylake.com
The baker: Connie Swarthout opened her little cafe in 1997. She collected a following for deli sandwiches, but pie became her real specialty. She’s the pie baker who gives demonstrations at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup.
Her pies are built on a strong Midwestern foundation; Swarthout was taught pie baking by an aunt and grandmother who grew up there. Her favorite pie to make is the apple crumb, but triple berry is the most popular with diners. She once accidentally won a pie contest. She thought she was donating a pie for an event, but she wound up winning a pie contest without really entering.
Pie case: At least a half dozen daily choices.
Don’t-miss pies: The lemon lush, with a nut crust, expertly walked the line between tart and sweet. The triple berry and boysenberry were sturdy pies built on flaky shortening crusts. Apple crumb skewed the ratio of topper to filling in favor of cinnamon crumb.
Cost: $3.65 a slice, whole pies $17-$20 (24 hours’ notice for whole pies).
Meet Connie: She’ll demonstrate pie baking from 1-3 p.m. Sept. 8 and Sept. 22 at the fair.
Stop 2: Berryland Cafe, Sumner
1101 Main St., Sumner, 253-863-4567, berrylandcafe.com
The bakers: Lola Burslie bakes her pies in the late evenings alongside son Tim Hansen at the downtown Sumner cafe the family opened in 1999. A little known piece of pie intelligence is that Burslie’s only been making pies for about five years, her methods honed through trial and error. The cafe is family run by Burslie, husband Nolan, sons Tim and Michael Hansen and daughter Connie Foster. Burslie’s pies have fetched as high as $500 at auction events.
Her signature move: Decorative cutouts – hearts or letters that signify the flavor of pie inside – make Burslie’s rhubarb pies cute and memorable.
Pie case: In keeping with Sumner’s nationwide reputation as the rhubarb capital of the world, Burslie’s specialty is rhubarb pies in many combinations – rhubarb with strawberries, marionberries or raspberries and her famous CPR (cherry, pineapple and rhubarb). She also makes other fruit pies. Cream pies come from a pie manufacturer.
Don’t-miss pie: Marionberry-rhubarb tasted fruity and tart, the filling held sturdy to the last bite, with a shortening-based crust that flaked with a gentle nudge of the fork.
Cost: $2.99 a slice. Whole pies are $14 (24 hours’ notice for whole pies)
I didn’t try in Sumner, but you could: Downtown Sumner is full of rhubarb pie, but stop by Dixie’s (15717 Main St. E., Sumner, 253-863-0111, dixieshomecookin.net) for rhubarb pies made with peaches, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries. They run out frequently, so call ahead. Buttered Biscuit is another usual suspect for rhubarb, 1014 North St., Sumner, 253-826-6099, thebutteredbiscuit.net.
Stop 3: Don’s Drive-In, Puyallup
925 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup, 253-845-1790, donsdrivein.net
The baker: Jenny Herrington has been the pie baker at the downtown Puyallup location for years, but she learned the recipes from a longtime Don’s worker named Ducky. The drive-in, which is home to the oblong shaped Smitty burgers, features pies made with scratch-made dough and fillings crafted the old fashioned way. Every slice comes adorned with a complimentary plop of fresh cream, whipped by hand daily.
Pie case: No fewer than 6-8 pies daily, check the white board for the selection
Don’t-miss pies: Lemon was a perfect seesaw of tart and sweet with a silky sour cream base on a flaky shortening crust. Fresh raspberry showcased everything that’s beautiful about fresh summer berries. The chocolate cream was a study in decadence, each mouthful delivered a sturdy bite of dark, rich pudding.
Cost: $3.29 a slice, $13-$21 for whole pies (24 hours’ notice for whole pies)
Don’s closes: The drive-in closes Sept. 6-22 for the Puyallup Fair.
Stop 4: Little Park Restaurant, Spanaway
17106 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma, 253-531-1343
The baker: Stephanie Crawford makes at least 30 blackberry pies a week at the restaurant, which has served pie since it opened in 1958. Before working at Little Park, she didn’t even know how to bake a pie, but has since been bitten by the pie bug. Crawford makes apple and blueberry during the berry and apple seasons. Her signature move is to fill her blackberry pie shell two inches over the pie crust so that the pie won’t deflate as the berries cook down – the result is a berry pie piled high.
Pie case: Usually a dozen varieties.
Don’t-miss pies: Blackberry and raspberry pies both landed high on the pucker scale, both built on a very sturdy crust that was thicker than most of the competition and held a glossy sheen from an egg wash applied right before baking. The Willy Wonka pie, made by a co-worker responsible for the cafe’s cream pies, was a dreamy, whipped concoction with a peanut butter filling.
Cost: $2.99 a slice, $10.99 for whole pies (24 hours’ notice for whole pies)
Stop 5: Cruiser Cafe, Eatonville
106 Washington Ave. S., Eatonville, 360-832-8646, cruisercafe.biz
The baker: Jenny Smith has been baking pies in Eatonville for about eight years, first as the owner of the Truly Scrumptious Bakery and now as the owner of Cruiser Cafe.
She learned pie baking at Copper Creek Inn in Ashford, where she worked for 16 years making that cafe’s signature blackberry pie (read more about it below). She learned the pie basics working alongside Jennie Zuelich, who developed the first pie recipe at Copper Creek. In the Northwest pie baking world, that’s like working with pie royalty.
Note: The detour on state Route 7, which has been rerouting drivers from Spanaway to Mount Rainier through Eatonville via the Eatonville Cutoff Road, means an uptick in business. Smith has had a difficult time keeping pies in her case. Check wsdot.wa.gov for detour updates.
Pie case: Usually berry, apple and a cream pie or two, subject to availability.
Don’t-miss pies: Blackberry packed a wallop of fresh berry flavor, cherry was lightly tart. The shortening crust was a thing of beauty – tender bite with a sugar coating, the most pliable pastry crust sampled for this report.
Cost: $2.99 a slice, $12.99-$15.99 for whole pies (24 hours’ notice for whole pies)
A must stop in Eatonville: Nearby Bruno’s Family Restaurant makes a don’t miss apple-raisin pie called the Logger’s Pie ($4.49), a square pie made with a pastry crust topped with icing. If they ask if you want caramel sauce and ice cream, say, “Yes!” Bruno’s is at 204 Center St., Eatonville, 360-832-7866, eatbrunos.com.
Stop 6: Copper Creek Inn Restaurant, Ashford
35707 State Route 706 E., Ashford, 360-569-2326, coppercreekinn.com
The baker: Caroline Struck is one of the pie bakers who carries on the tradition established by Zuelich, who baked pies at Copper Creek for more than 35 years before she retired in 1987. Zuelich, when pressed for her recipe, gave something like this to current owner Catharine Gallagher: “Fill the blue pan two thirds full of flour, three pounds of lard, three hands full of salt, and more lard if necessary. Mix thoroughly. Add cold water, the less, the better.” The pie recipe is a little more modernized now with a shortening crust, but the flavor still is pure blackberry.
Only one: Copper Creek Inn only serves one kind of pie – Zuelich’s blackberry pie. Struck said she bakes more than 200 a week.
The blackberry pie: The filling spilled a little loose, the consequence of very little thickeners used (a bit of tapioca). The flavor was pure blackberry with a flaky shortening crust coated in sugar. This was a pie to write home about – and worth the drive.
Cost: $5.99 a slice, $21.99 for a whole pie
I didn’t try in Eatonville, but you could: Nearby Wild Berry Cafe bakes blackberry and huckleberry pie. Find the cafe at 37718 State Route 706 E., Ashford, 360-569-2277, rainierwildberry.com. Wild Berry serves an American menu alongside Nepalese specialties such as yak stew and momos. Also find pie at Alexander’s Country Inn, 37515 State Route 706 E., Ashford, 360-569-2300, alexanderscountryinn.com
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.