These are hard times for fans of Hubig’s Pies. The beloved but beleaguered local brand has been out of business since a fire destroyed its facility in July 2012, and any prospects of rebuilding have been stuck at an impasse for many months now (see more in this week’s What’s Cooking column).
And so the waiting game stretches on, and for those who feel the jones somewhere between a flavor craving and a flavor memory there can be no replacement for the real Hubig’s.
However, in the time that’s passed since the fateful Hubig’s fire, a different type of pie, comparable in style if not quite in substance, has become more common around town.
Hand pies — or self-enclosed, turnover-style pies — are increasingly popular across the larger American food world, appearing now at bake shops, restaurants and farmers markets. In post-Hubig’s New Orleans, the trend arrives against a backdrop of longing and some highly specific standards of evaluation.
Never mind that the “pocket pies” at chef Donald Link’s downtown sandwich shop Butcher are baked (not fried like Hubig’s), have a tangy sour cream dough and get a dash of moonshine in their sugar glaze. When people see the familiar half-moon shape wrapped in plastic and positioned for impulse purchases by Butcher’s cash register, the comparisons are inevitable.
“We definitely hear from people looking for Hubig’s,” said Maggie Scales, executive pastry chef for the Link Restaurant Group.
Her flavors have changed seasonally, with apple spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon now in rotation. After hearing requests based on Hubig’s cravings, she’s contemplating a lemon flavor next.
Similarly, Windowsill Pies has lately been producing hand pies with pear and Brie or apple with cheddar and a touch of Grand Marnier liqueur. They’re not likely to be confused with Hubig’s classics like coconut or pineapple. But Nicole Eiden, who runs Windowsill Pies with Marielle Dupré, said she still hears plenty about Hubig’s from customers at her farmers market stands.
“They really took off,” she said of the hand pies. “And I think it helped that people here are already oriented toward them.”
At Treo, the Tulane Avenue cocktail and small plates spot, chef James Cullen references the “Hubig’s style” directly in the menu description for his fried apple pie, which is imbued with a subtle hint of cayenne and is finished with vanilla-flecked crème anglaise and fresh mint. Cullen said the concept aligns with his overall approach of working references and tributes to New Orleans culinary culture through his menu.
“It’s a $6 plated dessert, it’s not something you get in a paper wrapper at the convenience store, but it’s still a fried pie and that’s a touchstone for people,” Cullen said.
New Orleans will be seeing more — and by all indications more varied — renditions on the form. The owners of District Donuts.Sliders.Brew, a year-old Garden District café, plan to open an expansion shop as soon as next week. Called District Hand Pie and Coffee Bar, it’s taking over the former home of Velvet Espresso Bar at 5637 Magazine St. It will serve sweet and savory pies alike, with six varieties a day, and these will follow the same “multi-layered, multi-textural” principles that guide the elaborate specialty donuts at District’s first location, explained co-owner Chris Audler.
“It’s taking something like donuts or burgers that people already know well and doing something different with them,” he said.
For instance, some flavors in the works are cherry basil, tres leches with maraschino cherry “caviar” and bacon maple (visit District’s Instagram page, instagram.com/districtpies, to view a veritable R&D lab of hand pie ideas taking shape).
Just a few doors up Magazine Street, the storefront bakery P’s and Q’s may soon add hand pies in response to the vocal cravings for Hubig’s Pies that baker Betsy Foster Matthews has heard around town.
She recently bought a small, hand-cranked machine that presses dough together in the familiar crimp-edged, hand pie fashion, and she’ll likely focus on straightforward flavors and fillings, like chocolate cream and lemon. She hopes to start producing them early in 2015.
In fact, New Orleans has long had access to a restaurant counterpoint to Hubig’s Pies, courtesy of the local Bud’s Broiler burger chain, which sells a hot fried pie in apple, peach and cherry flavors.
“They’ve always been a big seller for us. They’ve had their own following for more than 50 years now,” said Joe Catalano, owner of the Bud’s brand.
Bud’s central commissary kitchen cooks up about 1,000 of these pies each week, which are then distributed to the company’s eight locations. Catalano has heard requests from some customers to replicate popular Hubig’s flavors — chocolate, say, or sweet potato, a seasonal specialty. But he thinks Bud’s is better off keeping its three flavors consistent rather than branch out.
“Hubig’s always had their own niche in grocery stores and convenience stores, so we never saw ourselves as competition,” he said. “We stood on our own, and they stood on their own.”
Nothing can replace a Hubig’s Pie, but these alternatives may offer a relief valve for hand pie cravings
Multiple locations. budsbroiler.com
What: Fried apple, peach or cherry pies, caked with powdered sugar
930 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 588-7675; cochonbutcher.com
What: Baked ‘pocket pies,’ wrapped and ready for impulse purchases
3835 Tulane Ave. (504) 304-4878; treonola.com
What: Fried apple pie with crème anglaise
What: baked hand pies, sweet and savory, available through the local foods site GoodEggs.com and at the Mid-City location of Whole Foods Market, 300 N. Broad St.
Also, District Hand Pie and Coffee Bar expects to open in early December at 5637 Magazine St., serving sweet and savory hand pies; and P’s and Q’s plans to begin its own hand pie production after the holiday season.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.