South Side Soda Shop best among stellar finalists
By Marshall V. King
kept coming back to the lemon meringue pie at South Side Soda Shop.
In my opinion, it's the best pie you can buy in Elkhart County.
After tasting 103 pies from restaurants or bakeries around the county, the one from the Goshen restaurant is the winner of Pie Quest, The Truth's series on the county's best pie that started in February and ends here.
I didn't lose sleep over picking a Pie Quest winner, but I waited until the breakfast test. Over the course of tasting pies from around the county, part of rating them was eating them fresh -- and often going back for seconds the next morning.
After the final pie tasting event Tuesday, I pulled the leftovers out of the refrigerator Wednesday morning and had a forkful of each of the five finalists.
The five finalists provided some of their stellar pies for an event at The Truth. People from a variety of departments joined the owners/bakers from South Side Soda Shop, Patchwork Quilt Country Inn, Village Inn, Country Lane Bakery and Strauss Bakeries. Pictures were taken. Pies were tasted. People wrote votes or comments on index cards. People loved the pie party and left full, even feeling a little sick from tasting all the pies. But after the pie party was over, it was my decision to make.
"It would have to be a tough choice. There were five good pies there," said D.W. "Jim" Strauss, founder and owner of Strauss Bakeries.
Here's why I think South Side's lemon meringue is the best in the county: It's the best mix of a great crust, a flavorful filling and a topping that's not just nondairy whipped topping.
Nick Boyd, who owns the diner with his wife, Charity, makes all the pies and does a masterful job. It's a relatively pretty pie, but one that is equally good to eat. I first tasted it in February and have had it a few times since. It's been the same every time.
I know that some don't like lemon. Others aren't fans of meringue. But I think it's the best pie. One other taster Tuesday called it "supernaturally delicious."
Several tasters thought Strauss' caramel Dutch apple was the best pie. They were traditionalists who favored the apple. Others said the pie was too crumbly. One taster said it was better than her grandmother's, but we're not supposed to tell.
Nearly equal numbers thought the other four pies were the best, though the coffee toffee from Patchwork Quilt north of Middlebury was the popular favorite. Treva Swarm uses a special touch to create a toffee crust using a box mix and other interesting ingredients.
The French silk pudding is very smooth and rich. One person said it "rocked their world" and another said it was an explosion of flavor in his mouth. One person said it was her favorite, though she hadn't tasted the other four yet.
I didn't pick the coffee toffee pie as the winner in part because it's not a traditional pie. It's a great dessert and may have been the best dessert among the finalists. But it's not traditional pie -- both its strength and its fault.
Over the past months, many people have asked what my favorite kind of pie is. It's probably red raspberry cream or old fashioned cream, though I also now say, "The one I'm eating."
Jane and Michael Stern, food writers who travel the country, raved about Village Inn's pie and said, "Amish country is pie country."
From top to bottom, the Village Inn had the best range of pies that I tasted. It's one of those places that can make about any kind of pie and usually has a number of varieties available. It's a destination for pie lovers. The red raspberry cream has a wonderful vanilla pudding that's as good as I've had in a cream pie. The thick glaze allows the flavor of the raspberries to shine. The whipped topping is better than average because of the tweaking Ida Schmucker and the other bakers do at the restaurant. The crust is good, though I don't think as good as Boyd's at South Side.
Ida Yoder's pies from Country Lane Bakery are wonderful, whether it's the pecan, peach cream or old fashioned cream. This summer, I rated the peach cream with five slices and Yoder tried making one with frozen peaches, but it wasn't the same and I allowed her to submit the old fashioned cream, which is the best version of that pie I found on Pie Quest.
One taster said it was "sweet and creamy and decadent" and reminded her of her grandma's version. Some of the best food isn't just about taste, but the memories it invokes. Yoder's crusts are flaky and the fillings follow some of the best in the Amish tradition of pie making. I loved her pie, just not as much as the lemon meringue.
I shared pieces with a few of you and shared comments about the pieces with many more of you, but I'm grateful for the readers who made suggestions along the way.
I've learned that this is a great area for pie. A number of people make wonderful pies and sell them at reasonable, even inexpensive, prices. More than that, people in this area love pie. There are lots of pie guys and pie gals for whom pie isn't an indulgence, it's part of their normal routine.
I've learned that people who make them and the people who eat them are passionate about pies and have clear favorites. A number of readers told me how they return to one place again and again. One told me how he was tempted to lick his plate after finishing his piece. A number of people have looked at concoctions some call pie and declared, "That's not pie."
I've come to believe in the magic of a flaky pie crust filled with a sweet filling and topping. I've loved doing this the past months, though I've felt woozy more than once from the sugar intake. I didn't count the calories, but my body did the math. I gained a little weight over the course of Pie Quest, dashing my hopes to market the "Pie Diet."
We're trying to figure out what next year's version of Pie Quest might be. Suggestions so far from readers and colleagues have included pizza, steak, burgers, soup and fish fries. My wife has playfully suggested that next year's endeavor be called "Salad Sleuth."
We'll see. If you have suggestions, pass them along.
Contact Marshall V. King at email@example.com.