The Humble Glory of Minnesota Pies

By James Norton

Minnesota pies
Photo by Becca Dilley

What makes a perfect pie? Much is made of crust (butter versus lard, shortening versus everything else), and its flakiness, or lightness, or general durability. But the real heart of a pie is the filling—so much filling veers toward the goopy, and/or the oversweet, that it's a delight to find a pie with a sense of balance and restraint to it, something that challenges you not just to finish a piece, but to avoid finishing the whole pie.

From the North Shore to Bemidji to Bluff Country, Minnesota is wealthy in pie, boasting some old-school shops that make pies that would please even a French pastry chef, as well as some new-fangled pie makers that are reinventing the art form.

From north to south (more or less), here's a sampling of some of the state's most inviting pie shops:

The Rustic Inn Cafe, up the road from Two Harbors, is a classic North Shore pie place with a comfy interior and a formidable pie menu. The specialty of the house is an apple caramel pecan pie of surpassing gooeyness, which arrives less as a slice than an explosion of caramel, nuts and fruit. The North Shore berry pie is as fresh and bright as the apple caramel pecan is sugary and dense, and makes a nice chaser if you're a two-slice kind of guy (or gal).

Cozy and well-known for its brunch, the Heartland Kitchen & Cafe in Crosby has a serious rep for serious pies, including a caramel apple nut that rivals the one at the Rustic Inn.

There's no ordinance stating that pies have to be sweet, and that's a wonderful thing. While you may not think of Bemidji’s Turtle River Pasties as a pie shop in the traditional sense, its meals-wrapped-in-crust have all the gourmet sensibility of their sweet cousins. Made with 100% butter crusts and filled with items including smoked brisket, lean corned beef and kraut, and a breakfast-ready mix of ham and cheese, Turtle River Pasties breaks all the rules of traditional pasties and creates some impressive meals in the process.

The venerable Keys Cafe (with nine locations throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul area) is one of the cornerstone bakeries in the Twin Cities, and its pies are a mainstay for good reason—they're affordable but made with care, classic takes on classic flavors that will get you through the summer (or the holidays) without ever needing to turn on an oven.

Turtle Bread Raspberry Pie
Raspberry pie at Turtle Bread / Photo by Becca Dilley

The Turtle Bread Company in Minneapolis turns out stunning lattice-topped pies that promise and deliver gourmet flavor. The shop's fruit pies boast a crispy, sugar top crust and the sort of bright flavor that comes from real fruit (as opposed to canned fillings).

Visitors to Stillwater are advised to try a restaurant or two featuring Sara's Tipsy Pies, a relatively new dessert line that offers inventive, boozy pies. Sara's offerings include varieties using beer brewed by the local boys over at Lift Bridge Brewing, and the 2 Gingers Irish Apple whiskey pie is one of the brand's cornerstones.

The Aroma Pie Shop (in Whalan, near Lanesboro) sits amid some of the state's most dramatic rural scenery, but it doesn't coast on its surroundings—its offerings are, hands down, some of the best pies available in the country. Its fruit pies taste bright and clean, sweet without being sugary with real fruit flavor shining through, but the star may be the chocolate cashew pie. This unlikely combination of pie ingredients creates something akin to a rich, fudgy pecan pie with a slightly salty top that perfectly plays off the flavor of its filling.