By VINCE MEEHAN | Downtown & Uptown News
Four years ago, Steven Torres and his husband Gan Suebsarakham opened a cozy eatery in the heart of University Heights called Pop Pie Co. This unique shop features both savory and sweet pies along with comfort food sides such as creamed corn and mashed potatoes and gravy. Many savory pies are traditional meat-filled pies like chicken potpie and lemon and lime pies fill out the dessert menu. Their global options like Thai and Australian inspired pies add creativity to the menu. The menu is rounded out with a wide selection of beverages including coffee, tea, local craft beer on tap, wine and even cider.
As with all local restaurants, the state’s shutdowns have impacted Pop Pie Co. immensely and forced Torres to adjust and adapt to keep his eatery open. Luckily for him, the small footprint of his building has made the transfer into to-go service easier than most.
“I don’t know if easy is the word, but certainly compared to some of our peers that we see facing some challenges going from a service model that they are not accustomed to, to all of a sudden doing the take out thing,” noted Torres. “For us, we’ve had our doors closed since March – no one has been in here – and we’ve been really protective of who comes in our shop. So now, everything happens at our windows. In the beginning it was really hard to speak through the masks and the plexiglass, not to mention the cars passing by, it was a challenge for our staff, but kudos to them for adapting and we’re all still here serving the community.”
There normally is a small seating section for customers to eat on site, but that has been closed due to COVID restrictions. However, a good number of Torres’ customers preferred to take their pies home even before the shutdowns, so the take-out service has made it possible to keep his staff working. In addition, local companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Sony and Motorola have been placing bulk orders of pies to serve in their lunch rooms.
As with many Uptown eateries and breweries owned by a married couple, there is usually one partner who runs the business side of things while the other is the creative chef. Torres is the business-minded one, while Suebsarakham creates the delicious pies that give the place its reputation. But how did these pies become a central culinary specialty in a place like San Diego?
“Our pies derive from a need really. Savory pies are a big part of a lot of cultures here locally, and we felt like it is underserved here in the states,” said Torres. “There are different ways to approach this, so we decided to go the craft route by making everything from scratch – as labor intensive as that is – and packaging it all with a solid brand and great product. And lastly, we focused on the long-lost art of customer service that a lot of places now struggle with. We figure that it is a huge expectation for what we do, to treat people right, with respect and give them a good product. And they keep coming back, so that’s been our model since day one.”
Suebsarakham is from Thailand, which has a very sizable British population, so he is very familiar with the savory pie phenomenon, which is so popular there. He uses this experience to make authentic pies for different cultures. “We have a steak and ale pie – very British influenced – with a braised steak and dark ale beer. Also we have an Aussie meat pie – influenced by Australia – with minced beef, caramelized onions, a tomato sauce, and a bit of vegemite. We even have a vegan savory pie with roasted veggies and a Thai yellow curry, and a vegan butter crust.” Suebsarakham added that the vegan pie is very popular with non-vegans as well.
Torres noted that while the few pie shops in American typically focus on one specific region, his goal was to be more globally inspired and represent many different cultures. The thought being that people could not only visit to enjoy their traditional pie, but to also be exposed to different pies from different cultures and expand their palette.
In addition to pies, Torres and Suebsarakham now serve ice cream in the property next door – Stella Jean’s Ice Cream, which they acquired two years ago – after taking over the lease of a pet food store, “That just happened by chance, I think a lot of things in life come organically that way. It’s our second child, it’s our little girl as we like to say,” said Torres.
Torres also credits social media as being a huge part of the success of his business by attracting out of town visitors to Pop Pie Co. Five-star reviews over multiple platforms create honest word-of-mouth advertising, which cannot be bought. Torres said over 1,000 good reviews keep the customers coming for his pies. “I think it’s a credit to the choices we made with the food, and then the service we provide.”
Along with the savory pies, Pop Pie Co. also serves sweet pies, which San Diegans are probably more familiar with. However, just as with their savory pies, Torres and Suebsarakham like to raise the bar with their unique selections such as a honey bourbon pecan pie – made with real bourbon – and a seasonal poached pear pie with an almond paste at the base of the pie. “My personal favorite is the salted maple. It’s a maple custard with some caramel in there,” said Torres with a grin. “It’s got a nice texture with sea salt flakes on top. It reminds me of a real good French toast that kind of touched the bacon a little bit so you get some of that saltiness.”
The guys are hopeful that things will return to normal soon, not only for their sakes, but also, for everybody else in the business. They are pleased that their unorthodox menu has been a hit in Uptown, and are looking forward to introducing more and more customers to its pie scene. They feel they stand out locally, and give many transplants a place to find their comfort food.
“As a small business in San Diego with its thriving food scene, we decided to shed that whole taco-town thing, even though tacos will always be in our blood,” Torres added. “We feel like we came at the right time where there was a lot more diversity in the types of foods here. So we kind of carved a little piece of that for ourselves – a piece of the pie!”
Pop Pie Co.
4404 Park Blvd.
— Vince Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.