A First Slice Pie Café Crawl
If you're experiencing epicurean pie burnout, First Slice Pie Café offers a simpler, old-fashioned slice that hearkens to picnics and church potlucks of the Midwest.
Some seasonal offerings, like a roasted red wine pear, prove this brainchild of Mary Ellen Diaz (North Pond, Printer's Row, Lettuce Entertain You) can swing gourmet, but First Slice is where you're more likely to come for the classics. You'll find a rich chocolate and peanut butter pie, French silk piled with chocolate curls, sour Michigan cherry with latticework crust, bright key lime, and others.
There are three First Slice locations, all on the North Side. (There also used to be one inside the historic Water Tower on the Mag Mile, but it closed.) Excepting a few hyper-local variations, they share basically the same menu of pies, pastries, and some solid savory fare.
The cafés are only a piece, if you'll pardon the pun, of a bigger pie. First Slice is actually a nonprofit, started by Diaz in 2002. In addition to its cafés, First Slice raises funds through a subscription meal program. Shareholders get a few healthy from-scratch meals on a weekly basis, and part of their subscription pays for the charity to provide the same quality food to Chicago's hungry and homeless.
Last week I made a day of visiting all three, starting with a leisurely breakfast and lunch on Manor Street in Albany Park, stopping for dessert and artwork-perusing inside Lillstreet Art Center, and finishing with an evening meal on the corner of Ashland and Balmorral in Andersonville.
I am partial to Alterra Coffee, the new name of which—Colectivo—I'm still getting used to. I like the graphic design; I like visiting the roomy lakefront coffeehouse in Milwaukee; and I really, really like the Maximilian and Black & Tan blends. So let's just say I'm happy it's the bean of choice here. It makes for a thick, rich double espresso ($2) to start the morning off.
I like the occasional piece of pie for breakfast, but cookies do the trick, too. The flourless peanut butter cookie ($2) is rich, tender, and grainy with sugar crystals. Biting in is just like taking a big spoonful of creamy Jif, dipping it into a bag of sugar, and shoving it in your mouth. But in case that doesn't make you feel fancy, the plate will. Thanks to its connection to LillStreet, all of First Slice's mugs and plates are these satisfyingly chunky, handmade, arty ceramic pieces.
The "70s Style Salads" section of the menu is where I went for lunch. (Who needs a bed of lettuce when you can just fill the bowl with the good stuff?) There's a tuna salad and cold pesto tortellini, as well as some less traditional takes, like roasted beet and mango jicama. I'm partial to the yogurt-dressed, apple-studded curry chicken ($7), for which someone made the great decision to swap sour dried cherries for the usual curry-raisin combo.
Black bean anything will never win a beauty contest. But a bowl of the Cuban black bean soup ($6) is exactly what I want in the fall. The soup is blended just enough—some bean bits are left for texture, but you have a thick and starchy consistency—and is flavored with red bell pepper, celery, and garlic.
With up to a dozen pies to choose from on any given day, it's hard to go wrong with a slice of the classic apple ($3.50). The billowing pastry crust obscures layer upon layer of neatly sliced, al dente fruit. Thanks to the Granny Smith apples, tartness is the flavor that lingers in the mouth, along with golden cinnamon and sugar.
The famous bright cherries of our foodie-friendly neighboring state go into these English-style hand pies ($3). The tart Michigan fruit has a jammy texture and is ensconced in a hardy, flaky crust with rustic crystals of sugar baked into the top. The Andersonville and Lille Street locations serve savory pasties, too.
Moving on to dinner. For a heartier meal, the duck confit sandwich ($9)—with mozzarella, mushrooms, griddled onions—earned a spot on Chicago Magazine's "50 Best Sandwiches in Chicago" last year, and I can vouch for the warm goat cheese-packed roasted vegetable sandwich ($7).
But this time I went with one of the "community plates," examples of the food First Slice serves through community kitchens and social services organizations. The black bean and mushroom tamales ($7) were a little skimpy on the filling, but paired nicely with a delicious spicy salsa, salty crumbles of melting cojita cheese, and pepita-strewn baby greens in a zingy vinaigrette.