Texas Living

A Road Tripper’s Guide to Mile-High Pies in Texas

By Peter Simek 2.26.21

It’s the promise at the end of a long day on the road: the flickering neon sign of an old diner; a cup of hot coffee; and a slice of a decadent, creamy, and gleaming mile-high pie. In Texas, it’s nearly impossible for us to imagine a great diner without a rotating case of pies stacked high with meringue.

There was, however, a time when these indulgences hadn’t yet made their way to Texas. Like many culinary classics, no one is quite sure who invented the mile-high pie. But the most likely story is as fascinating as it is delicious.

baked alaska mile-high pies in Texas
Baked Alaska

The High-Style Origins of a Roadside Classic

In 1867, the Russian Empire was in financial straits after its costly war in Crimea. Around this time, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward leveraged this opportunity to negotiate the purchase of Alaska from the Russian emperor. Seward was successful, but at the time, many derided the purchase as “Seward’s folly.” Nonetheless, the historic event inspired famous chef Antoine Alciatore of the legendary Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans to commemorate it by inventing a new dessert: the baked Alaska. Whether or not Alciatore’s idea was a sincere or tongue-in-cheek celebration is unclear, but the dessert combined ice cream and a mountain of scorched meringue.

No one is sure if this story is entirely true; another story tells that French chef Charles Ranhofer created the baked Alaska but called it “Alaska, Florida,” due to the dessert’s hot-cold contrast. What is clear is that the introduction of the dessert started a chain reaction. By the 1950s, the baked Alaska had evolved as it moved across New Orleans to another famed Crescent City establishment, the now-defunct Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel. There, master Creole chef Louis Evans served an adapted version of ice cream pie topped with a “mile-high” mound of meringue to his clientele of New Orleans high society and visiting celebrities.

The dessert was a smash hit, and it wasn’t long before chefs, bakers, and cooks around the U.S.  began incorporating it into their dessert menus. Soon, Evans’ mile-high pie began appearing across the country in new incarnations, some of which set the ice cream of the original baked Alaska aside, instead piling mountains of meringue onto chocolate, lemon, and custard pies.

mile-high pies in Texas
The Shed. Photo by Craig D. Blackmon

The Mile-High Texas Trail

As much as a mile-high pie is considered a staple of roadside diner eating, to find a really great mile-high pie in Texas (one with enough meringue or cream that it dwarfs the filling by at least a ratio of 4-to-1) you have to go on a little bit of an expedition. And, like most Texas pie journeys, this one begins in Marble Falls. Here are six essential stops.

1. Blue Bonnet Cafe, Marble Falls
Although Marble Falls’ Blue Bonnet Cafe opened in 1929, the modern story of its pies begins in 1981. That’s the year John Kemper, a longtime customer, purchased the cafe, and John’s wife Belinda began baking pies. These days, Belinda bakes chocolate, lemon, and coconut pies topped with smooth meringue that curls to a center peak and is very lightly toasted.

2. The Shed Cafe, Edom
The Shed’s pies have made this little East Texas holdout a traveler’s favorite for more than 55 years. Their mile-high classics include a coconut and chocolate meringue — but also keep an eye out for rotating flavors such as buttermilk and egg custard.

3. De Wese’s Tip Top Cafe, San Antonio
This San Antonio classic has been a standby for more than 80 years, and regulars know to leave room for pie. Their banana and chocolate ice box pies are a marvel of engineering, with inches of creamy, white topping sculpted to look like rose petals or pine cones.

4. Clark’s Outpost, Tioga
Clark’s famous barbecue has counted Mickey Mantle among its regular customers. These days, customers are just as likely to traipse up to North Texas for Clark’s massive chocolate meringue pies, which are based on a recipe by long-time server Patti Seyler’s grandmother. On a good day, the meringue topping on the rich chocolate filling pushes a foot in height.

5. Blanco Bowling Club Cafe, Blanco
A true Texas treasure, Blanco Bowling Club Cafe got its start as a German-style, nine-pin bowling alley in the 1940s. The bowling club still has more than 200 members, but during the day, the cafe attracts culinary sportsmen looking to conquer its massive pies. If you find yourself in this part of the Hill Country, don’t leave without trying a slice of Blanco Bowling’s coconut cream pie.

Normas mile-high pie in Texas
Norma’s Cafe. Photo by Jonathan Silverberg

6. Norma’s Cafe, Dallas
Norma’s opened in Dallas in 1956, and its tradition for classic comfort food has been kept alive by owner Ed Murph, who grew up eating at Norma’s and purchased the restaurant more than three decades ago. While the joint is jampacked for breakfast seven days a week, it is probably most beloved for its pies. The mile-high cream tops lemon, coconut, chocolate, chocolate-peanut butter, and Oreo pies.

In Texas, small diners always mean good eating. Discover more of our favorite retro diners here.

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