The Explore Minnesota marketing juggernaut really ought to christen Hwy. 61 "the Pie Trail." The ultra-scenic roadway's reputation as a pie magnet can probably be traced back to entrepreneur Betty Lessard, who converted her father's Two Harbors fish shack to a cafe in the late 1950s and started baking pies.
By the time Lessard sold her business and retired in the mid-1980s, "Betty's Pies" and "the North Shore" were practically synonymous. Today's slicked-up Betty's is still swimming in pie tins, but for those hankering for something a bit less corporate, there are rolling pins hard at work from Duluth to Grand Marais.
"I've been making pie all my married life, which is over 50 years," said Satellite's Country Inn owner Marion McKeever. Practice has indeed made perfect. The tender and tantalizingly golden pie crust ("I use lard, the unhealthy thing," she said with a laugh) is an ideal delivery system for a swoon-worthy rhubarb custard pie, made using stalks McKeever harvests from the yard outside her folksy restaurant. "It's my husband's favorite," she said. No wonder.
No home cooking-inspired meal (open-faced turkey sandwich, anyone?) at the cozy Lemon Wolf Cafe would be complete without a wedge of owner Susan Scheradella's outlandish -- in a very good way -- toasted-coconut cream pie. It's built on a distinctive butter-pecan crust, as is the tangy chilled lemon-sour cream pie -- a cousin to Key lime pie -- and the "Rocky Wolf," Scheradella's don't-miss chocolate-pecan-cashew-walnut extravaganza.
The traffic-stopping "Fresh Pies" sign on the roof of the ultra-charming Rustic Inn Cafe lives up to its pledge, with a staggering variety of lard-made lovelies that range from a frothy, cinnamon-kissed five-layer chocolate concoction to "Summerberry," a sweet-tart combination of blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. If only the gift shop sold "I brake for pie" bumper stickers.
The postcard-ready harbor views from the windows at the Pie Place Cafe & Bakery are overshadowed by the pride of the kitchen: A display case, worthy of the Minnesota State Fair, filled with crimped-edge, Crisco-crust pies. The streusel-top versions are awfully impressive, including a rhubarb-strawberry-blueberry blend that radiates a bright fruity bite. As a parting gift, grab a few of the buttery chocolate chip-pecan cookies for the road.
The trail's towering achievement? It's at the New Scenic Cafe, where chef/owner Scott Graden reserves a berth on his dessert menu for what can only be described as an utterly beguiling pie. The ultra-flaky crust relies upon shortening ("I'm a traditionalist, so lard is best, but we went with Crisco for our vegetarian customers," said Graden), and when it comes to the seasonally minded fillings, pray to the pie gods that Graden has baked his gasp-inducing triple-berry (find the recipe on page T6), a deeply crimson, intensely fresh combination of juicy blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. The generous dollop of thick whipped cream is the proverbial icing on the cake. Sorry, pie.
Betty's Pies, 1633 Hwy. 61, Two Harbors, 1-218-834-3367, www.bettyspies.com
Lemon Wolf Cafe, Hwy. 61, Beaver Bay, 1-218-226-7225, www.lemonwolfcafe.com
New Scenic Cafe, 5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 1-218-525-6274, www.sceniccafe.com
Pie Place Cafe & Bakery, 207 W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais, 1-218-387-1513, www.thepieplacecafe.comRustic Inn Cafe, 2773 Hwy. 61, Two Harbors, 1-218-834-2488
Satellite's Country Inn, 9436 W. Hwy. 61, Schroeder, 1-218-663-7574