San Francisco: Pies that bind us

By Megan Singleton

US-style pizza caught on here. Now Kiwis' on-the-go meal is doing the same over there, writes Megan Singleton.

Alka Patel, who makes and sells Kiwi-style pies in San Francisco. Photo / Megan Singleton
Alka Patel, who makes and sells Kiwi-style pies in San Francisco. Photo / Megan Singleton

She's a hard boat to row convincing Americans that a pie is a heck of a lot more than the cream kind that is thrown in the face of their obesity epidemic.

When you say "pie" in America images of pecans, pumpkin and key lime piled with meringue dance through their heads. They think Christmas and Thanksgiving or, if they're from Amish country, will offer shoo-fly pie as their picks of the best pies in the world.

But, like the introduction of the flat white to the Land of the Free/Home of the Brave, Kiwis (and Aussies, but this tale isn't about them) are blazing a culinary trail with the humble meat pie and teasing the taste buds of the Brave, slowly turning the heads of adventurous eaters on the other side of the Pacific.

So who is paving the way?

I had heard rumours about a New Zealand girl based in San Francisco making meat pies and, as I was going to be visiting, I planned to find her and taste her wares.

Tracking her down was the first hurdle, but I am a good stalker and managed, eventually, to find a phone number.

"Why don't you come to my place and we'll taste some," she said down the line in her Kiwi accent.

Not being one who needs to be asked twice, I caught a cab the morning after my arrival in the Golden Gate city with an empty tummy, a camera and a notebook.

Alka Patel grew up in a family of foodies in Onehunga and has been living in San Francisco with her American husband, Binoy, for about 12 years.

She has a little underground business called the Pie Press, which has quietly introduced a taste of New Zealand to the locals.

Without a plan to conquer the world, or even much of a business plan at all, Alka's pie business began accidentally after she returned from a visit home where she had been making pies in a jaffle pie maker. She made some for her American friends. OMG, they shouted, you should sell these! And thus the story began.

Alka Patel's Kiwi-style pies have found fans in San Francisco. Photo / Megan Singleton

She tested the market with a stall at a weekend farmers' market and was then picked up by leading prestigious kitchenware store Williams-Sonoma, in Union Square, to join its monthly in-store artisans' market.

Her spicy butter chicken, kumara and blue cheese, and mince, all made with crisp puff pastry, swiftly became top sellers.

But, while the reviews are great, the Pie Press empire is on the back burner for the moment as Alka and Binoy are in the property business and have just bought a budget motel on the edge of the slightly dodgy (some might say edgy) Tenderloin district.

They are busily refurbishing it while Binoy also works fulltime for a large hotel group and Alka runs the home and tends their two small children.

Starting a business like this is not easy. Firstly, you need the use of a commercial kitchen, you need to be able to source ingredients in bulk to get the best price, and you need retail outlets to make it profitable.

You also need the time to put into it, as Alka found after the birth of her second child.

The good news is she is still making pies each week, but just for private orders. So Kiwis wanting a taste of home in San Francisco can order in bulk through her website - and make sure you keep a few in the freezer to convince the visiting Brave that there's a lot more to a pie than sweet apple.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland direct to San Francisco.

Accommodation: Stay at the Hotel Vitale on San Francisco's waterfront, with views of the newly-lit Bay Bridge.

Grab a feed: Alka takes orders for 12 pies or more through her website Pie Press.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting San Francisco.

The writer travelled with assistance from Air New Zealand.

More tastes of home while you're travelling

Finding a Kiwi coffee hit on the streets of London
Pav in the Big Apple
BurgerFuel takes a bigger bite

- NZ Herald

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