MAPPED: A pie crawl on the East Side

KCRW pie contest judge Isa Fabro takes us to her favorite places to eat pie on LA’s East Side.

At 5 foot, 2 inches tall, Isa Fabro is slim and small in stature. But Fabro’s like the André the Giant of pie. It’s not unusual to find her up at sunrise, caramelizing fresh bananas for 100 mini pies. Or scouring the city’s markets for the best flats of ripe fruit for her signature Mango Royale pie. Fabro can also eat half a dozen slices of pie in a single afternoon, no problem.

More than a decade ago, Fabro left her job in the music business to pursue a career in Los Angeles kitchens, learning alongside successful chefs Karen Hatfield and Josef Centeno. Now Fabro’s in business for herself, making desserts to order. She believes her penchant for pie goes way back. “When my mom was pregnant with me, she would have a slice of pecan pie and drink a glass of whole milk before each [nursing] shift she had at the hospital,” Fabro says. “I don’t know if that’s true. But I like to think so because I also love pecan pie.”

Isa Fabro digs into a piece of blackberry vanilla pie at Cassell's Hamburgers.
Isa Fabro eats a piece of blackberry vanilla pie from Cassell’s Hamburgers.

Fabro leaves the traditional pies to others, instead creating unique desserts inspired by her Pinay roots. The Mango Royale pie is a carefully constructed, cool confection of sweet Manila mangoes and condensed milk and cream in a tasty graham cracker crust. “I had Manila mangoes for the first time on my trip back to the Philippines in 2016,” she says. “This dessert is an attempt to showcase and capture the beauty and uniqueness of this particular mango.”

If mango isn’t your thing, try Fabro’s take on the Royal Bibingka pie. It’s a satisfying custard pie in a vodka butter crust, made with coconut butter mochi and cream cheese, then topped with grated sharp cheddar. “I like working alcohol into food as a component, to pair with other ingredients or to add a touch of decadence to something simple,” Fabro says. Caramelized banana, spiced black rum and sea salt are among the ingredients in her Banana Latik pie. Fabro even makes her own latik, the coconut caramel found in many classic Filipino desserts. And there are other pies in the works.

Though Fabro doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you can try her pie at pop-ups all over town, including at Far East Plaza on the first Thursday of each month for Chinatown After Dark. But be sure to get there on time. In April, Fabro sold out of her supply of 16 whole Mango Royale pies and 100 mini Banana Latik pies in a few short hours.

11:15 A.M. – BUKO PIE AT SARI SARI STORE

Buko pie at Sari Sari Store
In Tagalog, buko means coconut. Sari Sari Store’s buko pie includes real sheets of fresh coconut meat in a velvety custard of coconut cream and jam.

The first stop on Isa Fabro’s pie crawl takes us to Sari Sari Store, the new restaurant from Margarita and Walter Manzke in Grand Central Market. The buko pie is one of the most popular things on the menu. “It is not coconut cream pie,” says chef de cuisine Don Dalao. “It has coconut jam, it has coconut meat, coconut cream. It’s topped with streusel. Nothing’s better than streusel.”

Fabro agrees and is pleased to see Sari Sari Store bringing a classic Filipino dessert to a wider audience: “It’s not too sweet, it still has the butteriness of the coconut taste but also I can taste regular butter in there too, which is great.”

We order barbecue ribs with garlic rice and a fried egg to cleanse our palates. Then, it’s off to the next stop.

Location: Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013 | (323) 320-4020

11:51 A.M. – CHOCOLATE CARAMEL BANANA CREAM PIE AT THE MIGHTY

The chocolate caramel banana cream pie at The Mighty.
The chocolate caramel banana cream pie stands tall at The Mighty.

The Mighty sits just a few blocks east of Grand Central Market on the corner of Second and Main. When you order at the counter, you can’t miss the majestic chocolate caramel banana cream pie in the glass case. “It’s a pretty classic combination,” says Karen Hatfield, who opened the restaurant with her partner Quinn last year. “But I guess maybe a banana cream pie, at moments, can be a little flat or one-note. Probably it came from wanting to do a little bit of a riff on a chocolate cream pie. Who doesn’t like chocolate, caramel and banana?”

The pie is delicious, and in spite of so many layers of mousse, fruit, cream, caramel and streusel, Fabro notes that each wedge stands tall on the plate. “It’s holding its shape but it doesn’t look like too thick of a crust,” she says. “That means it was well baked, it was well rolled. It is flaky but it’s not overly buttery because the fillings are rich and creamy in themselves.”

We polish off our two slices of pie, sipping coffee and ice water as we go, then keep it moving to the next stop.

Location: 108 W. Second Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 | (213) 278-0025

12:38 P.M. – PECAN PIE AT THE LITTLE JEWEL OF NEW ORLEANS

The pecan pie at the Little Jewel of New Orleans is served in a no-frills plastic container.
The pecan pie at the Little Jewel of New Orleans in Chinatown is served not “dressed.”

Next, we leave Downtown LA for Chinatown. Our destination is The Little Jewel of New Orleans, where you can order a muffaletta or plate of red beans and rice with your slice of pecan pie. Owner Marcus Christiana-Beniger says although his kitchen doesn’t skimp on ingredients, this is a no-frills pie. “It’s not fancy, that’s the best part,” he says. “Don’t try to overthink this. Don’t try to make it farm-to-table. That’s a g-ddamn pecan pie from the South.”

Little Jewel uses whole pecans, molasses and Steen’s pure cane syrup in every pie, which helps hold it together after being heated. Fabro picks up a sticky wedge and is pleased to find it stays intact in her hands. “There is an art to how you construct a pie,” she says. “You have to bake it well. You have to have the right amount of filling and size of the pie plate.”

Fabro orders an extra piece of pecan pie to take to her mom, then we head to our final stop in Koreatown. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Location: 207 Ord Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 | (213) 620-0461

1:45 P.M. – CLEMENTINE CUSTARD PIE, BLACKBERRY VANILLA PIE AND LEMON ICEBOX PIE AT CASSELL’S HAMBURGERS

The tangerine pie at Cassell’s includes candied whole clementines and clementine curd.
Cassell’s Hamburgers uses candied whole clementines and clementine curd in its creamy clementine custard pie.

The final stop on today’s crawl is Cassell’s Hamburgers in Koreatown. On the way to our table, we survey the pies in the rotating case: apple, chocolate marshmallow, dulce de leche banana cream, blackberry vanilla, lemon icebox and vegan gluten-free chocolate lace. The clementine custard pie is the funkiest on the menu, says the pastry chef here, Elia Aboumrad. “It’s a classic butter crust and then I candy the clementines. I pickle them but they’re candied. They’re whole, skin and everything. Then we crush them and put them on the bottom of the pie. Then, on top, is a clementine curd.”

Though I’ve hit my monthly pie quota, Fabro orders three slices of pie for the table to try. She likes the clementine custard pie for its balance of sweetness to acidity and for making use of a local underdog fruit. She tastes rum in the blackberry vanilla pie, which makes for a pleasant finish. The lemon icebox pie is truly a classic pie.

“What I love about a place like this is it really has everything,” Fabro says. “You can come here to Cassell’s and get a really great burger. But you can also get a really good slice of pie. And then just a few feet away, you have The Normandie Club, where you can get a kickass cocktail. And if you want to keep it going, you’re in Koreatown: karaoke, the Korean spa. It’s really all here for you.”

Location: 3600 W. Sixth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90020 | (213) 387-5502

Total distance: 5.6 miles

Total driving time: 27 minutes, depending on LA traffic

Total number of pies: 6

ALL PHOTOS BY STAN LEE, FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH STUDIOS AND 2016 JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION VISUAL STORYTELLING AWARD WINNER. THIS POST MADE POSSIBLE WITH HELP FROM KCRW’S INDEPENDENT PRODUCER PROJECT.