Contrary to what the Outback Steakhouse chain might have you believe, Australians don't eat Bloomin' Onions or shrimps on the barbie; but they do consume large quantities of meat pie. Everywhere I went in my limited travels to Melbourne, Sydney and Noosa—the Laguna Beach-equivalent resort town near where Steve Irwin has a zoo—I saw pies the size of my palm heating under lamps in gas stations, mall food courts and supermarket delis. The meat pie, as far as I can tell, is to Australians what hot dogs and doughnuts are to us Yanks. They are ubiquitous, often blamed for rampant childhood obesity and remarkably easy to eat on the go—everything we love and hate about our most delicious of junk foods.
It's not as though Aussies don't also indulge in McDonald's or Burger King (which are called Hungry Jack's down under)—they most certainly do—but the meat pie seems more ingrained as part of their identity than Big Macs are with us. The pies in question are usually miniature, slightly smaller than the forgotten box of Banquet pot pie you might have stashed in the back of your freezer, but swaddled in a similar type of pastry crust. An Aussie meat pie, however, doesn't lean as heavily on the gravy as our pot pies do. They're more packed with meat, usually ground beef, with a little room left for vegetables. Yet in a few modern pie shops I encountered in Sydney, especially a Dunkin' Donuts-style outfit called Pie Face, the fillings get more cosmopolitan. Pie Face offers not only a classic minced beef, but also a Thai chicken curry and a tandoori vegetable.
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The new Pie-Not in Costa Mesa reminds me of Pie Face. It offers pies the same way Pie Face does: freshly baked, kept warm under heat lamps in a display case, and ready for takeout. But Pie-Not easily bests them in variety. There are a dozen different kinds here, each titled to make you grin. Most are variations on a ground beef-filled base-model pie called "Dog's Eye." When peas and carrots are added, then slathered with mashed potato to seal the top, a Dog's Eye becomes a "Drover," a concoction that eats exactly like a shepherd's pie. The "Shroomin" is a Dog's Eye with mushrooms in it. And when Cheddar and bacon bits are involved, that's the "That'll Do Pig."
But you detect hits of pepper and hints of wine even in the standard pie. For a real upgrade, try "The Drunken Cow," which subs the ground beef for nubs of braised steak, pearl onions and a pronounced red-wine tang that could only be inspired by boeuf Bourguignon. The "Bloomin Hot" is a quite-spicier version of that. There are chicken pies, too, using white meat that has been tenderly cooked. The "Sprung a Leek" is cream-sauce-based as though it were emulating chicken à la King, while another revels in sweetness with its apricots, sultanas, pine nuts and saffron that's a subtle nod to the sugary Moroccan pigeon pie called bastila. There's also a solitary lamb pie called "Mary's" that you'd easily mistake for beef if no one told you.
Pie-Not, 270 E. 17th St., Ste. 17, Costa Mesa, (949) 650-PIES; www.pienot.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (or until it's sold-out). Pies, $5.50-$6.50; sweets, $1.50-$3.
Regardless of the filling, all the pies go down as the pastry bricks they are; one is probably all you need for a moderately heavy lunch. And if you're looking for something not as messy to eat, the handheld sausage rolls filled with a sort of meat mousse are excellent and extraordinarily flaky. For breakfast, there's a "Brekkie," for which a Dog's Eye is embellished with bacon, cheese and tomato, then crowned with egg. Even better are the two quiche offerings, both still wiggly and fluffy and flavored with either broccoli or bacon. But I've found nothing pairs better with a strong cup of tea than "Wasp's Nest," a savory scone studded with bits of bacon.
And if any Aussie expats have any doubt that Pie-Not is actually Australian, there's this fact: It offers lamingtons. For those unfamiliar, a lamington is a confection that resembles a brownie crossed with a Hostess Sno Ball, but is simply a square of soft sponge cake encased in a slightly crunchy, fudge-like shell of chocolate icing, and then covered in a furry coat of desiccated coconut. I ate more lamingtons than meat pies when I was in Australia, but I never remembered any of them being as good or as fresh as Pie-Not's. It's this, more than the meat pies or even the young bloke who rung me up and spoke in that unmistakable Aussie lilt that proves Pie-Not is the truest ambassador of Australian culture to our county. For the record, Outback Steakhouse was never in the running.