Not Like Mom Used to Make
Photo by Joy BastEnvironmental writer Jennifer Price's mind-bending book Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature in Modern America(Basic Books) chronicles the shocking truth about the extinction of the passenger pigeon: too many found their way into pies. The early colonists, their skies dark with pigeon flocks, prepared this bounty in various ways. Their favorite was the potpie, a dish often sporting five or six birds, feet and all. In the 1800s, the taste for pigeon pie went commercial, and the slaughter was on. By 1914, the birds were gone. Price writes that long after the last bird died, old-timers reminisced about a pigeon pie "with as much regret and fondness as for the bird themselves."
The fondness for potpie continues, nowhere more so than at Phillips', "Home of the Chicken Pie." Phillips' comes from a long lineage that dates back to 1936 and the Chicken Pie Shop on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach. As Don Phillips tells it, he bought the Pie Shop 40 years ago and eventually put the family name on it. When he took over in 1960, the place was a 200-plus-seat eatery charging all of 90 cents for complete dinners. Sometime in the '80s, Phillips sold the restaurant interest, then at its present location in a Seal Beach strip mall near Leisure World. Phillips still runs the commercial pie-making enterprise Phil-Chic Inc. in Fullerton that supplies pies to Phillips' and other outlets.
The dirt-cheap comfort food Phillips' serves is tailor-made for the Leisure World crowd, and the clientele inside the tiny, no-nonsense room is some of the most engaging you'll find anywhere. It's hidden away among jewelry, dry cleaning and travel shops. The spacious parking lot here is not for those in a hurry. Everyone drives nice and carefully.
Inside, there's a tight little counter with a half-dozen chairs near the kitchen and a row of booths built for two. Sit at the counter when it's crowded and you're liable to hear more Korean War stories than you can stomach at breakfast. But most of the talk is of granddaughters, second-hand cars and how good the turkey burger is.
At a bit over $6 ("seniors" get an additional $1 discount), the chicken-pie dinner—including soup, salad (which sometimes means vegetables), potato, rolls, coffee and dessert—will have you pondering whether Mom actually cooked this well. Real mashed potatoes here taste like potatoes, not cream, butter or garlic. The chicken gravy is smooth, flavorful and, unlike Mom's, pleasantly unsalty.
That same soothing gravy smothers the pie, a squat thing sans pot, easily covering a third of a dinner plate that's otherwise undecorated save for baked or mashed potato. After a lifetime of frozen supermarket pies, these are a revelation. The crust is thick and flavorful and, unlike its frozen brothers, not stingy with the chicken. Phillips' doesn't bother with vegetables. Who needs 'em?
Everything chicken is worthy at Phillips', except the chicken-fried steak (it's neither chicken nor fried by chickens, our congenial host announced). The fried chicken, with its crisp, greaseless crust and surprisingly juicy meat, is more like Mom's than the Colonel's. Chicken and noodles is the most comforting dish of all, with chewy egg noodles swimming in that rich gravy laced with shredded chicken. The place has daily specials: Salisbury steak was looking good one day, and we're eager to go back for the liver and onions. Phillips' offers the kind of no-nonsense dining that, alas, seems to be going the way of the passenger pigeon.
Phillips' Family Restaurant, located at 13936 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, is open Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (562) 596-1437. Dinner for two, $9-$15.50, food only. Cash only.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.