Even in challenging times, nations throughout the world can find unity through a shared love of crust. Aussie meat pies, Indian samosas, Argentinian empanadas, Greek spanakopita…
Family-sized or handheld, sweet or savory, pretty much anything goes with dough. Global gusto for pie has been inspiring family-owned shop Pop Pie Co. to dish out impeccable pastries you won’t find elsewhere. Lucky Costa Mesa and University Heights residents can enjoy their warm, filling, crust-enclosed bites, and what goes better with pie than ice cream? Stop in next-door to sister shop, Stella Jean’s (deemed one of the 10 best ice cream shops by USA Today), for eye-catching scoops as delicious as they look.
Developed throughout 2015 and flagshipped in 2016, Pop Pie Co. is the brainchild of life partners Steven Torres and Gan Suebsarakhan. Suebsarakhan, a home cook with an MBA, always had a passion for baking that he wanted to leverage. Torres says they both felt that, “pie is really underrepresented in our country as a whole, especially savory.” They set out to invent their brand, formulate an impeccable crust, and prove that pie can be sophisticated too [cue Marie Calendar getting woke].
Soon, Pop Pie was pie-ping hot. Through pop-ups in San Diego, their mini savory and sweet pies became major hits. After winning best vendor at a 2016 Foodbeast event, they felt ready to establish their first brick-and-mortar in University Heights. A second Pop Pie has opened in Costa Mesa, and next to each now stands their new ice cream shop, Stella Jean’s, (named for Torres’ friend’s late pit bull) where they handcraft artful scoops. It’s certainly a labor of love: the couple still personally devise menus and frequent both locations, ensuring quality remains top-notch. According to Torres, they think of the storefronts as their babies, with the challenges of operating a small business much like the ups and downs of parenthood.
And talk about A+ parents. The pies are prime, and anything but basic. While the Classic Chicken Pot Pie is beloved, they also whip up exotic picks like Roasted Veggies & Yellow Curry, a Guava Cream Cheese Handpie, or the Green Hog & Cheese (slow-braised pork in a chili-verde sauce of fire-roasted poblanos, jalapenos, and tomatillos, made gooey with jack cheese). I tried their Aussie Meat Pie: a rich, ground beef filling enshrined in tawny crust. The juicy meat is flecked with onion and authentically umami-fied by Vegemite, tomato, and worcestershire. All this, enveloped in a cushy yet delicate crust—and oh is it a crust. What’s so special about this all-butter pastry? It stratifies. An inner layer sops up the filling’s savory sauce; a second layer acts as a starchy, fluffy buffer; then that heavenly top you so lovingly look down upon is golden, crisp, and flaky. For sweet pie, I tried the Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble. Perfectly tart, the rhubarb’s citrusy tang melds with the berries’ jammy sweetness. A fine, sugary crumble adds lip-smacking texture to this ultimate slice of summer. And did I mention it’s vegan?
If you “pop” in next-door, you’ll have a hard time deciding at Stella Jean’s since: 1) The clean white palate, accented by perky coral, slate gray, and gold, is distractingly cute. 2) You’ll be entranced by the sweet, cinnamony smell of fresh waffle cones. 3) The entire menu sounds irresistible. High quality ingredients from select local partners are expertly combined in small batches—one petite machine, one flavor at a time—so as much love and attention as possible goes into each pint. Crafted to evoke happy feelings and memories, their tasty yet elegant flavor combinations make for stunning scoops. Collabs with regional chefs are common, as are seasonal changes. Dietary restrictions? Several of the ice creams and even housemade waffle cones are vegan and/or gluten-free.
Too hard to choose just one? Enthusiastic staff can serve multiple half-sized scoops (a bit bigger than a golf ball), because you will want to try them all. Currently, there’s Earl Grey + Citrus Tea Cake, Salty Caramel Corn, Honey Lavender + Shortbread Cookies, but the best-seller is Ube + Pandesal Toffee, a base made from vibrant purple yams (ube) mixed with bits of Filipino bread-turned-toffee. Unlike most ice cream shops, no toppings except sprinkles are offered, and there’s really no need. The elements within each flavor add plenty of texture and depth.
My first taste was S’mores. And they go hardcore…or shall I say hards’more? CM manager, Colton Brandt, says Stella Jean’s spends hours toasting marshmallows which get magically liquified into a sweet base and tinted luminous grey by coconut charcoal. Whole mini marshmallows plus graham crackers drizzled in Valrhona dark chocolate are folded in for the complete experience. I also sampled the plant-based Mango + Sticky Rice—a definite home run. Sunny mango sorbet is the perfect match for creamy swirls of pandan-infused coconut/oat milk. Inspired by Suebsarakhem’s Thai roots, it’s just as refreshing as the traditional Southeast Asian dessert.
Brandt notes the care taken by these sister companies is what truly sets them apart. It seems such care is taken because, as Torres says, they’re “in the business of people.” They have guests not “customers” served by dedicated employees he can trust with his babies. By thinking outside the box without compromising quality, they’re spreading real happiness in SoCal. In this case, “Charlie Brown, happiness is a warm pie…or a cold ice cream.”
Special thanks to Steven Torres, Tara Woodall, Carissa Casares, and Colton Brandt for their time, assistance, and insight.