Have you ever loved a restaurant that was—how shall we say it?—not quite up to your standards of hygiene? Such was the case with the old Pies-N-Thighs. It crouched behind a down-and-dirty bar across Kent Avenue from the Domino Sugar Factory. The café looked iffy as you entered by a rear door, where you’d see pots and pans, teetering stacks of pies, and dirty plates littering every surface, including the floor. Washing dishes was not their strong suit. Only two entrées were routinely available: fried chicken and pulled pork, the latter done on a barbecue grill in a side yard. You’d place your order with a shudder, then carry the food—which was often quite delicious—into the bar in front.
Yet, in addition to excellent chicken, something about the place struck a romantic chord with diners, evocative of Williamsburg’s can-do, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spirit at the time, and it quickly became one of the neighborhood’s most beloved dining establishments. The place was closed by the Department of Health in January 2008, and since then fans have collectively held their breath, fearing that the owners—Sarah Buck, Carolyn Bane, and Erika Geldzahler—would chicken out, and never reopen.
The new premises present a startling contrast to the original. While the old Pies-N-Thighs seemed frowsy and downright filthy, the new place is totally spick-and-span, with cream-colored walls, red wainscoting, and a décor that—were you set down blindfolded by a spaceship—you’d think was in some North Carolina town. Art featuring food and animals graces the walls, and antique toys are scattered here and there, for the families that have already made the restaurant their early-evening resort. A menu board over the counter clues you in to the bill of fare, but rather than let you order at the counter, as at the old place, a waitress in a black Pies-N-Thighs T-shirt will eventually amble over to take your order. Only the black T-shirt undermines the fantasy that the café is located somewhere Down South, rather than just South Williamsburg.
First things first: The fabled fried chicken at Pies-N-Thighs remains superlative ($10, with a biscuit and one side). The bird is not the delicate pullet you find in most restaurants; instead, it’s a big, meaty avian that has reportedly been brined for extra juiciness. The coating is crisp, coarse-grained, and a shade of chestnut brown that would suit a high-spirited filly, while the flesh is so tender that it has an almost custard-like quality.
The menu has doubled in size since the restaurant’s original incarnation. There’s still a decent pulled-pork sandwich ($10), for sure, served on a hamburger bun with the coleslaw jammed into the sandwich, Carolina-style. New to the menu is a beef brisket sandwich ($11, with one side) smeared with a thick brown barbecue sauce. The sauce is too sweet and, anyway, the brisket is dull compared with Fette Sau’s, a few blocks north. A hamburger, made to order in several variations, is another innovation from the previous spot. Cooked well-done, it won’t make anyone’s top-10 list. The best incarnation is the “insane burger” ($12), which piles cheese, a fried egg, and lots of bacon on top, served with a heap of underdone fries.
Indeed, the best addition to the menu is on par with the fried chicken. Fried catfish ($10) offers two perfectly cooked fillets, cornmeal-crusted and squirted with a dilled tartar sauce. This, like most entrées, comes with a single side (in North Carolina, you’d likely get three). Of the 10 choices, the best are creamy coleslaw, tart and peppery black-eyed-pea salad, and unrelentingly crisp hush puppies, zapped with a pickle-bearing gribiche. The worst is mac-and-cheese, which is not baked but merely boiled. The pasta has absorbed all the cheese by the time this bad boy hits the table.
Then there are the pies ($4.50 per slice). While these are not the sorts of pastries you dream about, they’ll do just fine in the current low-pie climate. Most are of the icebox variety, the fillings cradled in a graham-cracker crust. Chocolate oreo is a delight, and I didn’t mind the banana cream either, until a friend pointed out it tasted like artificial banana. Touted in the window, the signature apple pie is certainly the best. But don’t order “apple cheddar,” or the cook will anneal grated cheese to the upper crust, rather than simply placing a slice of cheddar on top. It’s like eating your apple pie with a thick coating of floor wax.