It may be the state tree of Texas, but the pecan sure doesn't attract the kind of attention lavished on the state flower, the bluebonnet. Put it this way: You don't see photo studios offering to capture a young Texan's first bite of pecan pie. If only! The bluebonnet is a beautiful and worthy state flower, but it is so widely distributed in Texas because state and local agencies have sown countless tons of wildflower seeds over the years (thank you, Lady Bird Johnson and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965). The pecan, meanwhile, puts money in Texans' pockets. A lot of money.
The pecan is the only tree nut native to the Americas, and the United States produces more than 80 percent of the world's crop, with the vast majority grown in Texas, Georgia and New Mexico. But a curious thing has been happening to pecans in recent years: the supply, demand and price have all been increasing. The main reason is a huge leap in exports to China, where nuts fulfill a dual role of snack food and medicine, and the upwardly mobile happily pay a hefty premium. (And, for reasons that are still poorly understood, the incidence of tree nut allergies is much lower there.) Nuts are serious business in China; some supermarkets go so far as to put security tags on bags of pecans. When I told my grad school classmates in Shanghai that pecan trees were so common in Texas that homeowners regularly mulch the pecans they can't use or give away, it was as if I said that Texans used golden eggs to make omelets.
In addition to being the best month for bluebonnet pictures, April is also the best time to eat pecans--it's National Pecan Month. And what better way to honor an American original than by eating a slice of pecan pie? The contenders in this food fight are Goode Company, whose Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie is legendary (and available by mail order), and the charming Dacapo's Pastry Cafe, a former Houston Press Best Desserts winner.
To the judging!
Goode Company Barbeque, or any other Goode Company restaurant (a hefty 10 1/8 ounce slice of a 9" pie for $3.50 - at least, the website says $3.50/slice, but I was rung up for $4.25, a discrepancy I didn't notice until I got home and checked the receipt. Not cool, Goode Company.)
Everything about this pie is over the top. It's an extra-thick, extra-sweet pie, slow-cooked, with a huge layer of corn syrup, sugar and eggs (cut with the not-so-secret ingredient of vinegar), and topped with a single layer of extra-large organic Texas pecan halves. The golden layer of syrupy sludge, with a consistency just this side of gelatin, is so sweet it made my fillings ache, but it's the most sophisticated and complex sugar rush you'll ever experience. A thick, shortbroad-like crust binds the pie together. A first-class effort.
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Goode Company pies are made daily at the company's commissary at the corner of Westpark and Kirby, with the same pies going to all the restaurants. But if you buy a Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie as a gift, it'll contain a few more pecans (necessary, according to the woman manning the Goode Company mail-order hotline, to keep the pie intact during shipping).
Dacapo's Pastry Cafe (a 4 1/4 ounce slice of a 9" pie for $4.50 ) An altogether different dessert. The crust is thin and flaky, and the pecans are in chunks, forming a thick top layer. A few rogue pieces of pecan even make their way into the minimal corn syrup filling, which is a deep brown, presumably from being cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter time. Each bite contains more pecans, but somehow less pecan flavor than the Goode Company pie. I'd almost call this a pecan bar that happens to be made in a pie dish. It's good, but not great. The Winner: Goode Company. I have to admit, going into this competition part of me was rooting for the underdog Dacapo's. But sometimes things are famous for the simple reason that they are awesome. Goode Company's pecan pie deserves to be famous.