It was late at night when the heads at the packed Piper's Pub on the South Side all turned to watch a tray of English meat pies being carried toward the front of the restaurant.
"It's pie time!" yelled one of the regulars, as a mob formed over them.
The pies — intended to be street food, handed over to be eaten without knife or fork — were delivered by the cooks behind a soon-to-be-open, very-British-style chip shop. While such tastings for new restaurant menus are usually a behind-the-scenes experiment conducted with staff, the recipes for the Pub Chip Shop — expected to open in mid-May next door to Piper's — are being tested weekly on a bar crowd that has been gathering at the same time each week for more than a year-and-a-half.
"The Thursday-night crowd is an incredibly loyal crowd and [the owner] wanted to reward them," says Mindy Heisler, the chip shop's general manager.
The goal is not to give away a free meal, but to get feedback on the recipes; the trial fillings have included: lamb, steak and ale, pierogies, chicken curry, vegan curry and chicken mushroom. Those will be narrowed, ultimately, to six or seven regular menu options, with occasional surprises offered as specials.
Critical to the structure of the pies is the unusual crust. Head baker Kenny Houser started working with an English recipe for hot lard dough about six months ago; Heisler helped tweak it. It requires pouring boiling water over lard and dry ingredients to form the dough ball.
"Philosophically, it goes against everything you've ever been told about pie dough," Heisler says. "But structurally, it's beautiful."
The fillings have to work, too, not just in flavor but in function.
"They are ... designed to be eaten by hand," Heisler explains. "Which means we have to make sure that when you bite into that pie, you're not taking a face full of whatever."
Piper's guinea pigs have few complaints.
And Rebecca Roell, 29, a South Side Slopes resident, already has a favorite.
"The curry is like lightning bolts of love," she says.