SOUTH PORTLAND — James Murray Plunkett is describing what’s in his Texas chili hand pie, the one with the big Lone Star carved out of the dough on top.
Inside the pate brisee crust, which has a crunch that comes from pulverized Fritos, there’s tender cubed steak, chili powder, cumin, salt, Plunkett’s homemade chile puree and – why not? – a splash of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“And then you thicken it all with tortilla, fresh masa,” he said. “You just throw tortillas in there, and they dissolve and give this great thickening power and mouth feel.”
It’s Texas chili on the go, eaten right from your hand, no spoon necessary. And it’s just one of many specialty hand pies that Plunkett and Pamela Fitzpatrick will sell at their new shop in South Portland.
Their bakery, Little Bigs, is expected to open at 340 Main St. by Aug. 15 and join a growing trend in the Portland area – hand foods, specifically, hand pies.
Hand pies are gaining popularity locally and have been featured this summer in national magazines such as Bon Appetit and Martha Stewart Living.
Standard Baking Co. in Portland just added a wild Maine blueberry hand pie to its menu, available only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“They have been extremely popular this summer,” said head baker Tara Smith, “and we sell out by early afternoon every day they are available.”
Hand pies themselves are nothing new. Every culture seems to have its own version, from the Argentinian empanada and English pastie to the Jamaican meat pie and the French chausson.
The type of dough, the filling and the shape may be different, but all are made to be portable so they can be eaten by everyone from a farmer in the field to a tourist window-shopping in Portland’s Old Port.
Smith thinks there’s more demand for hand-held pastries in the summer because they’re perfect for picnics or the beach.
The owners of the Small Axe food truck, inspired by Australian meat pies, have been serving savory hand pies since June — three for $5, with a dipping sauce. They use ingredients from local farms, making a healthier alternative to a trip through the drive-through for chicken nuggets.
Their most popular versions have been potato and onion pie dipped in sour cream and chives, and chicken and mushroom pie served with whole grain mustard. All of them are made with a pirogi dough, said Karl Deuben, a chef and co-owner of the truck.
“Hand pies do well, depending on the filling,” Deuben said. “I think people are still trying to figure out what they are. Sometimes when we run the cheeseburger hand pie, people think they’re getting small cheeseburgers, so we have to explain it. But when people get them, they will come back for them.”
Deuben said anything with vegetables is a best-seller on his truck. That fits well with Smith’s theory of why hand pies are becoming so popular: People are looking for good food made with fresh ingredients that they can eat on the go.
“The success of gourmet food trucks and street carts seems to emphasize that although people are looking for fast food, they are not looking for a traditional fast-food experience,” Smith said. “It seems as though we have a slow-food philosophy that’s merging into the fast lane.”
Fitzpatrick and Plunkett say they plan to use local ingredients, from sweet corn to Maine lobster, in their hand pies at Little Bigs.
Fitzpatrick got her start with Nancy Silverton at the famous La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, and has more than 20 years of baking experience. She was most recently corporate chef for Richard Melman and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a Chicago-based company that owns more than 90 restaurants nationwide.
Plunkett has worked all over the country, from a lodge in Alaska to the Quisisana musical theater resort in Lovell. Most recently, he was chef de cuisine at Brown Trout, a farm-to-table restaurant in Chicago.
The couple, who are married, originally planned to open Little Bigs in Portland, but couldn’t find a suitable location after a year and a half of looking. Fitzpatrick said South Portland has been “incredibly welcoming to us.”
“In Chicago, you know, you wait five months for a building permit,” she said. “Here, it was five days.”
They’ve been renovating their new space near Cash Corner — she painted, he installed the dropped ceiling. It’s a cozy place where the kitchen blends into the retail side, so customers will be able to watch the pair at work.
“We want to make it a neighborhood place where they come and feel comfortable and see us working,” Plunkett said. “It’s almost more of a studio than a kitchen.”
Little Bigs will be open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Sweet hand pies will cost in the range of $2.95 to $3.95 each, and savory pies will run $4 to $6.50, depending on ingredients and size.
In addition to hand pies, the couple expect to make all kinds of finger-friendly foods, including raised and cake doughnuts in flavors like ricotta cream with blueberry compote and grape jelly with Champagne grapes.
A large portion of their menu will feature sweet and savory hand pies such as an ultra-rich German sugar pie and a pie filled with artichoke, spinach, sunchoke and goat cheese.
On the drawing board are a Korean-style noodle pie with kimchee, a mole-braised turkey pie, a Thai red curry pie and a rabbit pie.
“It’s really anything you can put in a crust,” Plunkett said.
Plunkett said he even wants to fool around with Maine’s signature soda, Moxie. Perhaps a hand pie filled with Moxie curd as “a playful attention-getter?”
“We’re going to play,” Plunkett said. “We’re also going to listen to our clientele, and they’re going to tell us what they want.”
As long as it fits in a crust.
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: