Were the name Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies not already sufficiently long, the term Old-Fashioned could be wedged in. Steve Tarpin grew up around Key limes and knows what it takes to make a good, traditional pie therefrom. Because of his unending disappointment with commercial varieties, the Florida woodworker-carpenter decided to bake his own Key lime pies at home for family and friends. That was over 30 years ago. Roughly a decade later, Tarpin came to New York from his native Miami to work with a friend. After an injury in 1995 left him unemployed, a fortuitous meeting led Tarpin to hammer out a new career. It was at a barbecue of the Red Meat Club that Steve's pies drew the favorable attention of a Manhattan restaurateur. From an initial order of three pies, Steve's Authentic was born.
As business increased, so did the need for a capacious delivery vehicle. Tarpin's purchase of a '53 Ford F-100 Flathead V8 embodied utility and marketing savvy. The unmistakable pale yellow truck turned heads everywhere it went. Needless to say, the Key Lime Express accelerated press coverage and helped to drive up sales. Though mainly out of the limelight now, the truck still greets visitors to Steve's at Pier 41 in Red Hook.
One might say the quirky 50-something adheres to his own version of the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Steve. (Even his surname is a simplification of the Armenian Tarpinian.) Five ingredients—pasteurized egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk, butter, graham crackers, and Key limes—comprise his sole product. Though the recipe may sound simple, the key to its authenticity is in the limes and in the preparation.
Steve's pies are made with freshly squeezed juice from true Key limes that his supplier ships to him every few weeks. (Key limes are smaller and more acidic than the Persian variety typically found in grocery stores.) No bottled juice or concentrate is ever used. Furthermore, the pies are not baked. Rather, they are "filled and chilled" to preserve the integrity of the lime juice as well as the consistency of the filling. And because no coloring is added, the filling's pale yellowish hue remains faithful to the fruit. Though a little sweeter than I'd prefer, the resulting confection is creamy and quite tasty.
Steve's wares are available in three sizes: 10-inch and 8-inch pies ($25 and $15, respectively), and a 4-inch tart ($4). Several years ago, the Swingle ($5), a variation of an ice cream bar, was added to the offerings. This unique warm-weather treat was named in honor of Dr. Walter Tennyson Swingle (1871–1952), the American agricultural botanist who categorized the Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia). It's a 4-inch tart on a stick, dipped into melted chocolate, and frozen. Tarpin uses Belcolade, a dark chocolate from Belgium. As with other Belgian varieties, this one is overly sweet and thus overpowers the crisp, key lime flavors it envelops. While the cacao adds an interesting twist, a thinner coating or a less sweet variant (from fellow Brooklynite Jacques Torres, perhaps?) would yield a better balance of flavors. I wish a naked Swingle, sans chocolate, were available.
Although recent changes, including the openings of Fairway and IKEA, have drawn an influx of new residents and visitors to Red Hook, Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies remains off the beaten path. The entire operation is run from a Civil War-era warehouse on the waterfront. The bakery, small retail shop, and outdoor patio provide a laid-back setting far more reminiscent of South Florida than of South Brooklyn. Nestled among tropical plants and a mechanical waterfall, the outdoor seating area affords a relaxing spot in which to enjoy a Swingle or a tart while sipping a Key Limonade ($2). Spectacular vistas of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty are to be had just around the corner. Though a considerable distance from the nearest subway line, it's worth a trip to Steve's for an authentic, old-fashioned, taste of the Sunshine State.
Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies
204 Van Dyke Street (at Barnell St), Pier 41, Red Hook, Brooklyn
(888) 450-LIME (5463)
By bus: B61, B77