Online fans of Harrows sing high praises of its chicken pies, with the oftrepeated description that they’re “just different” from other pot pies. How different could they be?
A lot, it turns out. And for the first time Harrows has branched out south of Boston, opening a location in Dedham near the Legacy Place shopping center.
Like the Harrows locations in Reading and three other spots up north, the Dedham storefront has no seating. The chain’s grab-and-go concept is based on providing a meal cooked from scratch for the busy modern family. The pies are sold cold or frozen, but the store keeps a few hot ones on hand; calling an hour ahead is recommended if you want to pick up a ready-to-eat pie.
Unable to resist, I tucked into an individual-sized hot pie ($5.50) in the car, and my first impression was of Thanksgiving. The chicken is so rich and succulent, it’s hard to believe it’s all white meat. Carrots and potatoes lend heartiness, and the gravy evokes the holidays, with a luxurious and full-bodied mouthfeel. The crust is only on top of the pie, and the pastry is flaky and thin, so it doesn’t carry the dish into overly heavy territory.
Harrows doesn’t skimp on the chicken. There are no tiny shreds in the pies, but huge hunks of tender meat. You couldn’t dream up a pot pie this good from the supermarket frozen section. The other factor that sets these pies apart is the freshness.
“We make them fresh every day,” said Wally Arsenault, co-owner of Harrows. “We don’t have them made in advance or use preservatives.”
Arsenault said the pies are all made at the main Harrows location in Reading, and most are sold within a day. The secret to the chicken, he said, is slow simmering, “a long process, and more labor intensive.”
Harrows has only one other chicken pot pie on its menu, a vegetable-free version ($5.50 for individual; $17.75 for family size). That appeals to families whose children don’t like vegetables, or people who prefer other vegetables and cook them as sides at home, Arsenault said.
The classic version makes up 80 percent of its sales, he said. The pies are almost identical, but I like the variety that the potatoes and carrots bring.
There may be only two types of pot pies, but there are plenty of sides to accompany them. Mashed potatoes ($3.75 a pint) are a little dry on their own, but a wonderful chicken gravy ($3.75 a pint) makes them creamy and flavorful.
Pureed butternut squash ($4.50 a pint) was watery and bland, and nobody else at my dinner table liked it. The favorites were the chicken pie with vegetables (family size, for four, $16.75), mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese ($4.50 a pint) — it’s a simple stovetop-style version, but the cheesy noodles hit the spot.
Dinner rolls ($2.25 for a half-dozen) are all right, but forgettable. The cornbread, however, is moist and fluffy, a little sweet and a bit grainy ($3.50 a pan). Cranberry sauce ($2.25 for a half pint) is deliciously sugary and tart.
Chicken soup ($3.75 a pint) has the same big, succulent pieces of chicken as the pies, but the diced carrots have the crunch and taste of raw carrots in a salad. The rawness gives an almost sour flavor to the soup, rather than the aromatic sweetness of cooked carrot.
Chicken salad ($3.75 for a half pint) is a standard version with mayonnaise, and makes good sandwiches.
There are also 8- and 10-inch pies for dessert. The apple ($6.50 for 8-inch pie) is a little dry and not sweet enough. The blueberry ($7.25 for 8-inch pie) is satisfactory, but not spectacular. On a busy night, it would fit the bill for a convenient dessert.
The chicken pies are particularly popular in cold New England weather, comfort food to warm up on chilly days.
Kwame Horsley, the manager in Dedham, said business was brisk the day before the big blizzard in February.
“We pretty much get slammed before any storm,” he said.
As customers trickled in on a weekday afternoon, Horsley and other workers offered to help each carry food to the car. They also offered a tip: Take the partially cooked crust off the individual-sized pies, and put it back on for the last few minutes of baking so it doesn’t get overdone. The larger pies need no adjustment.
The chicken pie recipe was created about 75 years ago by original co-owner Winifred Harrow, Arsenault said.
His father, Walter Arsenault, bought the business from Charles and Winifred Harrow in the 1950s, and Wally and his brother Dan bought it from their father in 1995.
The Dedham store opened on Jan. 2, and a second location south of Boston could open next year, Wally Arsenault said.
When asked whether he would consider expanding the menu or adding seating to any locations, Arsenault said that Harrows will stick to its formula.
“Seating is a different business, not the one we’re in,” he said. “We want to specialize in making chicken pies, making meals for families to bring home.”