Comfort food is one of those rare culinary categories that’s purely emotional. Generally rooted in childhood nostalgia, this class of cuisine is the equivalent of a childhood security blanket. Traditional American comfort foods — biscuits and gravy, macaroni and cheese, casseroles — tend to be hot and calorie-dense. They rely on staples such as flour, milk, and cheese, and they don’t get too wild with seasonings. Other cultures follow their own set of rules when it comes to ingredients, but the finished products rarely stray from the tried and true themes of rich, savory, and rustic .
There’s no getting away from the deep and abiding love people have for some fatty, fatty food. In order to get an even better handle on food that’s part sustenance, part time machine, and part trigger for a feel-good chemical dump in the brain, we asked some of the country’s most esteemed culinary experts what they wolf down when they’re looking for a little love on a plate. Not only did we get some insight into the enduring appeal of comfort classics, we got some great restaurant recommendations.
Chef John Kunkel — Founder, 50 Eggs Inc
“In my early twenties, I actually moved to South East Asia and for the next several years spent a great deal of time traveling throughout Asia, absorbing the unique flavors and spices of that region. Therefore, as much as I crave my grandmother’s fine fried chicken from my childhood served in a brown paper bag — lately, I tend to revert back to my young adulthood and search for true authentic Asian Street food. Currently, David Chang’s Momofuku, Las Vegas is my absolute go to place for authentic and creative Asian street comfort food.”
Chef Fernando Valladares — Co-founder, and chef, Portside
“As much as I love my mother’s cooking, the ultimate comfort food for me has always been a good old fashioned cheeseburger. No joke, if I could get away with eating burgers three times a day, I would (which, maybe I’ve done, or maybe not… no one will ever know).
The burger that gives me the ultimate comfort would be The Apple Pan’s Hickory Burger. As you enter, you pray to the burger lords for an open barstool, if not you stand awkwardly right behind someone hoping that your intentional heavy breathing down their neck rushes them to finish their meal.
The Apple Pan cooks the perfect medium rare patty topped with their own homemade sauce, the perfect amount of mayo, pickles, and lettuce, all sandwiched together by the softest hamburger bun. Sodas are served in paper cones, and if you’re really feeling yourself, I’d suggest ending the meal with their homemade apple pie á la mode.
Even paying for your meal is part of the experience — it’s still cash only and all transactions are done using an antique cash register. It’s not easy doing simple, but when it’s done right, the product is always mind blowing.”
Rashad Moumneh — Founder, Falasophy
“Unfortunately, I can’t name just one. On the top of my list is In-N-Out; I’m a sucker for a double-double. Less mainstream is the croque-madame sandwich at Moulin. It’s a very well done sandwich, which I always crave after a long work week. Last on the list is something from my home country, which is hard to find done right around. It’s what is called a ‘cheese man’ouche.’
Essentially, it’s a pizza-like flatbread baked in a stone oven. It can be found on every corner of major cities in the middle east. The cheese version uses local white cheeses and is traditionally eaten for breakfast with vegetables inside. The best part is the bread is made fresh and baked to order. It’s the ultimate comfort food for me.”
Kristy Gunn — Chef, Shuck Oyster Bar
“My ideal comfort food is super simple but completely satisfying — spaghetti and meat sauce. There’s a place I love that I have been going to since I was a little girl: Andre’s in Downtown Los Angeles. My parents always brought my siblings and me there after an adventure, and it was always full of wonderful memories. It always has a line out the door, and the food is consistently amazing.
It’s a cafeteria-style restaurant, where you go up, grab a tray and tell the cooks on the line what you want. When it’s my turn, I let the lady behind the counter know “One large spaghetti with meat sauce, one sausage on the side with mushroom sauce” then I travel on to the next person and order more cheesy bread than any one person can consume. I do enjoy my leftovers, though — who doesn’t like leftover Italian food?
After paying (cash only), we head to the table and I make sure I’m the first person to grab the parmesan. Then the feast begins. I normally tap out before I’m even halfway through my large plate, but I need room for my cheesy bread. Eating at Andre’s always makes me feel nostalgic, and anyone who knows me knows where to take me whenever I’m feeling blue.”
Michael Puglisi — Owner, Electric City Butcher
“When I think of comfort food, I think of a good braise or stew. Making a good braise requires patience and finesse, and I remember as a young chef, how hard it was to wait for perfection. I was working for a little French bistro in upstate New York. We would construct our beef bourguignon over two days using three sets of vegetables — the first to marinate the meat, the second to braise it in wine and its own juices, and the final for serving to the guest.
The resulting stew, with its smoky bacon, hearty root vegetables, caramelized mushrooms, crimson wine sauce and bouquet of woodsy herbs is, to this day, what I think of as the ultimate comfort food: warming of the heart, filling of the body, and easy of the mind. In a word, delicious.”
Niki Starr Weyler — Executive chef, Mesa
“The best comfort food I have ever ordered would have to be stroganoff. As a kid, I really didn’t like stroganoff (thank God I grew out of that), but my parents would make it all the time in our household. As I grew older, I began to fall in love with this savory beef dish. It has it all: egg noodles, chunks of beef, sour cream, brandy, pearl onions, and mushrooms.
When I first started cooking, I worked at a French restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA, and there was an absolute delicious filet mignon stroganoff dish on the menu. It became one of my favorite dishes to pick up, mostly because I got to flambé the brandy, but also because I loved to make a little extra (quality control) for myself. If I see stroganoff on any menu, I always order it and often request my dad to make me his and bring it to my apartment when I am feeling nostalgic.”
Alex Moreno — Executive chef, Habana
“To be honest, when I think of comfort food there’s only one place to go — my mom’s. Super exclusive joint, you know, invite only! A big bowl of pozole with shredded cabbage, onions, and a squeeze of lime…grab your tostada and dig in. But, there is one more place that is comfort food for me, and that’s the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Pick up some Acme bread, get some cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, sit down at Hog Island and order two dozen oysters, a bowl of clam chowder and a bottle of rosé. Doesn’t get more homey than that for me!”