A dish of pasta shells loaded with creamy, bubbly, perfectly browned cheese. A sprinkling of spices. And all of it rich and gooey. That’s the mac ’n cheese at Slows Bar B Q, a neighborhood joint in Detroit where the star side dish has earned the nickname of “crack-n-cheese” thanks to its highly addictive deliciousness.
There are certain feel-good foods we universally reach for when we need to be comforted. A fragrant bowl of chicken soup. A dose of silky mashed potato. A 10-napkin serving of unctuous barbecue. Restaurant trends may come and go, but comfort foods are forever. Fortunately, America is awash with restaurants where the traditional never went out of style.
“As everything around us changes faster than ever, there’s a comfort in things that stay pretty much the same,” muses Salma Abdelnour, a New York–based food and travel writer who blogs about her food adventures at salmaland.com. “There’s a reason why comfort food is comforting…we know what it’s going to taste like, and we know how we’re going to feel when we eat it. That kind of predictability is priceless.”
In this era of food anxiety, it’s no wonder we sometimes feel the need to throw the book away and tuck into foods that remind us of simpler times. “[Comfort foods] soothe the psyche by reminding us of comforting childhood memories,” says Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, a food columnist who writes about home cooking for About.com. “For most of us, these foods are far from gourmet, and generally epitomize home cooking.”
Of course, the foods we tend to most associate with comfort aren’t likely to win any accolades from nutritionists and dietitians. In fact, unapologetic carb-loading is probably the single most satisfying element in a good comfort food dish. When Filippone asked her readers for their favorites, they sung the praises of such fat- and calorie-laden stars as meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken. (Strangely, salads didn’t make the cut.)
While on the hunt for America’s best comfort foods, we stuck to tried-and-true dishes that tend to evoke a sense of place. We found a bigger-than-Texas chicken-fried steak in Houston, biscuits and gravy worth lining up for in Nashville, and a chicken soup recipe handed down through generations in Philadelphia, along with a host of other feel-good staples.
The common denominator: all of them are unpretentious, homemade, and in most instances, the kind of dishes that would cause a riot were the restaurants to take them off the menu. About the only things you won’t find on our list are any radical surprises. And isn’t that kind of comforting? —Emma Sloley