Mac-and-cheese, meatloaf, and…pad thai?Americans still love our retro comfort food, but now we’re also finding solace in more far-flung cuisines. Peter Jon Lindberg traces the evolution of a trend.
Apparently so, judging from what’s on our plates. For more than a decade—since truffle-sprinkled macaroni-and-cheese reared its gooey, toasted head in the trendiest of urban kitchens—Americans have been caught in the narcotizing embrace of old-fashioned comfort food. You’d think we’d have finally grown up and out of the stuff, but it keeps coming back: stronger, more expensive, gooier. Now it’s all over your neighborhood bistro, your room-service cart, and your seat-back tray table. We have donned the proverbial sweatpants, people: every day is Thanksgiving, every meal an excuse to "feel good." Pass the chicken pot pie! Save me that piece of lasagne! Let’s order more Kobe sliders!
Nobody doesn’t like comfort food. It’s the perfect balm after a breakup or a tonsilectomy. It’s regressive yet satisfying, like chewing a cotton blanket: one bite and you’re a kid again. (Think of that poignant scene in last summer’s Ratatouille, when the snooty restaurant critic samples the titular dish and is catapulted back to his mother’s kitchen.) There’s a reason the British call this stuff "nursery food"—meaning bangers-and-mash, beef stew, shepherd’s pie. Like mobiles and lullabies, traditional comfort foods are calibrated to make you fall asleep as soon as possible, with generous amounts of fat and refined carbs. They’re the indulgent foods we probably shouldn’t crave but do—a guilty pleasure, the culinary equivalent of a Knight Rider rerun. They’re our silly little reward at the end of a stressful day.
Obviously we’re all having exceptionally stressful days, because we’re eating like a nation of nine-year-olds. What used to be the province of the coffee shop, the lunchroom, and the infirmary is now behind a velvet rope, selling for $33 a plate. And the national comfort trend shows no sign of slowing—especially when its wholesome, retro appeal can be coupled with the wholesome, retro farm-to-table movement. So instead of mom’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes, we can order ale-battered free-range game hen with purée of Edzell Blue potatoes, and somehow feel more pious for it.
The retro-comfort craze takes many forms. There are the countless purveyors of "luxury burgers," inexplicably enamored of Wagyu beef (you might as well use toro tuna for cat food). Or the innumerable upmarket pizza parlors, with their slow-simmered ragùs and biodynamic pepperoni. Or that ultimate retro-comfort bastion, the steak house, which continues its inexorable march across the country, turning our culinary clock back 40 years and turning talented cooks into hucksters of creamed spinach.
Even our most forward-thinking chefs feel compelled to dress down their menus in comfort-food terms. At Cuvée in New Orleans, what Bob Iacovone calls "spaghetti & meatball" is actually spaghetti squash with caper berries, tomato brunoise, and sea scallops. ("Blecch!" cries one’s inner kindergartner.) At French Laundry in Napa Valley, Thomas Keller gives his inventions cutesy names like "Surf & Turf," "Peas & Carrots," and "Coffee & Doughnuts," which is the only thing I dislike about Thomas Keller.
And don’t get me started on Los Angeles—always the most childish of cities, but now the capital of kid-friendly, id-friendly cuisine. At Simon L.A., in the swank Sofitel hotel, former Iron Chef Kerry Simon dishes up meatloaf, pizza, onion rings, and, yes, mac-and-cheese—the premium denim of the food world—before sending you to your room with a bellyful of Rice Krispies treats, cotton candy, and cookies with milk. Over on West Third Street, the clubby new Food Court L.A. spoils you with lasagne, fish and chips, and "Mom’s Spag & Balls." And at the ever-popular Jar, Suzanne Tracht elevates home-style classics like pot roast and chocolate pudding (both of which are admittedly delicious). Back in the 1990’s, Tracht worked at Campanile, where then-chef Nancy Silverton was glorifying the grilled cheese sandwich. Campanile’s Grilled Cheese Nights still pack the house every Thursday—and that iconic sandwich has since become a citywide obsession. (A dozen variations are on the menu at MeltDOWN Etc., which opened last spring in Culver City.) Silverton, meanwhile, has partnered with Mario Batali on—surprise!—an upmarket pizza parlor, Pizzeria Mozza.
How much coddling does one nation need?Surely this can’t be good for us.
It’s not as if we lack for exciting alternatives. Provocateurs like Wylie Dufresne (of New York’s wd~50) and Grant Achatz (of Chicago’s Alinea) dazzle with their alchemy, their caviars made of smoke. But for every lonely practitioner of space-age cuisine, a hundred chefs remain stuck in the Eisenhower era. Why?Because as revelatory as experimentation might be, it doesn’t soothe, swaddle, or help us relax—on the contrary, it forces us to think about what we’re eating. No thanks, we say. We’ll just have the meatloaf.
Perhaps these shopworn dishes represent some lost notion of purity, honesty, and authenticity. Or maybe we’re just retreating to the womb. Whatever the reason, our hunger for comfort is unlikely to subside anytime soon—not in these times, not in our current headspace. Still, does it have to be so damn predictable?
Well, no. In fact, there’s been a welcome development. The traditional American definition of comfort food—which had been limited to homegrown or European cooking—has broadened to include more exotic incarnations. Whether through our own travels or simply from watching Anthony Bourdain, we’ve become increasingly familiar—and comfortable—with a wide range of foreign dishes, and have come to crave them as we do our own. Call it the globalization of comfort food.
And in this new vernacular, it’s Asian flavors that predominate. For a new generation of Americans—raised on manga comics, Jet Li movies, and spicy tuna rolls—hearty, soul-nourishing Asian treats like pad thai, Korean bibimbap, and South Indian dosas are now everyday foods, as "American" as nachos and mozza sticks.
"If you look at the evolution of bar snacks in this country—we’ve gone from pigs-in-a-blanket to pot stickers," says Ed Levine, founder of SeriousEats.com. "And it’s not just happening in cities. Look at the Cheesecake Factory. You couldn’t find a more mainstream concept—and yet half of that menu is Asian comfort foods." It’s true: at suburban America’s favorite feeding trough, quesadillas and fried macaroni-and-cheese share the page with crispy crab wontons, Vietnamese summer rolls, and pan-fried pot stickers (which they still call "Oriental" dumplings).
Why the enthusiasm for Asian food?"First of all, it’s both exotic and familiar," notes Levine. "Along with Italian, Chinese was really the first ethnic food that Americans were exposed to. We all know what an egg roll is. From there it’s not much of a leap to a spring roll. Second, it’s convenient—it’s fried, it’s barbecued, it’s easy finger food. Finally, chefs love to cook Asian dishes, no matter what their background."
Eastern comfort foods are not just refreshingly novel; in many cases they’re simply better than their Western analogs. Take pho, the beloved Vietnamese soup, whose deep, earthy oxtail broth (infused with clove and anise) is perfectly balanced by the lightness of fresh basil, lime juice, and mung-bean sprouts, all laced together with toothsome tangles of rice vermicelli. Your mom’s chicken soup has nothing on this. Then there’s the Korean version of fried chicken, wherein wings and drumsticks are deep-fried to seal in the juice, then quickly fried again to lend a pleasant crunch, and painted with a fiery chile glaze or garlic-soy sauce. The result is remarkably light and clean-tasting, and far superior to that other KFC.
Few restaurants exemplify the current comfort zeitgeist better than Momofuku Ssäm Bar, which in barely five months has become Manhattan’s most celebrated restaurant. (A Las Vegas outpost is rumored to be in the works.) It’s a noisy room, with big communal tables and a perpetual line out the door. The wine, sake, and beer flow liberally, and the food redefines indulgent. (The infamous bo ssäm, a heaping splurgefest of slow-roasted pork butt with rice, oysters, lettuce, and kimchi, requires a party of eight but could easily feed 20.) Rivaling cheeseburgers as the perfect comfort food are Momofuku’s steamed pork buns: billowy wheat-flour wrappers encasing a delectable parcel of pork belly, cool cucumber and scallion, and piquant hoisin sauce. Then there’s the eponymous ssäm, a vaguely Asian burrito: Berkshire pork, kimchi, and rice, swaddled in a delicate flour pancake.
How to describe this strange yet familiar cooking?It’s not strictly Korean. It’s not fusion, in the derogatory 80’s sense. Is it Pan-Asian soul food?("Seoul food"?)
"Actually, I’d just call it ’American food,’ " says chef-owner David Chang, a Virginia native born to Korean parents. "Because what the hell is American cuisine?Really, our food is a representation of the people in the kitchen, who are from Mexico and China and Korea and all these other places. The real question shouldn’t be, What is this?It should be, How delicious is this?"
I asked Chang if he’d consider his cooking "comfort food." "It’s funny, a lot of cooks don’t like that term—at least not the ones who work in fine-dining restaurants," he told me. "But isn’t comfort food just the stuff that people want to eat?The American connotation is that it has to be bad for you: deep-fried or full of butter or whatever. Yet there’s an honesty and a directness to it as well, whether you mean fried chicken and mashed potatoes, or Vietnamese pho, or Shanghainese soup dumplings. Those foods seem so simple, though they’re actually not simple at all. Pho, for example, is exceedingly complex and time-consuming. And soup dumplings require a great deal of skill to make."
Chang grew up with Korean foods in his family’s kitchen. But non-Asian chefs are increasingly confident working with Eastern techniques and ingredients. Hence the current obsession with tempura batter and panko crusts in nominally "American" restaurants. And the sudden ubiquity of sambal, the spicy Malaysian chile paste: some restaurants in New York even lay a dish of it on each table along with bread. (Is chile the new butter?) Aria, the formal dining room at Chicago’s Fairmont hotel, serves what it calls "culturally inspired, comfortably American" cuisine, which apparently means lobster risotto, roasted rack of lamb, and a $26 pad thai. And back in L.A., Suzanne Tracht of Jar will soon open a "contemporary noodle house" called Suzpree with her Thai kitchen partner, Preech Narkthong.
Some of us are even cooking this way at home. A friend in Minneapolis recently attended a housewarming where the hosts—Norwegian-Americans—served their own goi cuon (Vietnamese rice-paper rolls) and Japanese gyoza. Where were the cocktail franks?The fondue?The lutefisk and gravlax?
The reigning king of this Westerner-goes-East trend is Zak Pelaccio, an American who spent several years in Kuala Lumpur soaking up the intense and varied flavors of Malaysian cooking. In 2005, he opened Fatty Crab, in New York’s West Village, which, like Momofuku, draws a devoted and ravenous crowd. Pelaccio’s renditions of Malay comfort foods—an uncannily assured laksa soup, a sumptuous nasi lemak—are more faithful than fusiony. Why bother changing them?Lusty Malaysian cuisine requires no translation to appeal to American palates, exotic as it seems on paper: if our eyes don’t recognize the strange menu terms, our palates certainly will. Take, for instance, Fatty Crab’s "Jalan Alor chicken wings"—the skin lacquered and caramelized; the cumin-spiked marinade reminiscent of Mexican mole; the meat smoky and juicy and unfathomably tender. They put buffalo wings to shame, and would disappear instantly if served at any Super Bowl party.
It’s the gutsy, heart-stirring nature of these dishes that makes them so familiar to Western diners. They’re comfort foods with a twist. Pelaccio’s braised short-rib rendang, laced with sweetness and kaffir lime, has the same effect, if not exactly the same taste, as your mother’s beef stew. And the fluffy "oyster omelet Ashraf," singing with Sriracha chile sauce, isn’t all that different from what you’d find in some rural diner in Louisiana (just swap Sriracha for Tabasco).
As for Fatty Crab’s mesmerizing laksa, well, there isn’t a worthy equivalent in the West. But I swear it’s just like the one my imaginary grandmother in Penang used to make.
Peter Jon Lindberg is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Where to find new comfort classics from New York to L.A.
Fairmont Chicago, 200 N. Columbus Dr., Chicago, Ill.; 312/444-9494; dinner for two $125
624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, Calif.; 323/938-1447; dinner for two $115
322 Magazine St., New Orleans, La.; 504/587-9001; dinner for two $100
643 Hudson St., New York, N.Y.; 212/352-3590; dinner for two $50
6640 Washington St., Yountville, Calif.; 707/944-2380; dinner for two $480
Food Court L.A.
8334 W. Third St., Los Angeles, Calif.; 323/782-9689; dinner for two $40
8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif.; 323/655-6566; dinner for two $120
54 Carmine St., New York, N.Y.; 212/255-2100; dinner for two $90
9739 Culver Blvd., Culver City, Calif.; 310/838-6358; lunch for two $20
Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Ave., New York, N.Y.; 212/254-3500; dinner for two $60
641 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, Calif.; 323/297-0101; dinner for two $70
Sofitel, 8555 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif.; 310/358-3979; dinner for two $92
Opening Summer 2008; Century Park, 2000 Ave. of the Stars, Los Angeles, Calif.