By: Aaron R. Conklin
We call it comfort food, and we all have our own particular definitions for those warm, familiar tastes we turn to when it’s time to shove the stress into a closet, lock the door and pitch the key out the window like an Aaron Rodgers screen pass. But maybe the more appropriate term is connection food, dishes that connect us both to shared experiences and to the past, taking us back to the kitchen tables, cafeterias and supper clubs of our nostalgia-dusted childhoods. As we’re reminded every time we indulge, there’s power (and powerful comfort) in the simple appeal of a plate of casserole or a bowl of chicken potpie.
Because of that, comfort food is also our chance to commune with the warm experiences and customary flavors from other cultures, whose charms may be worlds away from the tastes we enjoyed as kids. Call it comfort by association. It’s universal.
“Food, like music, should strike a chord,” says Tory Miller, the executive chef at Graze, the downtown Madison restaurant that constructed its entire menu around the concept.
Hey, now that’s a comforting thought.
Madison’s a laissez-faire town, and its restaurant scene has no shortage of fabulous comfort-food options. But it’s hard to feel comfortable when you’re overwhelmed by freedom of choice, so we handpicked ten can’t-miss dishes to get you started on your own soul-satisfying pilgrimage. Eat, drink and be comforted.
Weary Traveler Freehouse
1201 Williamson St.
(pictured above; photo: Nicole Peaslee)
This bowl of spicy goodness couldn’t be further from the ground-beef-and-noodle mess you scarfed at your grade-school cafeteria. But unlike a lot of the staples on the Weary’s menu, the Hungarian Goulash isn’t the result of Christopher Berge’s international travels—it’s based on a recipe used by the Hungarian grandma of a gent named Csaba, a former bartender at the downtown Great Dane. “It really is,” says executive chef Joey Dunscombe. “It’s not just some BS we put on the menu.”
The succulent taste of beef tenderloin tips paired with Yukon potatoes and carrots is drop-kicked into comfort-food nirvana by the spices, featuring onions sautéed with caraway seeds and Hungarian paprika.
Not only has the dish passed muster with plenty of actual Hungarians, it’s totally weatherproof. “Seriously, it sells all summer long,” says Dunscombe. “We had a 105-degree day this summer and people were still ordering it.”
Meatloaf of the Gods/Meatless Loaf of the Gods
Monty’s Blue Plate Diner
(2089 Atwood Ave.)
Chef Matt Pace knows the deal with meatloaf: “Everybody comes into it expecting something,” he says. Monty’s almighty loaf blows those expectations off the plate by tossing in some delicious curveballs. A staple on the Monty’s menu for the past two decades-plus, this loaf combines ground beef and pork sausage—baked free-form, not in a pan, so that tasty caramelized flavor touches every edge—and comes with red-wine gravy and a sweet-and-sour tomato chutney standing in for the bottle of Heinz. If vegetarian varieties are more your bottle of ketchup, no worries: the meatless loaf, a carrot-based version leavened with mushrooms and a ginger-cashew gravy, is strong and flavorful enough to hold not just its form, but its own against its beefy brother.
6802 Odana Rd. & 2840 University Ave.
In Southern Thailand, the smooth and sweet peanut sauce that garnishes this dish—it’s number fifty-two on the Sa-Bai Thong menu—is generally reserved for satay appetizers. Here in Madison, we’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy an entire entrée, with thin-sliced grilled chicken and gleaming broccoli drenched in its tasty comfort. Arom Wichitchu, who manages the Odana restaurant, says the peanut sauce’s secret is in the sweet-and-sour tamarind fruit. “You’ve got to have just a little, just the right amount,” he says. If you need more than broc to knock your socks, number forty-nine offers the same peanut sauce with a wider vegetable palate.
1033 Park St.
The actual term “comfort food” isn’t as commonly understood in Latino culture, but the earthy, time-honored connection to certain types of food sure is. Just ask Francisco Vacquez, the chef and co-owner of Taqueria Guadalajara, who was fronting his own taqueria in Mexico at the tender age of fifteen. He’s had three decades to perfect his comfortable take on tacos. The key’s the tortilla, a large corn circle oiled perfectly, and a mere three ingredients: onions, one of six types of meat and a hearty covering of fresh cilantro. If simplicity is the food of comfort, eat on.
Click here for pictures and to see the other dishes that round out the top ten.