Feed the Soul
Cozy up to the most comforting dishes in town
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.
Ha Long Bay
1353 Williamson St.
Some comfort foods can be replicated easily at home, but not pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. Turns out the beef-bone broth that softens the white rice noodles—flat, not round—and thinly sliced beef is particularly time-consuming to create. “In Vietnam, it’s actually more of a morning food,” says Thanh Le, brother-in-law of Ha Long Bay owner Jean Tran. “It’s lighter than rice, which makes it a good breakfast choice.” At Ha Long Bay, it’s served all day, in an oversized white bowl with a side of basil, bean sprouts and peppers. Coriander and star anise are this dish’s secret weapons: In a nod to American tastes, Ha Long Bay’s recipe isn’t as spicy as what you’d find on the streets of Hanoi, but it’s just as tasty.
Chicken Pot Pie
Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co.
123 E. Doty St.; 357 Price Pl.; 876 Jupiter Dr.; 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg
It looks like a modest crock of comfort but, man, the taste of this pie is huge. Underneath that tidy pastry crust bubbles tender white-meat chicken and vegetables in a flour-butter roux, topped with fluffy mashed potatoes. And we haven’t even hit the homemade cinnamon apple/pear sauce side yet. “The great thing about the recipe is that it is real cooking,” says Matthew Moyer, Great Dane’s executive chef. “The dish is simple yet solid.” Addictive, too. Word is that one Great Dane customer ate a pie every day for 172 days straight. What else do you need to know?
1923 Monroe St.
Sometimes, you need to ease into your comfort, and there’s really no better way than ordering up Belgian-style frites at Brasserie V.
“It’s something so simple—a French fry,” says chef Rob Grisham, who’s been rocking the Belgians since Brasserie V opened five years ago. “But people don’t understand what goes into it.”
In this case, potatoes are the first thing the staff tackles each day. They’re soaked, then blanched, then put through something called The Stomper. Seasoned with only salt and cracked pepper, they’re served in a silver cone with a side of spicy aioli.
Did we mention they’re really popular? Grisham and company go through nearly twenty tons of potatoes annually. Call these frites an appetizer, or even a meal, but don’t call them anything else.
“A lot of people want them as a side to their sandwich,” says Grisham. “We don’t do that.”
The Avenue Bar
128 E. Washington Ave.
Comfort food is rooted in shared ritual, and none swims deeper in Wisconsin’s cultural heritage than the Friday fish fry. The Avenue, a place that knows a little something about ritual itself, has been doing it right for forty-two years, back when fish boil outsold fish fry on the menu. The Avenue’s recent jump to the Food Fight family of restaurants hasn’t altered that equation: Between the pillow-like pieces of fresh Atlantic cod, the crispy hash browns sprinkled with green onions and the coleslaw that’s shredded, not chopped, this is a plate that defines comfort. “The tradition behind this dish is undying,” says new chef Chris Gerster. “People just have this need for Friday night tradition.”
Michael’s Frozen Custard
5602 Schroeder Rd.; 3826 Atwood Ave.; 2531 Monroe St.; 407 W. Verona Rd., Verona
You could opt for the flavor of the day, sure, but that seems almost superfluous when the vanilla variety is just so comfortably good. Longtime custard lovers know the five-ingredient recipe at Michael’s finds its origins in owner Michael Dix’s childhood, where his mom would send him and his five bored siblings to collect ice chips from frozen Lake Sinissippi, forming the foundation of the custard recipe his restaurant uses today. The key to the comfort here is cool consistency: “The recipe has not changed in twenty-five years,” says Perry McCourtney, Michael’s business and life partner. “Michael has demanded that.” Good call.
2201 Atwood Ave.
The credit for this über-comforting (and über-tasty) veggie burger goes to the ex-wife of Harmony owner Keith Daniels, a pastry chef who concocted what may be the perfect blend of walnut, egg, onion and spices served on a fresh Colonial Bakery kaiser roll. You know how people talk about veggie burgers that don’t taste like veggie burgers? Look no further. “It’s odd,” says Daniels. “The burger’s been on the menu for close to twenty years, but in the last three to four, it’s really taken off.”