Comfort food: meatloaf, pizza, chicken potpie, macaroni & cheese, right? These are a handful of instantly recognizable comfort classics, American style. But, look beyond our own borders, and you’ll find an entire planet of global comfort goodies. Virtually every nation and cuisine has its tried & true comfort-food dishes, and here are a few that you don’t need a passport to get your lips around.
Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine
In Ethiopia, injera is as ubiquitous as the tortilla is in Mexico. It’s a large, spongy and airy type of bread made from a grain called teff and used, much like the tortilla, to scoop up other foods. Along with injera, another comfort item you’ll find in virtually every Ethiopian eatery, including ones here like Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine, Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant & Market and Red Sea: wot. Wot is a curried stew made with chicken, beef, lamb or veggies and is rich and spicy, but not fiery hot.
Wot is as common in Ethiopia as the meat & mashed-potato concoction called shepherd’s pie is in Ireland. Where do you find that Irish comfort-food staple? Well, at MacCool’s Public House (Multiple locations, MacCoolsRestaurant.com), of course—they’ve even got a version made with buffalo, venison and andouille sausage.
Bayleaf Bar & Grub
In Korea, bulgogi is nearly as omnipresent as kimchi. It’s marinated beef, grilled and served with sweet Korean barbecue sauce and rice. You’ll find bulgogi at Bayleaf Bar & Grub (159 S. Main, Salt Lake City, 801-359-8490, BayleafBarAndGrub.com), along with a treasure trove of other comfort foods, like Filipino-style adobo chicken and all-American barbecued shrimp & grits, Hoppin’ John, meatloaf, po’boys, chicken & waffles and much more.
While we’re on the topic of American comfort food, the turkey potpies at Nauvoo Cafe (Joseph Smith Memorial Building, 15 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, 801-539-3346, TempleSquareHospitality.com), are about as American as it gets. And, you’d be hard-pressed to find Texas-style barbecue that’s better than Kaiser’s (962 S. 300 West, Salt Lake City, 801-355-0499, SaltLakeBBQ.com); their ribs are right.
You might think that the potato is synonymous with Peru, where there are more than 3,800 different potato varieties. But, along with potatoes, ceviche is also of Peruvian origin. And, it’s one of the best Peruvian comfort foods. Similar to crudo in Italy, ceviche is chopped raw fish or other seafoods (such as shrimp or scallops) marinated in citrus juices like lemon and lime, which “cooks” the fish without heat. The best place to encounter this Peruvian prize is at Del Mar al Lago Cebicheria Peruana (310 Bugatti Drive, Salt Lake City, 801-467-2890).
The other mainstay of Peruvian comfort cooking is lomo saltado, which is an Asian-influenced dish of beef strips marinated in vinegar and soy sauce, then stir fried with onions. El Rocoto Peruvian Restaurant (3904 W. 3500 South, West Valley City, 801-963-2657, ElRocotoUtah.com) does a bang-up version of lomo saltado.
As much as sushi is associated with Japanese cuisine, ramen is really what people there eat. Ramen noodles are sold from street carts, in mom & pop noodle shops and in fancy Japanese restaurants, usually in a meat or fish broth flavored with miso. I’m impressed that Plum Alley (111 E. Broadway, Salt Lake City, 801-355-0543, PlumAlley.com) makes its ramen from scratch (no easy feat). The house ramen is served with pork belly and poached egg. At Dojo Restaurant & Sushi Bar (423 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City, 801-328-3333, DojoSLC.com), there’s a choice of pork belly or pork shoulder for its ramen, which is simply heaven.
Before we leave Japan, we should also give a shoutout to tempura, a light Japanese batter made with flour and cold water. It’s used to deep-fry veggies, but also seafood like shrimp and sometimes, even meat or chicken. And at Kyoto Japanese Restaurant (1080 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City, 801-487-3525), that comfort food is always light, crispy and airy—enhancing what is wrapped inside the tempura batter, not masking it.
A very popular dish in Egypt and Sudan is ful mudammas, a mélange of cooked and mashed fava beans. It’s usually served with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, onion and parsley. Mazza (912 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City, 801-521-4572; 1515 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City, 801-484-9259, MazzaCafe.com) does a delicious version where they blend fava with garbanzo beans. O’Falafel, Etc. (790 E. 2100 South, Salt Lake City, 801-487-7747, OFalafelEtc.com) also blends those two beans for its yummy version. Of course, falafel is the prototypical Arab comfort food (and, equally popular throughout the Middle East), and both Mazza and O’Falafel, Etc. make fantastic falafel.
In Mexico, tacos are terrific, of course. And we all have our favorite spots here for authentic street-style tacos. Less easy to locate, however, are the big, comforting, steamy bowls of Mexican soups/stews called caldos. The birria en caldo at El Mana (7962 S. State, Midvale, 801-563-5196) is wonderful: shredded, roasted goat meat bathed in a rich housemade broth. I also really love the chicken caldo at Julia’s Mexican Food (51 S. 1000 West, Salt Lake City, 801-521-4228) with big pieces of bone-in chicken, potato chunks and veggies all cooked up in a luscious chicken broth.
Carnitas are another popular south-of-the-border comfort food. Carnitas literally means “little meats”—Mexican-style slow-cooked pork (usually Boston butt or shoulder) chunks, often braised or roasted with a sweet citrus component like orange juice. I can’t get enough of the carnitas at La Macarena (145 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City, 801-359-6388)—slow-roasted pork shoulder that’s simultaneously crispy and melt-in-the-mouth tender. For carnitas in a more refined atmosphere, I recommend Frida Bistro (545 W. 700 South, Salt Lake City, 801-983-6692, FridaBistro.com), where you’ll also find another Mexican comfort food staple: queso fundido—melted Mexican cheeses used as a dip, usually with chorizo, but sometimes with chile peppers, mushrooms or other additions.
Dosas in India are at least as popular as burgers are here. These are South Indian crepes made from ground rice and dal (lentils, yellow split peas, mung beans and such). At Saffron Valley Indian Street Foods (1098 W. South Jordan Parkway, South Jordan, 801-438-4823, SaffronValley.com), they serve up eight different dosa varieties (plus daily specials), like ghee dosa, masala dosa, paneer dosa, spring (vegetarian) dosa, and my favorite: chicken tikka dosa.
La-Cai Noodle House
Of course, nothing could be more comforting than a warm bowl of Vietnamese pho. Pho aficionados all have their pho faves, and arguments abound as to where to find the most fabulous pho. If you’ve never tried it, pho is Vietnam’s national dish—big bowls of hot broth, usually made from beef or ox bones, to which rice noodles and meat, chicken or veggies are usually added. Standard accompaniments include sliced hot chili peppers, bean sprouts, Thai basil and cilantro. As I said, we all have our favorite places for pho. Mine include Pho Tay Ho and La-Cai Noodle House. Then again, I’ve never found a pho I didn’t like!
To wrap up, let’s return to the good ol’ USA for one of my favorite comfort foods, and probably yours: chili con carne. For some reason, good restaurant chili is hard to come by in Utah. But, I found an excellent chili at a spot that’ll probably surprise you: The New Yorker (60 Market St., Salt Lake City, 801-363-0166, GastronomyInc.com/NewYorker). Their “kick ass chili” really does kick ass, with tender chunks of cubed top sirloin in a rich, hearty and beefy broth spiked with jalapeños and hints of cumin. Hey, just ‘cause it’s comfort food doesn’t mean it has to be dull.