Photo by Aneesa Waheed
Venturing out into the cold in search of comfort food feels a bit conflicting. The best part of aptly nicknamed category of foods is the fact that they’re meant to be enjoyed while in an almost catatonic state, wrapped in a thick comforter as you sink into your couch. Just me? Okay.
But the Capital Region has some of the best essentials if you decide to head out and about. There’s ooey-gooey mac n’ cheese, ramen drowned in flavorful broths and cozy, dimmed wine bars that warm you from the inside out.
The Shop, Troy – Poutine
For head chef Rich Matthews, recalling The Shop’s most notable comfort food was no challenge. “It’s sort of a northeastern survival food,” he says.
You can order savory poutine prepared in the classic way or with a twist. The menu features three versions: montreal (a classic gravy and cheddar curd delight), tikka masala (featuring paneer) or tex-mex (smothered with salsa and aioli with either cerveza braised pork shoulder or fried seitan.) The standard ingredient is the thick cut fries (sweet potatoes for the tex mex) made with Kennebec potatoes grown less than 100 miles away. Another staple in the mix is their hearty bone broth stock, cooked down for 24 hours– or twice for the maximum volume. “We’ll get it where you can cut the bone with a spoon,” Matthews says.
But what is it that makes a menu item a comfort food essential?
“It needs to be warm and relatively hearty. It can’t be just empty calories,” Matthews says.
Tara Kitchen, Schenectady and Troy – Lamb meatballs in tomato sauce with eggs
“Whether it’s winter, summer or spring, I immediately think of lamb meatballs with eggs,” Tara Kitchen owner Aneesa Waheed said. “I’ve had a love affair with this dish for about 15 years, it’s what inspired me to open a Moroccan restaurant.”
The dish is pretty self explanatory: a hearty shakshuka dish in a rich sauce with seasoned lamb meatballs. “Comfort foods are essentially a hot pot,” Waheed said. “With the lamb and egg, those savory flavors altogether… I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar, Albany – Tanpopo Spicy Ramen
“Once you get in here, the atmosphere warms you up and the food comes second,” waiter Jack Zheng said of the cozy diner-turned-ramen bar.
Zheng recommends their most popular bowl of spicy ramen. “The broth is really rich and warning in the winter,” he said. Sunken into a broth of pork bone marrow is a mix of tender minced spicy (but not too spicy) pork paste, marinated Chashu pork, scallion, fish cake and kikurage mushroom. It’s a hearty meal with a just a bit of a kick. It’s a careful balance.
“[Comfort food] is not too overwhelming. Not too sweet or salty–it has to be just right.”
Ya Ya’s House Southern Cuisine – Fried Catfish
“Catfish is very much a Southern comfort dish,” says owner Amanda “Ya Ya” Thompson. The fried variety served at Ya Ya’s House is coated with cornmeal and home seasonings and served with a traditional topping of tartar sauce.
“The catfish we serve is very mild. It doesn’t have a hard fishy taste, it’s much lighter,” co-owner Mark Thompson adds.
Your choice in accompanying sides like candied yams, collard greens, string beans, a corn muffin, potato or macaroni salad make it the perfect meal.
“Traditionally it would be served with just a piece of white bread, very simple. It brings you to a great place, a remembrance of the South,” he adds.
Druthers Brewing Company, Albany – Tie: Memphis BBQ and/or Loaded Mac n’ Cheese
“For me, mac n’ cheese is the perfect option. It reminds me of my childhood, my family, when life was simple and my mom would make me that dish of Kraft,” said Peter Hahm, head chef at the Albany Druthers brewpub.
Hahm is split between two of their most popular mac n’ cheese variants: The Memphis BBQ, mixed with smoked pulled pork and their homemade BBQ sauce; and the Loaded, packed with bacon, smoked chicken and their homemade ranch and BBQ.
“We make our own cheese sauce in house with seven different kinds of cheese. It’s labor intensive and flavorful. We also make our own pasta in house, called creste de gallo, that has these unique ridges. It really sets us apart,” he added.