Cultural comfort foods go modern
If youâve dined in Los Angeles recently, thereâs a good chance youâve found some strange inclusions on menus.Â Maybe youâve spotted matzo ball soup, chicken and waffles or poutine.
Thatâs because these very specific comfort foods have been taken out of their homestyle contexts and given upscale updates.
Most prevalent in recent weeks has been the appearance of poutine. The name suggests a fanciful French-inspired dish. Or a gooey, throw-in-anything-you-can-find treat. Or maybe you rightly think of Canadian diner food.
Poutine, a Quebecois treasure featuring fries with gravy and cheese curds, is all those things.
The ever-expanding Umami Burger is currently serving an off-menu Poutine Burger for a limited time. Catch it while you can â itâs one of the chainâs popular truffle-drizzled patties atop a bed of cheesy fries. Its gravy is a mixture of a sweet mushroom sauce and burger juices. And the lack of a bun is a nice choice: The dish is plenty filling as is.
But the real wonder is that a recipe so connected to the culture of eastern Canada can feel so right in Los Angeles with a fusion of Japanese flavors and casual American sensibility.
And for those that wince at the thought of cheese curds, take comfort in knowing that pretty much any form of cheese suffices. Larchmont Villageâs Larchmont Bungalow swaps out cheese curds for shredded mozzarella, which melts into strings and delectably wraps itself around the rest of the dish. But a crumbly, flavorful substitute of feta could provide the fries with more textural interest and an added tang as well.
Therein lies the beauty of a dish as free-form as poutine â any improvised recipe will do so long as it includes the three basic ingredients. This means at-home versions can be every bit as delicious as something you might find in a restaurant.
McDonaldsâ fries are too thin to provide the hefty base the poutine needs, sulking under the weight of thick gravy. In-N-Outâs version will pose similar problems. Five Guysâ thick slices of potato are the way to go: Get them Cajun style to give your gravy some spice.
In the South, America celebrates the chicken and waffle tradition.
In this department, Roscoeâs Chicken and Waffles has long sufficed for Angelenos. President Barack Obama ate there during a trip in October, giving the 37-year-old institution some national press.
Now, some L.A.-area restaurants have taken the odd-yet-brilliant combination of poultry and pastry one step further.
At Hollywoodâs Wood and Vine, chicken and waffles is a favorite on the Southern-tilting brunch menu. But the waffles, hinting of vanilla bean and topped with chunks of butternut squash, ensure that this isnât any old imitation of the Southern specialty. This is a glamorous remake only Hollywood is capable of.
The version at Zimzala in Huntington Beachâs Shorebreak Hotel comes as a gut-busting panini. Folded waffles serve as the bread with a variety of sandwich fillings like gruyĂšre cheese and â as if the dish isnât rich enough â prosciutto bĂ©chamel sauce. Here, the crispy creation is a dinner menu item sure to keep you full through the next day.
Similarly, matzo balls, the Jewish take on soup dumplings usually found at delis and Passover Seders, are becoming commonplace where you might least expect it.
The Gorbals, a Downtown restaurant with a constantly changing menu, is currently serving matzo balls wrapped in bacon. Thatâs not kosher, but itâs a clever combination that gives saltiness and chewiness to the dry density of the dumplings.
Trendy as ever, the restaurant is also featuring its own version of poutine, this one inspired by the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, with stewed pork and pickled veggies.
But going back to the unsung matzo ball, its new iterations are tributes to its doughy versatility.
Take one of the cityâs most celebrated dining spots, Lukshon. Tucked inside a narrow design complex in Culver City, Lukshon is easy to miss. But people flock here nonetheless for its Shanghai matzo-ball soup.
Sitting by the kitchen and watching bowl upon bowl of the soup being plated on a 75-degree day, I knew the unusual offering was a must-order. Matzo balls arrive as the soft pillows one always hopes for, and the inclusion of white sesame and bean sprouts provide a succinct Asian kick. It was like nothing I had tasted before, and yet it was evocative of so many memories of Passovers past.
Rediscovering poutine, on the other hand, brought me back to my first trip to Montreal at the age of 18. And the chicken and waffles, despite my first tasting the pairing in Los Angeles, transported me to my own imagined version of the Deep South, where everythingâs delectably fried and no calorie is consequential.
Those memories â old, new, fictional â are what make these foods comforting no matter the form.
Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column âAmuse-Boucheâ runs Wednesdays.