People define “comfort food” in different ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as “favorite.” Other times, comfort comes because of the memories of the scents and sights that remind us of our families, those warm-kitchen evenings when the smells of cooking turkey were punctuated by afternoons snuggling on the couch with loved ones.
Comfort can also arise from memories of rowdier times spent with friends out on the town, stuffing our gullets with the finest bar food, washing it down with cheap draft beer or a glass of fine red. Good friends are a comfort.
Often though, comfort is just another way of saying “home,” those fantastic restaurants that only reside in Reno. Did you ever try to get a decent burrito in New York City, a place known throughout the world for its world-class restaurants? How about some delicious and fiery spicy chicken wings when visiting relatives back in the Midwest?
Before our friends return for the holidays, members of the RN&R editorial staff took the pre-holiday opportunity to explore the local restaurants that fuel our homesickness when we’re away, power the local economy, and feed and soothe our bellies when we’re looking for a little inexpensive cheer. We’ll know where to take our pals in coming weeks.
My tastes in food are not what anyone would call sophisticated. I like what I like, and once I find a particular meal I can eat, I don’t care if I eat anything else. I’ve eaten a can of tuna with Sriracha and olive-oil mayonnaise for lunch for years.
I think of my minimalist spicy tuna handroll as fuel. I have favorite foods, as well. For example, I’m going to have an al pastor burrito con todo a La Michoacana at least once every few months. It’s an addiction, although a slow-burning one.
Chicken wings are an obsession for me. If I road trip for even a few weeks, when I get back to town, I’m going to go out for chicken wings at Joe Bob’s Chicken Joint, 670 E. Prater Way, Sparks, 359-9777, in Sparks. Comfort food is not just about what you put in your mouth. Yes, it’s true, that particular Joe Bob’s has made the best chicken wings in town for just about as long as I can remember—it’s got to be nearly 20 years—but, again, it’s not just the wings, although they are big and succulent and spicy enough to make my nose run and a dew of perspiration form on my forehead. It’s also the fact that the charming bartender Heather remembers that I always order super-nitro wings, naked—which means, sauce only, no batter—or that the owner, Maury, always checks on me when I sit down. And the fact that I’m going to get 12 pieces of chicken for $8.99. Unfortunately, Joe Bob’s has lost a bit of its charm over the years, de-Nevada-ing the decor so it looks more like other sports bars and less like a chicken run. Last week, I was devastated to see that the vulgar chicken with the human breasts with nipples has flown the coop. Each of the Joe Bobs in town has its own recommendations, but this was the one that was on my way home when I lived in Sparks—and that’s why it’s comforting.
I like my wings hot. I’m the guy who’ll occasionally eat a raw habanero pepper while sitting at the bar. It’s that kind of foolishness that makes me order the hottest wings any store has available. When I went in the chain restaurant that our readers voted Best Chicken Wings in our Biggest Little Best of Northern Nevada readers’ poll, I had little doubt that Wingstop, 5100 Mae Anne Ave., 746-9464, was going to have second-class wings. I was wrong. I ordered a mixed 10-piece with the Atomic and the Cajun wings ($6.49), and those Atomics were hot. Hot. Hot. Take-your-breath-away hot. Habanero paste sauce, hot. These are the spiciest wings in town. The wings are cooked in that modern plump style I believe comes from soaking them in a brine before cooking them. It takes some experience to be able to sift flavors through such a hot sauce, but it tastes a bit like a chipotle with fruity undertones. I eat nitro chicken wings when I suffer from the discomfort of a cold or flu. I think Wingstop may have supplanted Joe Bob’s as my pharmacy of choice.
In the past, I’d only had the chicken wings at Pie-Face Pizza Co., 239 W. Second St., 622-9222, as part of a pizza delivery order. They were fine but didn’t knock my socks off. But the conceit of this article is favorite comfort foods, and while I might go to Pie-Face for The Steer’s Head pizza—since it’s my favorite pizza in town—I probably wouldn’t have made a special trip for the wings. But at Brad Bynum’s insistence, I added the joint to my list. The wings are, frankly, delicious and juicy, probably the most flavorful, complex sauce of all these selections. Lots of garlic and tomato-y undertones. Even though they added a bit of heat at my request, they were still the mildest of the group. A 20-piece order is a bargain at $20. The presentation with chives and cheese is a step above anyone else’s in town. And again, when I’m looking for comfort, it doesn’t hurt that one of the owners, Trevor Leppek, always remembers my name. Pie-Face reminds me of Reno.
In my memory, Pub N’ Sub, 1000 Ralston St., 322-8540, serves old-school wings. I remember eating wings in this place way back in my college days, but when I went in this weekend to refresh my memory, I was a little disappointed: The wings had been modernized. I remember back in the day, they were likely to be a bit dry—that style that I think of as unbrined—with the most basic cayenne and vinegar sauce, the exact style that made me fall in love with spicy chicken wings. But all good things must pass, and while the wings are no longer dry and unsophisticated, the ass-burner sauce has become a melange of flavors including Tabasco, habanero, and Thai chiles. Or that’s my guess anyway. I got 10 wings for $8.45. Pub N’ Sub has certainly kept its character through the years, and even with the change in wing preparation, I felt as at home in this place as though I was stumbling across the threshold back in the days before they discovered beer pong.
While mom symbolizes comfort for me, these are not the fries mom used to make. They’re better. (Just don’t tell my mom.)
Garlic fries from the Great Basin Brewing Company, 846 Victorian Ave., Sparks, 355-7711, are like heaven on earth. That is, if you’re a carboholic like me. The thick, natural-cut fries are similar in size to steak fries, but without the boring, too-much-potato-not-enough-spice middle. They’re crunchy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside—just as a fry should be. Perfectly strewn parsley flakes and chunks of crunchy garlic, the only downside to these fries is that they will leave you breathing garlic for the next 24 hours. Great Basin’s fries are so good that when they’re gone, you’ll be licking the leftover garlic from the bottom of the basket.
The fries from Imperial Bar & Lounge, 150 N. Arlington Ave., 324-6399, are so skinny that when you order them to go, they come with a fork. Though I prefer a fatter fry—if only for the convenience of using two fingers—the taste makes up for the fact that I have to grab three or four at a time to generate a mouthful. The fries have just enough salt to tingle the taste buds without overpowering the potato, which, combined with the parsley and garlic creates a perfect seasoning mix. As if the spice isn’t enough, the fries come with a complementary red pepper aioli sauce, pretty much a fancy Thousand Island, which provides a completely unexpected fresh taste.
For those who like soft and fluffy, fries from the Silver Peak Restaurant and Brewery, 124 Wonder St., 324-1864, are the perfect choice. Hardly crunchy at all, eating them is like chewing on a cloud. The fries are decorated with an orange seasoning that tastes suspiciously like Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, but unlike most fries, the seasoning doesn’t overpower the taste of the potato. Because each fry has its own unique amount of seasoning, each bite is a new adventure—and because it’s curiosity that killed the human metabolism—they are impossible to stop eating until every last one is gone.
The other night I picked my brother up from a date at the Grand Sierra Resort, 2500 E. Second St., 789-2000, and was compelled to indulge in a greasy pleasure of mine—cheesy fries from the bowling alley snack bar. The server made an exception for me and offered to substitute cheddar cheese for the usual liquid variety, which she promptly forgot, and I ended up with a plate of fries that looked like something from a Kraft Mac & Cheese commercial. Bad news for my calorie count, good news for my taste buds. Because they’re fried fresh when you order, the fries have a perfect crunchy shell, but surprisingly enough, lack the copious amounts of grease typical of a snack bar. The nacho cheese is the icing on the cake. The sheer amount of salt in cheese fries can be overpowering, but at the Spare Time Snack Bar, the sweet, salty, fake cheese is the perfect topping for thick but mild fries.
Any Reno native knows that when you want greasy, you head to the “Little” Nugget, 233 N. Virginia St., 323-0716, for an Awful Awful. Less lauded but equally delicious are the mountain of French fries that accompany the burger. The Little Nugget fries resemble those of McDonald’s—to the extreme. Not only are the soft-but-not-soggy fries loaded with parsley flakes, they’re salty without the nasty little grains that stick to your fingers. Slim, soft and perfectly seasoned, the fries slide down your gullet easily, perfect for soaking up the leftover grease from that half-pound hamburger. Next time you’re headed out to enjoy some belt-busting comfort food, do yourself a favor and head to this local hole-in-the-wall.
In the winter, there is something comforting about warming your frigid hands with a steaming burrito. Rice, beans, tender meat, and sometimes goodies like guacamole and sour cream give burritos a warm place in my heart.
I use to live right across the street from Mi Ranchito, 500 Denslowe Drive, 337-8411, when I was going to college, but I never once stopped in for a burrito. Tragic, since after trying their $5 carnitas burrito I am now kicking myself for not taking advantage of this cute little restaurant that was so close to my apartment. At least I work nearby.
I have a few requirements for a heartwarming burrito. I like a soft tortilla that doesn’t fall apart. I like rice but not too much of it. I prefer the meat and the sauces to overpower everything else. Mi Ranchito’s burrito was packed with tender pulled pork, so much that I was convinced it was the only ingredient in it and was pretty stoked, but rice eventually made its presence known. It was good with a subtle, lightly seasoned taste and a soft texture. There was so much good stuff packed into the burrito that I couldn’t finish after eating a bit more than half, but that’s my fault for eating too many tortilla chips beforehand. Also, they serve burritos with a fork and knife, which gives them an extra point since I thought I was the only one who eats them that way.
I’m a frequent patron of Super Burrito, 500 E. Plumb Lane, 828-5228. I’ve tried pretty much everything on their menu, but I always come back to their signature item, appropriately named the Super Burrito ($4.70). They make a good, simple burrito, and their pulled pork is especially flavorful. I’m convinced that these burritos are slightly smaller than the standard, but denser, because I’m always fuller than I intend to be after finishing one.
Beto’s burrito, which can be found at 575 W. Fifth St., 324-0632, had the most distinct flavor of the bunch, and I’m attributing that to the abundance of cilantro packed in among the onions, two ingredients I didn’t find in any of the other burritos I tried. It’s hard to compare this burrito ($4.31) to the others since I had been mistakenly given carne asada, rather than carnitas, and didn’t realize until I had gotten home, but in terms of composition, it was a nice blend of unique and spicy flavors. The tortilla was my favorite: soft, thin, and a bit chewy, but it held together well. The beef wasn’t as tender as I like, but it didn’t matter too much since the other ingredients stole the show.
Upon returning from a brief out-of-town trip, I was cold, hungry and tired. But something happened when I entered Los Gallos Taqueria, 440 N. Virginia St., 324-2549. As I bit into their carnitas concoction ($5.50), I felt the recuperative energy of great Mexican food restore my appetite—and my soul. The pork was perfectly seasoned—simultaneously salty and sweet, incredibly juicy. It fell apart easily which made it easy for me to inhale, which is pretty much what I ended up doing. I don’t remember a lot about this burrito except that it was excellent and satisfying, and I recall the presence of rice and a light tortilla, but the highlight was the meat. Los Gallos’ location may be a bit off-putting, unless you work downtown, but a seat within will certainly improve your comfort level.
I’m an American. I love baseball, apple pie, moms, and rock ’n’ roll. I also love experiencing other cultures—and food is an easy and accessible way to do that. On my lunch break, I can literally taste what life is like in El Salvador, Ethiopia or Thailand. But sometimes I want to eat something that just makes me feel American, to revel and wallow in my American-ness, like a fat guy on a couch watching football. These are the sorts of things that soothe my mind.
Nothing makes me feel more American than eating a good burger. My wife’s folks own a cattle ranch out in the middle of rural Nevada. We go out there a couple of times a year, and sometimes we help out with the farm chores. I think the most American I have ever felt in my entire life was eating hamburgers—my in-laws’ own beef!—after a day of branding cows. A day working and eating burgers with the wife’s family feels even more American than voting, even more American than drinking Coors Light while watching the fireworks after a Reno Aces victory.
Of course, when you talk about burgers in Reno, the first word that comes to mind is “Awful,” and the second word is also “Awful.” A lot of local places now claim to serve burgers that are “awful big, and awful good,” but any Renoite worth their weight in meat knows the only legitimate Awful Awful is the one at The “Little” Nugget, 233 N. Virginia St., 323-0716, the heart-clogging heart of downtown Reno. For $6.50, you get a big ol’ burger with a tasty sauce and a ton of fries. Many longtime residents will tell you it’s not as good as it used to be—but whatever, that’s just the haze of nostalgia, like the way people remember sex during their teen years. Time has enlarged those memories, and no matter what, it’s still damned good.
For a more gourmet take on the burger, new-ish joint Midtown Eats, 719 S. Virginia St., 324-3287, has really upped the game. I go back and forth between preferring the Blue ($11), with bacon, chutney and bleu cheese, and the Atomic ($11), which is legit spicy, so best with a beer. Either option means a very tasty burger. They’re hip and classy without being pretentious. The burgers are cooked to order, and Midtown is one of the few places in town that can really pull off an edible rare burger.
For a nearly perfect straightforward take on the burger, Juicy’s Giant Hamburgers, 301 S. Wells Ave., 322-2600, offers up delicious burgers—the big and cheesy double cheeseburger is $6.57—that replicate the taste of backyard barbecue on a Sunday afternoon in July. It’s nothing fancy, just a good, classic, down-home, all-American burger.
College hangout spot The Little Waldorf, 1661 N. Virginia St., 337-9255, offers the Jiffy Burger ($9.29), which comes with Jack cheese, bacon and … wait for it … peanut butter. Hell, yeah. As if the burger wasn’t already going to stick to your ribs. It’s fantastic. The peanut butter plays a condiment role that’s surprisingly complementary. The only sandwich possibly more comforting and American than the burger is the PB&J, and this burger drafts the best part of that sandwich onto the burger. During my most recent trip to the Little Wal, the server said, “The burgers are bottomless. So if you get one, you can order another free of charge. The record is five. … He really had to pull a Cool Hand Luke to get those down.” So take that as a challenge, if you are so inclined.
Because there’s nothing more comfortable to an American than a food coma.