Simply good cooking

Photo By David Robert

Starting about a decade ago, many American restaurants began experimenting with the culinary equivalent of thumb-sucking. Dishes plucked from the archetypal American childhood appeared on menus: meatloaf, green bean casserole, even—Heaven forbid—Jell-O and Pop Tarts. Foodies dubbed this deliberate regression “comfort food"—fare meant to evoke the warmth and safety of youth.

In cities across the country, a cloying coziness took hold. Establishments with names including “Food” or “Home” opened. But amid all the fish sticks, creamed spinach and chocolate pudding, something was amiss.

Comfort foods were often served with such irony that they should have been garnished with quotation marks. From staff to patrons, everyone seemed to be in on the joke, a self-conscious celebration of “simple” food.

But there’s a big difference between “simple” and simple.

“Simple” food is trendy but soulless, foolishly supposing that an offhand slice of meatloaf could match the meatloaf your grandmother made. Simple food recognizes that Grandma knew best—that true comfort food comforts because a rigorous but nurturing honesty lies at its core.

Heidi’s Family Restaurant, a Reno institution known for its breakfasts, with several locations in Northern Nevada, proudly serves simple food. And while a grandmother in a gingham apron doesn’t run Heidi’s kitchen in fact, she does so in spirit. A recent brunch found the restaurant’s down-home cooking still vigorous and satisfying after all these years.

The border omelette ($7.50) confidently blended Spanish sauce, Ortega chiles, sour cream and jack cheese. Many establishments use three eggs in their omelettes. Heidi’s adds a fourth. It’s a generous touch that gives the eggs enough breadth and firmness to play foil to the melting zestiness of sauce and cheese.

The kitchen also set wonderfully fluffy scrambled eggs against rosy chunks of corned beef hash ($7.25). The hash had a forthright tang and was prepared in the updated style with less salt.

Heidi’s has a way with breakfast meats. Toothsome strips of bacon weren’t too salty, either, and struck the right balance between crispiness and chewiness.

The strips helped comprise the Swiss Yodeler ($8.25), a Brobdingnagian assemblage of eggs, meats, home fries, pancakes and breads that could have fed an entire Alpine chorus. The scrambled eggs were again accomplished, and I savored the spiciness of home fries dusted with Tabasco sauce. The extravagantly light pancakes all but floated away, like a yodeler’s notes over a mountain meadow.

And then there were the biscuits. How do I describe these treasures? I pulled them open, still steaming. They were moist, without a trace of doughiness. And they needed nothing. No honey, no butter, no preserves. They were perfect as they were, and they were among the best biscuits I have ever eaten.

Unusual bits of culinary wit and interest peeked out from among the breakfast classics at Heidi’s. The French Revolution ($6.95) layered strawberries, blueberries and sour cream atop French toast—an edible salute to the red, white and blue of the Gallic tricolour. The Palazzolo omelette ($7.95) combined Italian sausage, Ortega chiles and Swiss cheese. Palazzolo Acreide is a town in the Siracusa region of Italy. Every spring, the town holds four raucous festivals, one of them in honor of sausage.

It’s a safe bet that the server at brunch would relish the sausage bash. With great good humor and charm, she guided my brunch choices, gently chided me for picking at my companion’s eggs and generally stage-managed a lovely two hours.

She planned to get a psychic reading after her shift finished, she told me. One thing the psychic won’t have to reveal: the secret to simple food. Heidi’s has that down—beautifully.