7 Great Comforts

Our food critic shares the dishes that feel and taste just right during the holidays

Photo by Anthony MairMichael Mina’s Shrimp & Grits.

Albertsons’ fried chicken.

No time of year resonates more for comfort foods than the one between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is a time for office parties and cozy dinners with friends, and the colder weather makes heavier, more filling dishes justifiable. I admit, I’m biased in favor of foods one would call indulgent, but let’s face it, so are most people. Here are my seven choices for most comfortable dishes in town:

Shrimp and grits at American Fish. Michael Mina’s newest Las Vegas restaurant may be his best, thanks to killer appetizers such as this ultra-soothing dish. Don’t be put off by the price. It’s a real meal for one and a great starter for two. Picture a large bowlful of cheesy grits topped with three large, fresh prawns. Your Southern grandmother will blush with envy. $18, in Aria, 590-7111.

Trader Joe’s corn-bread mix. This one requires a little work on your part, but you’ll marvel at the taste and texture of this mildly sweet, cakey corn bread, which you make with an egg, the oil of your choice and milk. I like butter, but lard is equally delicious. After you bake it, slather it with more butter while it’s hot. $2.69, multiple locations.

Chicken matzo ball soup at Weiss Deli. The Jewish deli is a dying breed, in no small part because a good pastrami costs nearly as much as a steak. Mike Weiss attempts to keep the genre alive at his small deli in Green Valley. He bakes his own rye bread and makes soups from scratch, such as this hardy perennial stocked with shredded chicken and matzo balls as light as feathers. He also does a delicious mushroom barley soup. $5 (small) and $9.50 (large), 2744 N. Green Valley Parkway, Henderson, 454-0565.

Soboro Gohan at Raku. What could be more soothing than a steaming bowl of Japanese rice, crowned with a layer of ground chicken cooked in Japanese dashi, the mushroom and seaweed-flavored broth that gives Japanese cuisine its distinctive cast. Chef Mitsuo Endo throws some chopped pickles onto the top for added dimension, and serves the dish with a wooden spoon so that the jarring metal of a conventional spoon won’t spoil the effect. $7.50, 5030 Spring Mountain Road, 367-3511.

Meat loaf, Simon at Palms Place. Celebrity chef Kerry Simon made a meat loaf by accident for a prominent Miami food writer, who then proclaimed it the “best meat loaf on South Beach.” He’s been doing it ever since. The secret is a little fatty pork in the mix and grill marks on every slab. Served on a bed of buttered mashed potatoes laced with English peas, with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce, it’s just perfect. $25, in Palms Place. 944-3292.

Fried chicken at Albertsons. A noted national newspaper conducted a tasting on fried chicken, using highly regarded restaurants, prominent chains such as KFC, Popeyes and Church’s, and grocery stores. Guess who won? That’s right, Albertsons, where the birds are fried to a wicked crunch, with juicy, moist meat inside. $6 for eight-piece bucket, $9 for 12-piece, multiple locations.

Apple pie at Du-par’s. Perhaps no American dish is as comforting as apple pie. And, to me, a great pie is all about the crust. This restaurant and bakery, a small, family-owned chain from Los Angeles, has the best pie in the city. I’m guessing this crust uses a combination of butter and vegetable shortening, and the filling is tremendous, with just enough pectin and a real apple taste. $4.25, at the Golden Gate Hotel, 1 Fremont St., 366-9378.