by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith the possible exception of booze and bread, there's no food as pervasive as noodles. Stuff's been around 4,000 years and its invention is still being contested. There's evidence on all sides, but noodles were first developed either in present-day Italy, China or the Middle East -- in other words, by people from every area of the known world at the time. With descendents of those places' natives now populating the globe, noodles are a staple food almost everywhere. It makes sense, then, that they would figure prominently in comfort foods -- indigenous and adopted -- on nearly every continent.
In Spokane, noodle dishes tend to keep true to roots. The stroganoff and spaetzle ($17) at CATACOMBS is spicy and thoroughly paprika-ed with thick, German noodles. The pasta dishes at LENNY'S in Cheney, even where rather experimental, boil down to traditional Italian sauces and ingredients combined in creative ways.
And that's fine. We knew going in that an essential ingredient of comfort is familiarity. What we only realized after hitting upon a few unexpected treats (and striking out on what we'd surmised would be a sure-fire comfort food winner or two) is that comfort foods themselves have a familiarity that feels almost instinctual. Either your spaghetti carbonara has it, or it don't. Here are a couple places where we found that certain something, and one where we went looking and came up empty.
Phad Thai To Go
It's easy to get all focused on the food part of comfort food. To do so, though, detracts from the most essential element: comfort. Like, physical comfort. I have this running hypothesis: Americans are never as comfortable as when in their own living rooms watching basic cable, and the single reason pizza is so pervasive -- the whole reason it's considered a comfort food at all -- is that any pie slinger worth its salt delivers to suburbia.
It's the same with perhaps the most simple, perfect noodle dish in Asia, phad thai. You had a crappy day? You call up TASTE OF THAI on the north side (my personal favorite, $9) or BANGKOK THAI on the South Hill ($10), among others; you pick your level of spice; you drop by in your urban assault vehicle on your way home; and you let your stress melt away over sumptuously glazed rice noodles, tamarind juice and Scrubs re-runs. Simple.
Haute Mac and Cheese
We wracked our brains to come up with a noodle dish more American than macaroni and cheese. We also tried to think of a tougher sell in a restaurant context. Nothing came to us on either count. Macaroni and cheese is so pervasive and so simple -- you got two main ingredients, both in the name -- there's a desire to make yours stand out. At the same time, how can you sex up a childhood staple and still make it as soothing as those powder-cheese and Spiderman-shaped Kraft boxes (the ones I personally eat way too many of)?
ALPINE DELI had an idea. In keeping with the bistro's Swiss theme, they used the country's namesake cheese -- a lot of it -- to make a thick, hearty Swiss Mac and Cheese. In addition to the larger-than-normal elbow pasta and the Swiss, the menu also promised ham and pieces of focaccia. On the day I went, though, the bread was absent and the ham seemed to have been replaced with boiled, cubed potatoes. The substitutions really hammered home the overwhelming cheese. It's delicious as an accent flavor, but I can't imagine even Salzbergers going in for Swiss that upfront and in those quantities. I'm sure the strength of the ham flavor would have cut through the cheesiness, but on the day in question, there was little comfort on display.
Down Home Pho
Pho has to be the chicken noodle soup of Asia. Hot and substantive and just a little sweet, it's a perfect rainy-day food -- not only for the simplicity and heartiness of the basic ingredients (beef in various forms, onions, scallions, a truly unique, delicious beef stock), but for the feeling that, even in a restaurant, you get to take part in its preparation.
Pho restaurants like PHO VAN will have the stock piping hot, the onions and scallions chopped and the meat sitting raw ready to steep. You order, they toss it all into a broad bowl and bring it out. If you're quick, you can literally watch the meat cook. From there, you choose your level of customization. Stick with it as is, add some sweet basil, some jalapenos, hoisin, sprouts, chili paste, whatever.
The experience leaves the eater giddy with the interactivity of it all. The pho ($6, small; $8, large) at Pho Van is... well, it's just about exactly the same as every other pho I've ever had. That is to say, it's delicious, reliable and adaptable to the needs of each individual person. Perfect comfort food, basically.