Comfort food is an individual taste. For some, it’s the cooking of their home and childhood. For others, it’s something hot, cheesy and spicy.
Here are two South Florida-based food chains that provide reassurance and relief with a variety of comforting dishes.
El Balcón de las Americas
Where: Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Margate, Pembroke Pines, Sunrise, Boca Raton.
Founded: 1997 in Coral Springs.
Atmosphere: Casual and familial.
Essentials: Colombian and Latin American comfort food.
More info: elbalcondelasamericas.com.
South Florida could be the fusion food capital of the world. Mash-ups abound. Nearly every Thai place also sells sushi. Chinese restaurants serve kreplach and platanos. And many Mexican restaurants feature Cuban specialties.
Here’s another example: El Balcon de las Americas, a Broward-based Colombian chain, does a terrific lomo saltado, the Peruvian beef, tomatoes, onions, french fries and rice dish. And its lechón asado is as good as the roasted pork you’ll find in most Cuban establishments.
The pan-Latin approach seems a canny strategy in this highly diverse market: El Balcon de das Americas’ motto is “Authentic Colombian & Latin Cuisine.”
But the food is “98 percent Colombian,” said Monica Albarracin, who co-owns and manages the Deerfield Beach, West Boca and Pembroke Pines locations with her husband, Robert (a former Darden executive chef).
Breakfast is very big with Colombians, she said, and El Balcon has a hearty selection of native morning-meal favorites, like grilled calves liver or beef rib soup. The restaurants also have weekend-only soups that are, depending on your choice, packed with chicken, corn, beef ribs, yuca, potatoes, plantains and more.
Portions are generous and enough for several servings. Bandeja paisa (the people’s plate) features white rice, red beans, ground beef or steak, an arepa, some fried pork belly, a chunk of avocado, a fried egg and an optional link of Colombian blood sausage. There’s a reason some call it a heart attack on a plate.
All El Balcon restaurants cook the majority of the food they serve in-house, but empanadas, tamales and sauces are made from a central facility in Coral Springs.
Each restaurant is a little different due to location, but all are casual with amiable and welcoming servers and staff. A festive ambiance prevails, and many tables are filled with families, from bebés to abuelas and abuelos.
The Deerfield Beach location features outdoor seating and music, with a DJ, singers and dancing on weekend nights. An app (available for iPhone and Android) gives customers a smart tool for ordering pickup or delivery.
Rotelli Pizza & Pasta
Where: West Miami, Coral Springs, Tamarac, Boca Raton, Coconut Creek, Fort Lauderdale, Stuart, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina.
Founded: 1999 in Boca Raton.
Essentials: Pizza, pasta, salads, sandwiches.
More info: rotellipizzapasta.com.
Italian food is comfort food, especially the Americanized version that consists largely of pizza, meatballs and spaghetti with red sauce.
It’s no wonder that domestic wannabes and multinational food conglomerates are all over it, mostly pushing their ersatz and decidedly un-Italian permutations and Frankensteinian assemblages of ingredients, shapes, sizes, fillings and toppings with an unlimited salad bar and endless breadsticks. Really, there’s no need for that. Unless you live out in the woods, why ingest pizza — or any other Italian dish — from a national chain?
We’re fortunate in South Florida to have numerous local options, from mom-and-pop trattorias to larger (and smaller) high-end establishments. In the middle, we’re even blessed with a South Florida-based chain that serves traditional Italian-American fare at very reasonable prices.
Rotelli is everywhere; there seems to be at least one in each neighborhood — or just a short drive away to a nearby strip shopping center. And their delivery cars are a common sight on South Florida streets, so you needn’t leave the comfort of your home to enjoy their fare.
Some of the restaurants are company-owned and some are franchised. In its current incarnation, the chain was founded in 1999 and has expanded outside of its South Florida home far and wide to Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio.
Rotelli makes a very credible New York-style pizza with a slightly doughy but crisp crust, sweet tomato sauce and comfortingly melted mozzarella cheese. The usual array of toppings are available, if you really need to add items to a pizza that’s quite delicious as-is.
There is also a selection of “gourmet” pies, including vegetarian, white and others. In addition to pizza, the menu boasts calzones and stromboli along with the usual pasta favorites: spaghetti, linguini, ziti, lasagna and ravioli. The garlic rolls that accompany most entrees are hot and tasty, too.
Rotelli also serves Italian-American comforts in the form of veal, chicken and eggplant Parmigiana, and a specialty dish, The New Yorker, a combination of chicken and eggplant parm. There are meatballs (of course) and the requisite chicken wings, and a healthy selection of sandwiches, wraps and salads, too. Soup is also on the menu: pasta fagioli, Italian wedding soup and more.
There are earlybird and weekly specials. Pizza is bargain-priced on Tuesday nights. Plus, the lunch special includes half a sandwich and soup or salad and a slice of pizza for under 10 bucks — a quick and tasty bargain. Rotelli is an especially promiscuous and prolific coupon distributor, so check your mailbox and local discount fliers.