Death, taxes and comfort foods

by Alex Ashe

I’ve always been amazed at the reliability of comfort food to live up to its billing. In times of sickness or sadness, a homestyle meal never fails to make me feel better. But oftentimes, I feel perfectly fine and just crave some comfort food to help maintain that feeling.

Today is one of those instances. Mama Zoe Michael’s in Winston-Salem specializes in breakfast and comfort food, but also offers Greek and Italian items during lunch and dinner. Breakfast technically ends at noon, but items like omelets and Belgian waffles are offered all-day. I love breakfast food, but am not always in the mood for it. On the other hand, I’m always game for comfort food.

Mama Zoe’s is buried in the middle of a Reynolda Road strip mall, originally the home of the Pineridge Restaurant for more than 30 years before its 2004 closing. The suite housed a Cagney’s Kitchen for a few years before the Michael family took ownership, reopening and renaming the Pineridge in 2008.

Despite its setting, Mama Zoe’s seems to be a pretty popular lunch spot. I enter right at noon to find a dining room packed with predominantly older folks and the working class, most notably a handful of plumbers sitting at a front table. This seems like the type of place where Mitt Romney would’ve stopped by in hopes of connecting with the “common man.”

As far as I can tell, I’m one of just a few customers in their twenties here, but I’m okay with that. That I came here alone and without someone to talk to is what makes me feel a little out of place. I’m surrounded by so many conversations that the voices all just kind of morph together into indiscernible noise. Even if I wanted to eavesdrop on one, comprehending it would be a challenge akin to trying to watch multiple Robert Altman films at the same time. An atmosphere like this is perfect for conducting your own conversation, though, and I feel like I’m missing out.

The large dining room, consuming enough space to make me forget that I’m in a strip mall, is built to serve the masses. Comprised of a plethora of booths and tables of varying sizes, it also features two large TVs and an unabashedly homey design, giving Mama Zoe’s an atmosphere that aims to be communal yet cozy at once. It’s a comfortable setting, but perhaps one in need of some updated décor.

The TV’s aren’t unseemly, but the rest of the wall space is covered in retro tin signs and various knickknacks of no overall thematic significance. One section of a wall displays a Gone with the Wind poster and a replica film reel, while several others feature likenesses of farm animals. Posters promoting Wake Forest athletics are scattered throughout the diner.

The décor may be a little kitschy, but it s not a deal-breaker. I’m just looking for some tasty grub that’ll sit well.

The cordial staff at Mama Zoe’s provides prompt, quality service, as my server takes the time to give me a beginner’s guide to the menu. I wouldn’t normally rush to order a pot pie at a restaurant, but when my server tells me it’s possibly their most popular dish, I’m intrigued. In accordance with the unwritten food review guidelines, I decide to order it.

Come to think of it, I haven’t had a pot pie since my childhood. The nostalgia the dish is evoking for me is a quintessential aspect of this type of fare.

I’m not sure if I’ve seen, let alone eaten, a single-serving pot pie the size of the one at Mama Zoe’s. Served in a soup bowl roughly eight inches in diameter, the hearty pie is loaded with chicken, gravy, potatoes, peas and carrots inside a flaky crust baked to a perfect medium of soft and crispy. It’s a no-frills variation (or lack thereof) of an old standard, but it’s nonetheless delicious and filling. Have I eaten better comfort food? Certainly. But it’s more than palatable and really hits the spot.

And when seeking out comfort food, isn’t that all we ask for?