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God Bless America

Time to kick back and get comfortable at Tom's Home Cookin'.

Forget Cipro. Right now, a shortage of mashed potatoes has far more potential to do Denver in.

Not that we should start petitioning the government to remove the patent on Yukon golds just yet. But at the rate that we're consuming comfort foods, Betty Crocker needs to watch her back.

Eating meals just like Mom made is on the rise, not just here, but nationally, and it only makes sense. According to Washington, D.C.-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research -- one of those companies that makes it their business to know how we feel about everything from softer toilet paper to cubed cheese -- 73 percent of Americans have felt "general sadness" because of September 11, while one in four have had trouble focusing on their work, and one in five have been "either anxious and panicky or listless and lacking energy." And as anyone who spent time either anxious and panicky or listless and lacking energy before September 11 -- the average parent of school-age children, for example -- knows, the only thing that helps during those periods is a big bowl of chicken noodle soup, especially if it's accompanied by a thick-cut, gooey-centered grilled cheese sandwich and a large glass of ice-cold chocolate milk.

Comfort zone: Tom Unterwagner serves up some of Tom's Home Cooking.
Mark A. Manger
Comfort zone: Tom Unterwagner serves up some of Tom's Home Cooking.

Location Info

Map

Tom's Home Cookin'

800 E. 26th Ave.
Denver, CO 80205

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Downtown Denver

Details

303-388-8035
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday

Meat and Two: $6.45
Catfish: $7.25
Sides: $2 each
Desserts: $2.25 each

800 East 26th Avenue

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Just thinking about that makes me feel better.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that travelers at D.C. hotels were eschewing more gourmet fare in favor of cheese fries, hot dogs with sauerkraut, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, cheeseburgers and Buffalo wings. In other words, foods that were born in the USA, which provides one explanation for why we're reaching for down-home goodness: We want to keep a firm grip -- or flabby stomach -- on some of the things that make this nation great.

Other theories abound, though. Food from our youth reminds us of better times, of Happy Days Are Here Again, even if eating that way in those times put our arteries in danger of later Triple-Bypass Days. It could also be an issue of economy, as in the one that's rapidly going down the garbage disposal: Fried chicken costs much less than foie gras. Then again, as Tipper Gore, honorary chair of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign -- and a gal who knows her comfort foods -- pointed out on Good Morning America, we could be exhibiting a purely psychological response to stress and depression. For now, eating is safe, and it's surely safer than opening the mail.

Or, as one friend who recently returned to D.C. for a visit put it, "If I'm going to die from anthrax, that hot fudge sundae I ate at lunch every day while I was living five blocks from the Capitol isn't going to matter."

In Denver, the place to go for honest-to-goodness made-in-America fare is Tom's Home Cookin', a veritable shrine to the foods that keep us from falling down on our knees in despair. A Southern-influenced diner-style eatery, Tom's is filled with road signs, old menus and bottled hot sauces from parts of this country that terrorists have never even heard of. Every weekday, Tom's offers up the least scientific but most instantly gratifying cures for what ails our souls. Life feel as though it's spinning out of control? Cheesy potato casserole. Looking forward to a seven-hour wait at DIA? Peach cobbler. Have to explain to your kids why, when we have the kind of technology that gave birth to Animaltronics, we have yet to blow Osama bin Laden to smithereens? Pot roast. Make it a double.

Tom Unterwagner and Steve Jankousky, the owners of Tom's, sense an urgency in their customers' need for nurturing fare. "Normally, we'd have experienced a lull in business by now, like the rest of the industry," says Unterwagner. "But I'll tell you what, we haven't slowed down one second since September 11." The brisk business can't be attributed entirely to the resurging appetite for comfort foods, though: Much of Tom's overwhelming success has to do with the quality of the food itself.

The recipes come mainly from Unterwagner, who based them on dishes he ate growing up, first in North Carolina and then Atlanta. Those are the dishes that his mother, Sharon Carver, still serves at her Atlanta eatery, Carver's Country Kitchen. "I learned from my mom," Unterwagner explains. "But I also got ideas here and there, and I like to play in the kitchen. And some of the things came from Steve, too." Jankousky, who grew up in southern Illinois, was working at Ford Motor Company when Unterwagner decided to leave his work in retail to open a Denver restaurant. "Maybe I was drunk that day, I don't know," Unterwagner laughs. "Somehow I thought being in the restaurant business would be easier than retail, and Steve was dumb enough to believe me."

In 1999, Tom's got things cooking in an old A-frame building at 34th Avenue and Holly Street that had been a dairy bar and, briefly, a second outpost of Kapre's Fried Chicken. Over the next few years, a growing group of loyal customers developed a craving for Unterwagner's fried okra and meatloaf. By early this year, that group had gotten larger than the space could accommodate, so this past June, the partners bought the Five Points building that now houses Tom's. "I sort of wish we'd gone even bigger, but then again, I'd hate to lose the quality that is so much easier on a smaller scale," Unterwagner says. "I want to be able to close down for Christmas week and keep the hours short. It keeps our sanity."

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