So, holidays are over, all the fun is gone. All the money’s gone. Sorry, Gate, but you got here late, all the jive is gone. What now? Drown your Visa bill in a nice hot bowl of soup.
You can actually sample the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s carol to mock-turtle soup (“beautiful soup”) at Grant Grill, but what inspired this column was a different mess of potage. The highlight of Thanksgiving dinner at Quarter Kitchen was chef Nathan Coulon’s joy-making chestnut soup with sweetbreads. “You should do a piece in early January just on good, warming soups,” my companion suggested. Loved the idea, wished I could include that chestnut potion. (Nathan, Nathan, for what are you waitin’? Put it on the winter menu, already!)
The word “supper” derives from “soup.” On family farms, farmwives would make a big lunch for the family and the hands; for the evening meal, there’d be bread and soup, cobbled together from whatever was on hand. We may not be rural here, but some restaurants offer soups so filling and fulfilling, they’re sufficient for supper. (If you’re too tempted by the rest of the menu to stop there, you can fill out dinner with shared appetizers and maybe dessert.) This survey covers a wide price range, including higher-end restaurants, because your soul needs comfort too — and nobody’s forcing you to order an entrée.
I’m not even going to start diving into the great Asian noodle soups — all those fabulous phos, ramens, udons. To do them justice I’d need a year’s paid sabbatical to cruise Convoy Street and City Heights. (Hint: the current Chowhound pho fave is Pho Cow Calli, née Pho Hoa Calli. Izakaya Sakura seems to be the Japanese noodle favorite.) I’m mainly hitting western comfort foods here, plus a few spicy Asian bowls: In Asian medicine, hot peppers are considered antidotes to cold wet weather, and even Western medicine recognizes the value of the huge antibacterial whomps of Vitamin A and C carried by dried hot peppers, not to mention the fever-breaking magic of a health-restoring sweat evoked by the spice. Best thing for a cold? Hot, hot hot!
And, hey, need your help! Anybody know a great local source for New England clam chowder (with fresh milk and/or cream, rather than canned condensed milk, and not too much flour thickening or excessive potato)? I haven’t found a single flawless one in nearly ten years. How about a great cream of mushroom soup, now that Better Half is defunct? An Italian restaurant serving Tuscany’s “La Ribollita,” or a world-beating minestrone? Anybody have a source for Trinidadian cow-heel soup? Pipe right up (email or website) and share the good news.
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The following are all delicious, but asterisks below indicate “best in their class” — that is, unique, outstanding soups you want to slurp before you die or the restaurant dies.
Nurturing Chicken Soups
D.Z. Akin’s: Jewish-mother chicken soup. You can get it with matzo balls (fluffy but ridiculously huge) or with noodles or with both. Don’t be a chazzer (pig), choose just one or the other — too much starch throws the whole balance off. (If you’ve never eaten matzo balls, take the noodles.) Farther north, also consider Milton’s in Del Mar. I haven’t tried their chicken soup, but no reason it shouldn’t be just as good as D.Z.’s, since their chicken liver is. (City Deli also serves it, but what can I say? The local Chosen People and their mothers do not favor their food.)
DeDe’s: Hot Sour Soup. It’s hard to find a good one locally — this is the best I’ve had in a decade. Their rendition is a little more hot than sour, judiciously thickened with cornstarch to a mouth-filling, satiny texture, and loaded with lengths of soothing soft tofu, strips of rehydrated wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Chinese leeks. Ahh!
La Especial Norte: This Leucadia institution specializes in soups, and their Mexico City Chicken Soup tastes precisely like a soup I loved in D.F. It’s based on a full-flavored, made-from-scratch chicken broth laced generously with shredded and diced chicken meat, avocado slices, and cilantro, with just enough rice to give it body. Another winner (they’re all winners) is eggplant soup, a clear chicken soup (that same rich stock) with a little tomato. In it float bite-size pieces of diced eggplant, a few minced vegetables for texture, lots of cooked-in cilantro, and little clouds of ethereal relleno batter, serving as floating croutons.
Rama and Celadon: Tom Kha, hot-sour coconut-milk soup, is beyond rich. Instead of the usual canned coconut milk, it’s made from fresh coconut, the chefs shredding the flesh and soaking it in half-and-half or cream (rather than water), then squeezing out the liquid. A school of straw mushrooms and your choice of shrimp, chicken, or veggies floats in the red-velvet broth. Before serving the soup, they scoop out the knobby lemongrass roots and Kaffir lime leaves that contribute pleasantly sour undertones, ensuring that you won’t encounter any nasty surprises at the bottom of the bowl.
*Sab-E-Lee: Tom Yum Goong, a five-star dish if there ever was one, has red specks all over the surface but tastes nearly mild (it’s a slow burn), as well as rich and sweet, from the caramelized sugars of plentiful onion shreds and an army of tenderly cooked garlic cloves, plus juicy Asian mushrooms and tender, moist, large shrimp. (They also make it with chicken or veggies.) The broth is the thickest, most substantial I’ve ever encountered in this dish, resembling the best French onion soup, but more exciting.
*Tender Greens: The Rustic Chicken Soup is a work of art. It really is better than Mom’s, even if your mother is Jewish or Chinese. It’s a greaseless, deeply chicken-flavored broth loaded with carrots, noodles, and plentiful chunks of tender fowl, which are smoky from the mesquite-fueled grill. I didn’t even miss the matzo balls (or the wontons).
In desperation, China Two, downtown, makes a passable wonton soup (my lifelong fallback when I feel crummy), and they deliver over a wide area of the central city. When you’re too sick to bestir yourself any more than dialing the phone and answering your doorbell, passable wonton soup is better than no wonton soup. Rest of the food’s not too bad either (e.g., the “chef’s specialties”) — better, I think, than most at their price range south of Convoy Street.