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.
Seafood Soups, Chowders, and Bisques
Lobster Bisques: Not all lobster bisques are the same. Some of the fancy chef versions have gotten so frou-frou, they’re no longer satisfying, while others (e.g., in some “view” restaurants on the coast) are ill-made with godawful extruded “lobster knuckle meat.” What most of us want from this dish is old-fashioned, creamy decadence, with lots of lobster flavor and real lobster meat. The town’s favorite, by general acclaim over many years, is at Red Tracton’s. Other top sources: Bertrand at Mr. A’s (classic French version, a trifle less creamy), Blue Point (extremely creamy, with mellow Port instead of sherry and loads of lobster-tail meat), Café Sevilla (complex, with shrimp and mussel meats), Clay’s La Jolla (with a bleu cheese brioche crouton). Mille Fleurs currently offers a “lobster consommé” that’s probably superb, but it’s not a bisque.
Bud’s Louisiana Cafe: Seafood Bisque. At this Tierrasanta home of all foods NOLA, Bud Deslattes offers a crazy-wonderful “seafood bisque.” It isn’t exactly a bisque — but that’s not bad! It’s really a creamy sweet-corn chowder with shrimp, crab, and crawfish meat added, the liquid flavored with touches of tomato, sherry, and hot pepper. (Also see “Gumbos,” below.)
Dobson’s: Mussel Bisque En Croute. Like Tracton’s lobster bisque, it’s one of the top local favorites. I haven’t eaten this. I want to, and I’m going to!
Los Reyes: Siete Mares. You get a full-flavored, tomato-streaked seafood stock loaded with big pieces of in-shell crab, shrimp, clams, and fish. The portion is gigantic (easily feeds two). It’s a bare-bones Golden Hill eatery, but this soup holds up well as takeout. (And at home, you won’t be embarrassed about picking up the crab shells to chomp and suck and slurp.)
Magnolia: Crawfish Bisque. In a very delicate cream soup, the rich liquid showcases the faintly smoky flavor of bayou mudbugs, which the restaurant gets shipped from Louisiana. Also try the gumbo here.
*Sea Rocket Bistro: Sea Urchin Bisque. If you love uni at sushi bars, this soup is your heaven. Served in halved urchin shells, it’s creamy and rich and deeply maritime. Just don’t succumb to the temptation to lift the spiky “bowl” to your lips (ouch!) to drain it to the dregs.
Westgate Room: Seafood Chowder. A creamy broth filled with scallops, clams, tiger shrimp, lobster, Parmesan, and thin-sliced black summer truffles is served with an airy, puffed vertical poppyseed cracker (like some playful god’s heavenly breadstick). It’s endlessly interesting.
Rich Vegetable Soups, Meaty Soups, and Gumbos
Arterra: Daily puréed vegetable soup. Last time I ate there, local organic cauliflower soup had a darker, richer flavor than any mere cruciferous vegetable can confer, reminiscent of black truffles. Floating in the thick liquid were bits of rich braised beef and sautéed root vegetables. No doubt whatever chef Jason Maitland is making will be interesting. Most of the menu is expensive, but they’ve also caved in to the economic downturn with affordable choices like burgers.
Bertrand at Mr. A’s: The current soup for winter is a soulful green lentil soup with country sausage. Be on the lookout for a frequent special of corn soup as well.
Bud’s Louisiana Cafe: Seafood Gumbo. A spicy New Orleans classic with shrimp, crab, crawfish, andouille pork sausage, and okra in a dark, roux-based broth.
*Bull’s BBQ: Gumbo. Thick, rich, emphatically piquant, dark as Hades, loaded with bay shrimp, shredded chicken, andouille, red and green peppers, and carrots, based on a foundation of deepest-mahogany, near-smoky roux (Louisiana’s long-cooked flour-and-oil blend), it’s the best gumbo in town — and comes with moist, corny, jalapeño-spiked corn muffins.
Candelas (both downtown and Coronado): Along with a rich black-bean soup and a very filling four-cheese soup with shrimp, the soup star here is Crema Fabiola, a semi-spicy chile poblano cream soup, soothing but subtly seething with banked fires from the chilies. In the center is a small Pacific lobster tail propped up on a heap of exotic, slightly glutinous rough purée of potatoes — most closely resembling Bolivia’s chuño, freeze-dried mashed potatoes — that eventually melts into the soup as added enrichment. Like them or not, you can’t not love the soup.
Currant: The last time I ate at Currant, caramelized five-onion soup was a whole new twist on the classic, actually a meat soup, filled with tender shreds and bites of short ribs among the very sweet onions and tangy liquid, plus (somewhere) black truffles, topped with a crouton spread with roasted beef-marrow butter. Since then, the chef has changed, but an onion soup of the same name is still on the menu; let’s hope he left this winner untouched. Other great French onion soups: Mille Fleurs (of course), and a fine Normandy version at Chez Loma in Coronado, flavored with apple cider.
El Vitral: Crema de Elote con Poblanos — creamy corn chowder topped with streaks of poblano chile aioli, offering sensuous, primal comfort and most of a meal for $8.
1500 Ocean: The seasonal, sensational-sounding soup from chef Brian Sinott (who loves and understands root vegetables) is a celery-root bisque with braised pork belly and beet “froth.” How to get around the steep entrée prices? Just choose an appetizer “tasting” plate (salumi, raw seafood, cheeses) or the substantial appetizer pasta.
Gourmet India: Mulgatany soup. Nearly all Indian restaurants offer soothing lentil soups as starters. In addition to the standard sambal, this one also serves “mulligatawny” (its usual Western spelling), a rich, filling south Indian specialty with lentils in a coconut-milk broth, available either vegetarian or with chicken.
Kous Kous Moroccan Bistro: Harira. Morocco’s lemony, herb-loaded vegetarian lentil soup is irresistible but usually comes only as the first course in prix-fixe Moroccan dinners. At Kous Kous, everything’s à la carte (and wonderful).
Mona Lisa: Minestrone. For all the shopping I do there (prosciutto, cheeses, pasta, bottled anchovies, mostarda, etc.), I’ve never gotten around to eating at Mona Lisa, but this one is the “blogger’s choice” for the best minestrone in town.
*Pomegranate: Borscht. I grew up hating borscht, thinking it was that horrible cerise purée my mom poured from Manischewitz bottles. I discovered the real thing later, tasting it in (of all places) a Ukrainian restaurant in Kathmandu, then seeking it out at Russian restaurants in San Francisco. Georgia makes the “soul food” of the Slavic world, and to my tastes, Pomegranate’s herb-rich Georgian version actually beets — oops, beats — all of them. The vibrant, chunky mixture of potatoes, beets, carrots, tomato, red pepper, cabbage, and beef is built on a rich soup-base of marrow bones and meat, finished off with a jungle of fresh dill, cilantro, and tarragon, plus an optional dollop of sour cream to crown the princely potion.
Super Cocina: Whatever’s available. This Mexican restaurant, with “housewife” cooks from all regions of Mexico, has an ever-changing array of foods, but the daily fare always includes at least one substantial and delicious soup.