When a winter chill creeps into your bones and you’re in need of warmth and well-being, it’s time to cozy up to a bowl of steaming soup.
The fragrant elixir has soothed the soul and kindled the heart for, oh, about 20,000 years, food historians say. It was and remains the ideal destination for leftovers and whatever else happens to be on hand, tossed into a pot with liquid and seasonings and simmered slowly to comforting goodness. With soups, anything goes. At the same time, they can be refined and ingredient-specific.
In the 1500s, soup was hawked by street vendors in France as a cure for fatigue. Colonial cookbooks of the 18th century were heavy with soup recipes – leek, rabbit, pea, pheasant, rice, partridge. In 1933, the Marx Brothers made the movie “Duck Soup,” but we digress.
Though few kitchen projects are more relaxing or fulfilling than brewing a batch of soup, we Americans spend nearly $4.5 billion a year on the prepackaged kind (Campbell’s alone makes 130 varieties). So says Euromonitor International, a global market-research firm, which predicts the figure will rise to $8 billion by 2018.
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As for restaurant soups, we have our preferences and revisited some of them for this roundup. They touch many nationalities and styles – French, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and American. Some are creamy, some are brothy. Some contain meat or seafood, others are purées of vegetables. They all have two things in common: They’re made from scratch and served steaming.
We’ve arranged them alphabetically:
2107 P St., Sacramento; 916-440-9611; www.adamoskitchen.com
The soup: Adamo’s rotates its seasonal soups three times a week, but we seek out the dark-broth chicken with egg noodles and mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots and celery), zingy with garlic and red pepper flakes. Other flavors include butternut squash, potato-cheddar, broccoli-cheddar, tomato and mushroom, and occasional gumbo and stews.
The secret: “Our seasonings,” said cook Benjamin Cooper. For instance, crushed black pepper and a hint of chili-pepper powder give the butternut squash added flavor.
The tab: $4 for a cup, $6 for a bowl
1015 Ninth St., Sacramento; 916-498-9224; www.blackbird-kitchen.com
The soup: Chef/co-owner Carina Lampkin’s penchant for seafood gives this stylish downtown restaurant a “Blackbeard” subtext. The menu’s star attraction, “Captain’s Chowder,” arrives in a white bowl that looks a bit like a seagoing vessel. Eating the chowder can feel like fishing, since each spoonful yields something new, from a juicy clam or chunk of wild king salmon to a Monterey-squid ring with just enough chew. All are contained in a sea deepened by a shell stock, its flavors roiled by lemon and Crystal hot sauce before being calmed by organic cream and butter.
The secret: Smoked onions, cold-steeped in cream for 24 hours. “I started off using apple-smoked bacon like everybody does, (but) that really excluded the pescatarian market,” Lampkin said.
The tab: $15
3672 J St., Sacramento; 916-736-2506; www.cielitolindo.us
The soup: Chef Ramiro Alarcón’s hearty, flavor-packed and vegan “sopa verde del campo” contains plentiful cactus, garbanzo beans and corn kernels. These ingredients add heft to a vegetable broth that tastes wholesome before you notice its kick, which comes courtesy of acidic epazote and flavorful squash blossoms.
The secret: “The squash blossoms are very strong,” Cielito Lindo general manager Ulises Ponce said of the yellow and green blossoms, the latter of which emits its own squash flavor while soaking up others from its vegetable neighbors within the broth.
The tab: $6 and $9
3535 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; 916-972-1911; www.daniellescreperie.com
The soup: The French onion is the dominant player on the field. A hefty crouton joins an intense, dark broth made from onions, red wine, bay leaf and beef consommé, topped with Gruyere and smoked Gouda cheeses and baked. It’s gooey and deeply flavored, with just the right amount of onion.
The secret: “Not rushing the reduction of the stock, which takes five hours,” said owner Aaron Phillippe
The tab: $6.25 and $7.25
Fabian’s Italian Bistro
11755 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; 916-536-9891; www.fabiansitalianbistro.com
The soup: Chef Tom Patterson’s version of minestrone is the go-to. It’s chunky with Italian sausage, San Marzano tomato, chickpeas and pasta in a broth of chicken and beef stocks. He rotates creamy soups throughout the winter months, as well – white bean with crispy prosciutto, carrot with caramelized ginger, corn chowder with Calabrian chili oil, tomato, potato-leek and mushroom with white truffle oil.
The secret: The house-made Italian sausage imbues the soup with a heavy shot of texture and depth.
The tab: $6 and $9
Jamie’s Broadway Grille
427 Broadway, Sacramento; 916-442-4044; www.jamiesbroadwaygrille.com
The soup: The house signature clam chowder is the destination dish, made from ocean clams, clam broth, half and half, butter, salt pork, vermouth, Dry Sack sherry, carrots, onions, celery, diced Yukon gold potatoes, bay leaf, fresh thyme, black pepper and “a proprietary mixture of spices.” The masterpiece is creamy and briny, with a New England-style broth that won’t leave your spoon standing up in the bowl.
The secret: “To get consistency, I make it every day in small batches,” said owner Jamie Brunnell. “And it has lots of clams.”
The tab: $6; pair the bowl with half a turkey or BLT for $11
601 Munroe St., Sacramento; 916-486-4891; www.starginger.com
The soup: For her Thai chicken soup, chef-owner Mai Pham blends coconut milk with chicken stock and adds a dozen ingredients that include lemongrass, galangal (a cousin of ginger), kaffir lime leaves, shallot, cilantro, garlic, chili paste and flakes, and cubed chicken breast.
The secret: The coconut milk adds silky texture and subtle sweetness to the warming heat of the chilies, delightfully tanged with citrus.
The tab: $3.75 and $9.75
199 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom; 916-351-9278; www.lotus8folsom.com
The soup: We go all-in with wor wonton, a big bowl of chicken stock (from chicken bones and onion) full of stuffed wontons, pork, beef, chicken, prawns, scallops, squid, scallion and tender napa cabbage in place of stringy bok choy.
The secret: The fresh-tasting handmade wontons are “made from simple ingredients,” said managing partner Kirby Wen – minced pork and shrimp, salt and white pepper, infused with chicken bouillon.
The tab: $11
Pho Xe Lua
5331 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; 916-451-8838
The soup: Made from a beef-bone stock, the broth used in this Stockton Boulevard restaurant’s No. 9 (rare steak, well-done flank, tripe) pho looks clear but tastes deep – and primarily of beef instead of five-spice powder or sugar, which some restaurants overdo (Pho Xe Lua uses no MSG and little sugar in its Vietnamese beef noodle soups, restaurant owner Chan Phong said). The noodles hold a little, and the tripe a lot, of chew, with the latter appealing to one’s most carnivorous instincts.
The $6.50 small bowl I ordered was substantial in size and in portions of meat and noodles, and the lime, Thai basil and bean sprouts on the garnish plate tasted perky.
The secret: The diner gets to watch as pinkish-red slices of round steak cook in the pho’s broth. It’s like visiting one of those grill-your-own restaurants, but without any extra effort required.
The tab: $6.50
571 Pavillions Lane, Sacramento; 916-649-8885, www.piatti.com
The soup: The three-mushroom soup (cremini, oyster and shiitake from Dragon Gourmet in Sloughhouse) was tops in a recent tasting. The satiny broth is cooked with beef-bone marrow and the rinds from wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano and topped with a Parmesan-truffle crouton. Sous chef Robert Birnschein’s repertory includes triple-onion, minestrone, potato-fennel and root vegetable. “The type of soup depends on the weather and what’s available at the time,” he said.
The secret: “Fresh ingredients and a lot of love,” said Birnschein. “I like to put in things that are unexpected.”
The tab: $6 and $8
La Rosa Blanca 2
402 Natoma St., Folsom; 916-673-9085. A sister restaurant is at 2813 Fulton Ave., Sacramento, 916-484-6104.
The soup: The dinner-in-a-bowl chicken tortilla soup begins with chicken broth mildly heated with a touch of chipotle peppers. Next come hefty pieces of mostly tender thigh meat, with some breast meat. Slices of creamy avocado and tortilla strips bob about in the broth, topped with a sprinkle of cheddar and jack cheeses.
The secret: The rich broth and the chicken-thigh meat, the most flavorful part of the fowl, make it special. Tip: Ask for the tortilla strips on the side and add them as you spoon and sip; that way, they stay crunchy.
The tab: $11.25
1831 S. St., Sacramento, 916-341-0488, www.ryujinramen.com
The soup: Between this ramen house and Raijin, its newer sister across the street, you’ll find 20 kinds of soup. Ryujin’s red (spicy) – aka tonkotsu ramen – is our choice. The big bowl of aromatic pork-based broth brims with “koshi” (al dente) noodles, slices of succulent pork, steamed cabbage, black mushroom, red ginger, green onion, sesame seeds and a sake-marinated boiled egg.
The secret: Definitely the broth, which is the prime ingredient in ramen. In the tiny kitchen, chef-owner Viengxay “Sai” Vongnalith proudly showed off a huge stockpot of boiling water filled with meaty pork bones and vegetables, Step 1 in making the broth.
The tab: $9
Sutter Street Steakhouse
604 Sutter St,. Historic Folsom; 916-351-9100; www.sutterstreetsteakhouse.com
The soup: A show-stopper is the silken parsnip soup with sunchoke, celery root, garlic and onion. It’s layered with flavors and gets better with every spoonful. In the winter months it joins other soups, including cauliflower, leek, potato-leek, mushroom, sugar pumpkin, bean and kale, lobster bisque, and white beans with smoked ham.
The secret: “Patience and time,” said chef Rich Veale. “Making our stocks is a two- to three-day process. And we use seasonal ingredients picked the day we’re preparing the soups.”
The tab: $6 and $8
3262 J St., Sacramento; 916-447-5353
The soup: East Sacramento’s go-to Thai spot serves a hot-and-sour tom yum soup that soothes at first before turning sharp and, finally, a touch prickly as it hits the throat. The comfort comes from stomach-settling galangal, the tang from kaffir lime leaves, and the prickle from dried and fresh Thai chilies.
Chicken broth provides a homey foundation for a soup with ingredients that work in tandem toward fighting all sorts of ills. Or at least they give that impression, which is half the battle for the flu or head-cold sufferer.
The secret: The fresh galangal root and lemongrass served in the soup, each bowl of which is made to order, Thai Palace co-owner Somsong “Sam” Abrahamian said. Accidentally biting into the galangal can help clear the fuzziest of heads.
The tab: $8.95, $9.75 and $13.75 (depending on ingredients, for a tureen that serves three)
5860 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; 916-392-9988
The soup: Beef noodle soup is a staple at Yang’s, a Taiwanese/Chinese restaurant in Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood that in 2014 was awarded four stars out of four by The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson.
Beef bones serve as base for a rich, aromatic broth weighted by bok choy and chunks of brisket and accented by green onion. The soup’s hand-cut noodles – so fresh you can still taste the salt and flour mingling – invigorate in their textural irregularity. The thinner sections pick up the broth’s flavor; the thicker parts taste more like dumpling wraps or biscuits.
The secret: The noodles, obviously, but also the flavorful meat, which Yang’s owner, Jack Su, said is stir-fried with ginger and garlic before it hits the broth.
The tab: $8.50
Zen Toro Japanese Bistro
132 E St., Davis; 530-753-0154; www.zentorosushi.com
The soup: The fortifying tan tan ramen starts with a broth made from pork bones and scraps. Zen Toro chef/co-owner Scott Nishiyama then adds house-made chili oil, tan tan (sesame) flavor and minced pork. The soup’s pork and noodle components offer the same degree – slight yet intriguing – of textural resistance.
The secret: House-made broth. “A lot of places use a (pre-made) base,” Nishiyama said. “(But) in order to get that umami flavor, you need that consistent, thick pork broth.”
The tab: $9.50
Tell us your favorite
Every restaurant diner has his/her favorite soup. What’s yours? Tell us about it, including where to find it and what you most like about it. Email your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org