George Muntean came to this country from Romania nearly 40 years ago. He couldn't speak any English. He didn't have any money.
But he wasn't afraid of hard work – and, at 23, he wasn't about to squander his chance to prosper.
To describe Muntean, now 62 years old and the charismatic force behind Muntean's Soups, Salads & Sandwiches, as an American success story would be an oversimplification. Yes, he started at the bottom. And yes, he has four kids and 12 grandkids, and he remains happily married to Terezia, who works with him at his bustling little lunchtime restaurant.
But at least financially speaking, he's been to hell and back.
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Over the years, he climbed from janitor to thriving restaurateur. Absent any recipes and without classical training, he figured out through tasting and tweaking how to make great soup – many, many great soups. Some of his soups are refined. Others are complex. Some are madness. Some are revelations, herbs and seasonings and meat and vegetables that collide in an exciting hodgepodge.
These days, Muntean's is 2 years old and a big hit on J Street in Sacramento.
With the departure of soup wizards Eric Harnish at now-shuttered Fog Mountain and the exodus of Daniel Pont, who sold La Bonne Soupe and opened Chez Daniel in Folsom, Muntean has become the source for soup aficionados on the downtown grid.
The lines aren't as long as the 90-minute queues that stretched out the door at La Bonne Soupe, and the soups aren't the equal of the dynamic and elegant varieties Harnish crafted. Yet, Muntean has inspired folks to stand and wait to be served one of 15 or so soup varieties on any given day.
It wasn't that long ago that this proud man with the white goatee, barrel chest and thick Eastern European accent nearly lost it all to the worst the recession could dish out.
After nearly a decade running Hannibal's, the mildly successful lunch spot at the downtown mall, Muntean lost his lease. So in 2005 he opened Muntean's Boulevard Bistro in Roseville and struggled to make ends meet. After five years, the bank took over. Muntean lost nearly everything but his family, his faith and his pride.
Oh, and they couldn't strip him of his savantlike way with soups. How he does it remains a mystery. Nothing is written down. Muntean has no mentors. But he dreams of soup and obsesses over new and unusual flavors. He dabbles. He tastes. He adjusts.
Maybe it's an obsession. Perhaps it's a fear of failure. He keeps coming up with more soups.
We've had the beef chili. We've had the vegetarian chili. We've had potato leek, artichoke something or other, pumpkin this, squash that. We've had clam chowder, salmon chowder, French onion, Romanian onion and, yes, we've had a soup called chicken teriyaki that tasted exactly like chicken teriyaki. But in a bowl. With broth. It was weird – and it was tasty.
To many of his new and loyal followers downtown, at least one of whom monitors the length of the lunchtime line with binoculars from his 22nd-story office, Muntean is the maestro of mulligatawny, the Brahmin of bisque, the champ of chowder.
Not only has Muntean come roaring back, he is, after all the ups and downs and over and outs, the great success he deserves to be.
We don't love everything about Muntean's. The sandwiches don't stack up in quality and flavor to the heavy hitters like Sampino's Towne Foods, Dad's Sandwiches and Roxie Deli & Grocery. The grilled meatloaf sandwich might be my favorite, followed by smoked turkey on focaccia. The chowder is good, but it will never compare to the version at nearby Blackbird Kitchen & Bar. The salads are merely so-so. We wish they would do away with the Styrofoam containers and plastic spoons. The paper signs hanging on strings from the ceiling may or may not be "charming."
But the soups? The experience? The force that is George Muntean?
He'll make you laugh. He'll fill your belly. He'll insist that you have a sample whether you want one or not (once, when I declined his offer of a sample and said I already knew what I wanted, he replied, "Don't be ridiculous," so I caved and had a sample).
And your eyes may just pop out of your head when you see all that he does – what he comes up with and how he decides to spell it – on a daily basis.
He spells falafel "falafa." He leaves out one "r" in "Mediterranean." And he mixes up the singular and plural forms for leaf, as in "stuffed grape leave."
But hey, the next spelling bee champ who can make a decent mulligatawny will be the first one. They're too busy learning $3 words like "guetapens," which is not a good soup.
When we chatted recently by phone, I asked Muntean how many soups he has made. He thought I was asking how many each day, and replied 12 to 15. But I wanted to know how many soups overall – how may odd and interesting and wacky flavors he has created?
I was curious because I think it gives us an insight into his process, his passion, his eccentricities. And I think we need more characters like George Muntean around making soup, making art, making Sacramento someplace special.
"Oh my God! Maybe more than a hundred," he finally said, laughing. "It's a love affair, what I put on the table."
I laughed, too, because it triggered memories of so many soups over so many months.
How does he make seafood jambalaya?
"I put seafood, I put chicken, I put beef and I mix it all up," he said.
And what, exactly is Romanian mulligatawny, his most popular soup?
"All kinds of meat is in there – beef, pork, chicken, turkey – all mixed up with vegetables and pasta," said the maestro without ever mentioning anything about things like mirepoix or mise en place.
If that's your kind of soup, Muntean is your kind of guy.
Times change. People come and go. Loyalties shift, as do the long lines. The great ones such as Harnish and Pont are missed downtown, to be sure. But it's Muntean's time now, and I'm buying whatever he's selling.
Muntean's Soups, Salads & Sandwiches
1225 J St., Sacramento
Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Beverage options: soft drinks
Vegetarian friendly: yes
Noise level: moderate
Overall Three stars (out of four stars)
At Muntean's, it's all about the soups and the brimming charisma of George Muntean, the maestro of mulligatawny. He is a creative tour de force, dreaming up all kinds of soup varieties. Don't miss the Romanian mulligatawny, the seafood jambalaya and, if a soup sounds weird, give it a try. This is a place geared toward lunch and doesn't put on airs.
Food Three stars
The soups are the star, and the salads and sandwiches are rather ordinary by comparison. If you're hungry, try a sandwich-soup combo or one of the rotating specials featuring various European dishes. But if you're really into soup, order two or three kinds at once and embrace the Muntean's experience.
Service Three stars
You're likely to get the ebullient George Muntean himself or the quiet Terezia, his wife, taking your order. You will be given samples – maybe many samples. Turn them down at your peril.
There are tables and chairs and paper signs hanging from the ceiling, all of which would horrify an interior designer. But it's not about that here. George Muntean's running dialogue is all you need.
Value Three stars
Soups range in price from $3.95 for a cup to a family size for $14.95. You'll want the $4.95 or $5.95 size for lunch. Most large salads are $8.50, and sandwiches are under $10 and include a small soup.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.