Soup’s On

Michael Nagrant / 01.20.12

The phrase “salad days” has often been used to describe one’s carefree youth or the moment at which a person lived at the zenith of his powers. The expression was coined by Shakespeare in the play “Antony and Cleopatra,” wherein Cleopatra reminiscing about dalliances with Julius Caesar speaks of her “… salad days, When I was green in judgment…” As one who rebuffs salad as if it were swine flu, I can only deduce that by making such an association, Shakespeare was allergic to food or, at best, was a Birkenstock-wearing, hippie, super-vegan.

Having just slurped up a bowl of sweet, beefy Pho Dac Biet broth from Pho 888 (1137 W. Argyle; 773-907-8838) a few hours ago, during Chicago’s first discernible snowfall, what I know is that if Shakespeare’s palate was as finely tuned as his wit, he really would have revised the expression as “soup days.”

Pho is soul-stirring, sweet and savory, crunchy and silky, spicy and comforting. It is interactive, served with a plate rife with anise-flavored stalks of Asian basil, a mound of crisp bean sprouts (the crunch), limes, jalapenos, plummy hoisin and a dollop of sweet-burning sriracha allowing you to customize to your tongue’s pleasure — or your stomach’s capacity for searing chili.

It is possible that barring the bony claws of Chicago’s icy winter at the door with such a bowl has made me a romantic, and you think my argument is bluster. But a week earlier, while I was relaxing on the Mexican beaches of Playa del Carmen, I came upon a bowl of green chili posole bursting with satisfyingly chewy nuggets of hominy. The day after that, I had a charred, roasted bean soup at a different taqueria. The chili in these soups invoked a sweat, that ultimately, like a natural air conditioner, mitigated the swelter of the damp Mexican air. Soup works hot and cold, day or night and in sickness or in health.

And so in that spirit, I have compiled a list of Chicago’s best bowls for your life-enriching pleasure. It should be noted that I also have discovered that January is National Soup Month. Of course, such a holiday is as official as Hallmark-inspired Sweetest Day or a Seinfeldian Festivus, so that didn’t hold much sway toward bringing you this service.

If you are seeking the chili-inspired schwitz I outlined above, I can think of no better starter than Frontera Grill’s (445 N. Clark; 312-661-1434) Topolobampo Tortilla Soup, a rich chicken broth spiced with chocolaty pasilla chili and thickened with fresh corn-perfumed tortillas and topped with a dollop of “hand-made Jack cheese” (read: not dyed nuclear orange, pre-shredded and packaged in a resealable plastic bag).

Speaking of chili, there are plenty of good ones in town. The bowl of red at Chuck’s Southern Comfort’s Cafe in Burbank (6501 W. 79th; 708-229-8700), also featuring a blend of red chili, is thick like a complex Mexican mole sauce.

My favorite local chili, however, is the Greek-style (or Cincinnati- style as it’s known in Ohio), allspice-infused brew served at Bridgeport’s Ramova Grill (3510 S. Halsted; 773-847-9058). It doesn’t hurt that the Ramova is also the ideal of a diner.

The Greeks have nothing on the French, though, when it comes to serving up liquid comfort. Exhibit A and B: the French onion soup and bouillabaisse at West Loop bistro La Sardine (111 N. Carpenter; 312-421-2800). The former is a piping-hot crock bubbling over with toasted Gruyere and a couple of baguette rafts, and the latter is a Pernod-scented and plump crustacean-larded stew that conjures a sunny afternoon in Marseille spent gazing at the Mediterranean’s waves.

To make truly stellar soup, it doesn’t hurt to meld cultures. At Al Dente (3939 W. Irving Park; 773-942-7771), chef Javier Perez blends Mexican, Italian and a little French gourmet technique in his cooking. His butternut squash soup is velvety, spicy and features a mound of spaghetti squash garnish that acts as a mock “noodle” reinforcing an earthy squash flavor.

At Belly Shack in Humboldt Park (1912 N. Western; 773-252-1414), chef Bill Kim serves up a mash up of Korean and Puerto Rican cuisines whose greatest achievement is a “Hot and Sour” soup featuring mineral-tinged chunks of hominy, silken slivers of chicken and a successful game of brinksmanship with the cumin and salt shakers.

For unadulterated Asian flavors, my money is on Roka Akor’s (456 N. Clark; 312-477-7652) ramen with prawns and scallops in master stock. The noodles are housemade and feature a fresh Bubblelicious-like gluten spring, while the tender shrimp and scallops served slightly raw cook to a perfect doneness when mixed in the silky soy-kissed stock.

Chef Takashi Yagihashi also makes a pretty mean ramen over at his new spot, Slurping Turtle (116 W. Hubbard; 312-464-0466), but it’s the Slurping Noodle — featuring rice noodles topped with pearly plump nubs of tender black shrimp and a shower of spicy cilantro and meringue-like dumplings filled with salty tuna eggs that pop in your mouth like a breached water balloon — that I really relish.

Though it’s also hard to resist Macku Sushi’s (2239 N. Clybourn; 773-880-8012) demitasse of king crab-filled carrot soup fired up with Chinese seven-spice (fennel, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns are the base of this mix), topped with whipped cream and a rice crisp redolent with coconut perfume.

Should you require a little history with your soup, there may be no better bowl than the Bookbinder soup (named after the restaurant of its provenance, Bookbinders of Philadelphia) served at the Coq D’ Or and the Cape Cod Room (140 E. Walton; 312-787-2200) at the Drake Hotel. There are two stories detailing how the recipe came to the Drake, both based on the idea that Bookbinders and the Drake catered to entertainers, royalty and political dignitaries, and having the dish was a matter of cachet (President Taft allegedly hired a chef specifically to make the soup while he was in the White House). Either Edwin Brashears Sr., the second owner of the hotel (after the Drake brothers), got the recipe directly from the owner of Bookbinders in the 1930s, or the Drake’s original architect Benjamin Marshall, finding the Bookbinders owner uncooperative, took their chef out for a few drinks and wrangled it from him.

Somewhere along the way the tomato-and-roux-based soup infused with sherry evolved from using “snapper turtle” meat (as it’s still served at Bookbinders) to red snapper fish. I haven’t been able to find exactly when the change was made, though the recipe definitely called for fish at the Drake as early as 1952.

The Drake version is served with a crystal decanter of sherry, which you pour into the broth as you eat. The nuttiness of the sherry roils up in your nostrils along with the vegetal perfume of tomato and celery. It’s so refined and tasty, I guarantee even an arugula-worshipping William Shakespeare would praise it.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.