Cozy up with these 12 comforting local soups

When the weather’s cold, these local offerings will warm your stomach — and your soul.
Pho from Pho Nam Noodle House
Pho at Pho Nam Noodle House
Photo by Amy Stocklein

When you’re cold.

When you’re sick.

When you’re in need of deep comfort and smooth sustenance.

Basically, there’s no time that’s not perfect to dip your spoon into a steaming hot bowl of soup. That thought somehow becomes even more salient when it’s December and the temperatures have plummeted below freezing. Even though the concept of soup has been around since 20,000 B.C. — or so the archaeologists tell us, anyway — not all soups are created equal. We’ve rounded up eight unimpeachable local bowls (and three chilis) that’ll leave every inch of your palate warmed and satisfied. (Note: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many places on this list are currently offering only curbside and carryout food. Be sure to call ahead.)

Tom Kha at Hạ Long Bay
This deservedly popular Southeast Asian place is known for its delicious array of traditional Vietnamese pho, but don’t let that distract you from one of Hạ Long Bay’s other amazing soups on its sprawling, multicultural menu: the creamy and flavorful tom kha. A base of creamy coconut milk is jolted by the addition of chili paste and galanga, a sort of Southeast Asian cousin to ginger. Add a little heft to the mix with some tender slices of chicken and drink in both the smoothness and the spice of this superlative soup. Your soul will certainly appreciate it. Hạ Long Bay is known to get really busy for takeout, so if at first you don’t succeed, try calling again. 1210 Williamson St., 286-1448,

Jambong at New Seoul Korean Restaurant bowl of jambong from New Seoul Korean Restaurant

This traditional Korean spot has a menu that’s rife with all kinds of soups, including several varieties of jungol, a sort of Korean hot pot with vegetables and meat. While the jungols are delicious, we recommend taking a spicy route and opting for jambong — a red soup given heft by flour noodles, clams, mussels, shrimp, small octopus, squid, carrots, onions, green onions and green and red cabbage. The jambong is a seafood lover’s dream. With five proteins covered in a delectable broth, you’ll want to slurp every last drop. 721 N. High Point Road, 829-3331,

Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup at The Old Fashioned

soup from The Old Fashioned

Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup from The Old Fashioned

You’re not going to find a soup more Midwestern than beer cheese, and you’re not going to find a more satisfying bowl than the one on the menu at The Old Fashioned. The thick, creamy bock-based stock manages to be smooth and pack a big cheddary zing at the same time, and it’s not at all hard to see why it’s a staple of The Old Fashioned’s Wisconsin-influenced menu. The finishing touch is a heavy sprinkling of popcorn from the Tietz Family Farms in Watertown, adding both a perfect texture and a set of crunchy, tiny sponges to soak up the cheesy goodness. No points lost if you choose to eat the popcorn as a side dish. 27 N. Pinckney St., 310-4545,

Zuppa di Pomodoro at Osteria Papavero

Osteria Papavero's tomato bisque

Courtesy of Osteria Papavero

It’s such an elegant way to say “tomato bisque,” but this isn’t merely a fancy, Eurocentric trick to gussy up something run-of-the-mill. This is the real deal and one of the best options on Osteria Papavero’s rotating soup-of-the-day menu, so if you see it on the menu, make sure to order it. This soup’s creaminess hits the sweet spot, the mellow smoothness of the puree broken up by actual chunks of locally grown tomatoes. The pièces de résistance are the fried croutons that accompany the bowl, giving it a healthy heft you won’t soon forget. Be smart and ask for an extra serving. 128 E. Wilson St., 255-8376,

Pho at Pho Nam Noodle House

Pho from Pho Nam Noodle House

Photo by Amy Stocklein

Madison has no dearth of pho purveyors, but one of the best comes in an unexpected and rather unassuming package. Pho Nam Noodle House, a little shop in a far west side strip mall, slings enormous portions of the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup in eight different varieties — no vegetarian options, unfortunately. Beef lovers, on the other hand, can rejoice, as options ranging from massive meatballs to strips of flank, filet or soft tendon pair wonderfully with the ghostly white noodles that define this dish. Generous portions of limes, jalapeños, basil and cilantro let you modify the mildly spiced broth. 610 Junction Road, 836-7040

Menudo and Pozole at Taqueria Guadalajara
You’ll find these two Mexican specialties available only on Saturday and Sunday — each of them takes between five and seven hours to make — but they’re worth planning your week around. Taqueria Guadalajara’s menudo rico, a reddish, beef tripe-based broth, and its pozole rojo, a reddish stew made with hominy and vegetables, aren’t just reliable hangover cures, but delicious palettes you can tailor to your own taste. Both wield a mild but satisfying flavor that can be quickly notched up the heat scale by adding a little salsa or a handful of chopped jalapeños. Note: Unlike at some restaurants, where a bowl or a cup is the standard fare, these two soups are sold in massive containers that easily serve up to four as an appetizer. But it’s perfectly acceptable to eat the whole bowl by yourself. So either make them the centerpiece of your meal or, better still, use them to get from one Saturday to the next. 1033 S. Park St., 250-1824,

Mulligatawny at The Weary Traveler Freehouse mulligatawny soup
This steaming bowl of hearty and healthy ingredients gets its color and consistency from red lentil beans and its spicy, eyebrow-raising kick from what chef David Goodwin likes to call “the Holy Trinity of Indian spices”: onion, garlic and ginger. The result is a deeply satisfying bowl of awesome that soars on the strength of its simplicity. The Weary’s inspired choice of garnish — green apples, tomatoes, toasted spices and lemon yogurt — gives you the option to experience this soup two entirely different ways: smooth or chunky. Don’t sweat the decision — both are delicious. 1201 Williamson St., 442-6207,

Chillin’ With Some Chili
Nothing cures the cold weather blues quite like a delectable bowl of chili.

Mid Town Pub's Chili

Courtesy of Mid Town Pub

Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry
First, the meat, then the heat. That’s the one-two punch that Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry delivers with its chili. Or maybe that should be a three-two punch, given that this bowl of hot chili is packed with three kinds of meat (beef tips, pork tenderloin and bacon) and two types of peppers (banana and jalapeño). The result is a capital-T Thick bowl of goodness that packs some seriously eye-popping spice. Put it this way: You’re going to want to have a beer or two at the ready to steady your taste buds. Our advice? Set aside the confluence of a joint that’s known for its top-notch burgers harboring a delicious bowl of chili that contains exactly zero ground beef, and just savor the delicious burn. 317 N. Frances St., 259-0000,

The Green Owl Cafe
Seeking out a bowl of chili at The Green Owl Cafe is, as our dear friend Forrest Gump famously said about life, like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get. That’s meant in the best possible way: The Green Owl rotates through as many as 10 types of vegan chili, depending on the season and availability of ingredients. That said, there are three popular varieties you’ll most likely encounter and enjoy when you swing by: a delicious and thick mole-based recipe with sizable vegetable chunks and kick; a smoky, Southwestern blend with sun-dried tomatoes; and a chili featuring ground seitan, a meat substitute made from wheat gluten. Cafe owner Erick Fruehling loves to surprise his customers with the latter rendition: “People have no idea a vegan chili can taste like that,” he says. “Customers are like, ‘Wait, this isn’t beef?’” Call ahead to see what’s on the menu before you go. 1970 Atwood Ave., 285-5290,

Mid Town Pub
Joel Egan, the owner of Mid Town Pub on Allen Boulevard in Middleton, confesses that it takes a full two days and three separate containers to make each 16-gallon batch of his uber-delicious chili, one of his establishment’s several culinary calling cards. The extra effort is oh-so-worth-it in order to have Mid Town’s chili available year-round. It’s a delectable bowl anchored by chunks of ground beef and three types of beans. Toss some chopped onions, sour cream and shredded cheese on top and you’ve found chili nirvana. Egan grew up on a type of chili that had macaroni in it, but he’s created something very different here. “I wanted to do something in the middle,” he explains. “I make a point of not making it too hot.” Prior to COVID-19, you could punch up the spice with one of 64 different hot sauces Egan kept on the shelf to power his pub’s killer bloody mary. 2405 Allen Blvd., Middleton, 826-5129,

The Old Fashioned
It’s always entertaining when cities and regions compete for ownership of particular types of chili. The cats in Cincinnati lay claim to using spaghetti noodles as a base for a spicy, ground-beef fueled mix, but that hasn’t stopped Green Bay — and more specifically, Chili John’s Restaurant — from developing its own style of chili. The Old Fashioned adapted a recipe from a Green Bay restaurant and continues to wow customers with it. Green Bay chili features that aforementioned bed of spaghetti noodles, but also finely ground beef and red beans simmered in a spicy oil that permeates the entire dish. Douse it in cheese and chopped onions and you won’t feel the need to drive three hours north. 27 N. Pinckney St., 310-4545,

Aaron R. Conklin covers dining and theater for Madison Magazine.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"