Get Souped

‘Tis the season for soup! Lots of places make a good Soup of the Day to be sure—both Café Soleil and Marigold Kitchen immediately come to mind—but fortunately, there are restaurants in Madison that have soup specialties so good they’re on the menu regularly. Here are my top ten picks for soups around town.

This is about as exotic as it gets. Egusi are fat- and protein-rich seeds used to thicken soup in Africa. Africana’s recipe comes from Nigeria and is a pleasantly hot beef and tomato stock with spinach, smoked fish and all kinds of mysterious seasonings. It’s served with a choice of meat and rice or fufu (pounded yams or plantain).

My vegetarian friends—especially those new to town—are always asking me where they should eat. Bandung is definitely at the top of my list. Sayur Lodeh is an improbable combination of ingredients—tempe, tofu, napa cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots and jalapeno—all successfully mixed together in coconut milk broth. It’s so sublime that even carnivores (like me) contemplate seconds. Fortunately, it’s available for dinner, too.

Nothing is more enticing than a bowl of French onion soup with its raft of melting Swiss cheese floating in a bowl of robust beef stock and aromatic onions. At the ChopHouse, the marriage of brown ale with an excellent onion soup is a match made in heaven.

Not to be confused with its wimpy Midwestern cousin, this is the real deal made with chunks of beef rather than hamburger. It packs a punch; zipped up with a happy consortium of New Mexican, ancho, pasilla and Oaxacan chile peppers.

Ribollita means “twice cooked” in Italian and this bean soup is a traditional Tuscan dish. When I had the pleasure of discovering this soup at Lombardino’s, it was so wonderful that I begged co-owner Marcia O’Halloran for the recipe. (Okay, I didn’t have to beg but would have gladly done so, and more.) White beans are slowly cooked with smoked pork and bacon. Then chicken stock, onions, lacinato kale, Roma tomatoes, carrots, zucchini and fresh herbs go in the pot. The end result is a slightly thickened bean soup with a rich smoky flavor, which is served over crisp croutons and finished with a drizzle of fine olive oil.

Tortilla soup includes just about everything I like about Mexican food. La Mestiza’s version is a rich chicken broth spiced with smoky pasilla chiles and comes with all the prerequisite garnishes: crunchy tortilla strips, crumbled queso fresco, chopped avocado and cream aria. Muy bueno!

This beloved Wisconsin specialty is actually a thick sauce made from beef and beans, distinctively spiced and served over spaghetti on a plate rather than in a bowl. You then add your choice of toppings—grated cheese, chopped onions and/or sour cream. The concept came to Green Bay from Cincinnati where chili parlors proliferate that specialize in this peculiar product.

I fell in love with Thai food in Los Angeles and immediately fell in love with this wonderfully complex concoction. For the first time, I could really appreciate tofu. With a base of coconut milk, Tom Ka Gai is seasoned with chili paste, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galanga (blue ginger) and other herbs and spices. You add your choice of chicken, shrimp, squid or tofu.

The first time I tasted this classic Chinese potage was the first time I had a kind of soup not made by Campbell. Forget chicken soup, this is the perfect remedy to cure a cold and is literally sensational. Like most of their noodle dishes, Wah Kee’s Hot and Sour Tong Mein is exemplary.

Read Dan Curd’s blog Small Dishes