While soups find a place at the table in all seasons, they can be particularly spirit-lifting during Rochester's typically frigid winters. And really, there is no shortage of restaurants in our area that offer serious soul-sustaining soups. We even have some businesses that specialize in them.
No article on local soups would be complete without mentioning Rochester fixture Nathan's Soup and Salad (on Park Avenue, at Eastview Mall, and at the Regional Market; nathanssoupandsalad.com), which serves more than 40 varieties, and the venerable American Hotel (americanhoteloflima.com/soups) in Lima, which offers five or six different homemade soups daily — from a repertoire of close to 100.
When I set out on a mission to find some of Rochester's best winter soups, I did not anticipate where the path would lead me, and fully expected to include some favorite traditional soups that I adore: a rich and gooey French onion, a stout and briny clam chowder, a silky and succulent tomato soup. Unwittingly, however, I found myself drawn to Asian cuisine, where soups are as an important part of culinary heritage as they are anywhere in the world. Below are some of the most sumptuous soups I sampled during this journey, but it is by no means an exhaustive list, as even each of these restaurants makes more soups that I now need to try.
For over two decades, The King and I (1455 East Henrietta Road; 427-8090; thekingandithaicuisine.com) has held court as one of Rochester's hubs for Thai food. The restaurant's Tom Kar Kai (more commonly spelled Tom Kha Gai), for as long as I can remember, has been one of my go-to comfort foods. A complexly rich, sweet, sour, and spicy soup, the vibrant base of chicken-bone broth and coconut milk is accentuated with galangal (a rhizome in the ginger family), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, fish sauce, and Thai bird's eye chiles. The result is an aromatic and luxurious soup that will have you believing it can cure any ailment that afflicts you.
Dancing within your bowl, you'll also find tender pieces of chicken breast, chunks of tomato, slivers of red onion, and straw mushrooms. With so much going on, you'll find each spoonful different, but each one chock-full of goodness. This soup, in my opinion, benefits from adding some jasmine rice to the bowl, which tops off the creaminess that the coconut milk initiates.
Beyond the luscious Tom Kar Kai, The King and I also serves a Tom Yum Kai (more commonly spelled Tom Yum Gai). Tom Yum Kai has many of the same flavors as Tom Kar Kai, but in place of the creamy coconut milk foundation you'll find a tangy tomato-like and sour citrusy base, courtesy of an emphasis on lime juice and lemongrass. Within the bowl are chicken pieces, tomatoes, mushrooms, and chopped scallions. This soup has an uncommon depth of flavor and a spiciness that sneaks up on you, asserting itself more as you descend closer to the bottom of the bowl. The King and I also serves a shrimp version, called Tom Yum Koong.
Also operating in Rochester for more than 20 years, Plum Garden (3349 Monroe Avenue; 381-8730; plumgarden.com) serves up hibachi entrées, sushi, and sashimi, along with a plentitude of traditional Japanese dishes. One of them, Nabeyaki Udon, is a hot udon noodle soup served in an individual donabe (earthenware crock). Along with udon noodles, the soup — made from fish stock — includes chicken, kamaboko (fish cake), shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and scallions. Topping off this steaming cauldron of umami righteousness is a poached egg and two tempura shrimp, which must prudently be eaten first, lest they get soggy.
I loved the silky, toothsome udon noodles, the nuanced hints of both sweetness and saltiness, and the contrasting textures. Like so many other Asian soups, this one boasted a complexity of subtle and pronounced flavors. Plum Garden offers a shaker of ground cayenne pepper to sprinkle on this soup, which I felt added yet another layer of intrigue. While eating this, I thought to myself that nabeyaki udon might very well be the ideal Rochester winter soup.
Han Noodle Bar (687 Monroe Avenue; 242-7333; hannoodlebar.com) has been dishing out street vendor-style food from various regions of China since 2011. In addition to ethereal pork belly buns, Han offers 15 varieties of broth noodles. On the advice of a colleague, I opted on my visit for the Roasted Duck Broth Noodles. In an earthy and herbaceous seafood and pork-bone stock swam chewy udon noodles, bright green tender-crisp baby bok choy, and generous pieces of crispy-skinned duck thigh, best eaten before that skin loses its crackle. While this is a relatively thin soup, it is deceptively rich, owing in part to the succulent duck. Although I could not finish the abundant noodles, I slurped down the last drops of this flavorful broth.
The Soup Spoon (1378 Mt. Hope Avenue; 244-7166; thesoupspoonroom.com), a relative newcomer to our scene (it opened in 2014), is a shining independent in the succession of (mostly) chain eateries in College Town. The Soup Spoon ladles out Cambodian comfort food, much of which comes from family recipes. It was here I found a new contender for a favorite winter soup: Babar. Babar is traditional Cambodian rice porridge with chicken, fresh ginger, onion, green onion, cilantro, and wide rice noodles. Spicy and soothing, fulfilling and restorative, this is just about everything I could dream of in a winter soup. The soft silky texture of the porridge is punctuated by the intensity of the salted soybeans. As suggested by the menu (and my server) I added a few splashes of white vinegar to brighten the flavor, and dusted the top with black pepper and fried garlic. Everything in this soup was balanced in terms of flavors, textures, and quantities. Harmony in a bowl.
Barely known in these parts just a few years ago, Vietnamese ph is now relatively commonplace, and several restaurants in the area prepare it very well. Few meals are as hearty and deeply complex in flavor as is ph, and with few dishes does a diner receive so much satisfaction — in terms of quality and quantity — for so little cash. I consider it a quintessential winter staple, and there's nothing I'd rather eat on a cold December night — even if on this particular one, temperatures hovered in the 50's.
The one place I had not yet tried ph was Nam Vang (1380 Lyell Avenue; 319-4137; facebook.com/NamVangRestaurant), which remarkably sits immediately next door to another Vietnamese restaurant. Nam Vang does Ph Tai proud. An intensely deep beef-bone broth filled with slippery delicate rice noodles, thinly-sliced beef, onions, and scallions is accentuated with the heady aromas of fish sauce, star anise, clove, and cinnamon. Squeeze in some lime juice and Sriracha to coax the most of the flavors in this ocean of gustatory assertiveness. Finally, top your soup from what the Vietnamese call "table salad": bean sprouts, jalapeño slices, Thai basil, and lime wedges. Bliss in a bowl. Nam Vang also makes their own version of Vietnamese limeade — nuoc da chanh — which I thought complemented their ph very well.