I couldn’t feel my nose one morning recently as the temperature hovered around 12 degrees (“real feel 0″!). But then I cheerfully thought about the seasonal upside: It’s soup weather.
Very shortly after, I learned that my furnace had suddenly died an untimely death. As the thermostat began to plummet, we were soon out of our house, seeking steamy bowls of soup to quite literally defrost ourselves. There would be no better place to start the thaw than with “Winter Warmth,” an aptly named bowl from the Love (130 S. 18th Street) on Rittenhouse Square that’s one of the most refined renditions of usually rustic potato-leek soup I’ve encountered. Its silky puree of melted leeks was thickened just enough with Yukon Golds, then topped with a froth of thyme-scented cream and brioche croutons.
That it was such a beauty was a bonus. Part of soup’s magic is that the frumpiest bowls can also be the most powerful, with deep flavors that tell personal histories and transport you to a distant corner of the world with each spoonful. Philadelphia is rich in soups that convey such diversity while also warming your soul. Here are just 20 favorites I’ve had the pleasure to revisit while shaking off the chill.
Lagman, chuchvara, and kharcho at Chaikhana Uzbekistan Restaurant
Soup is part of daily life in Uzbekistan, the Central Asian country whose cuisine is well-represented at several restaurants in Northeast Philadelphia, including Chaikhana Uzbekistan. Go for the lagman with hand-rolled noodles and a rich lamb broth scented with cumin and star anise that showcase the dish’s Silk Road roots. I’m also a fan of the chuchvara, which comes with chicken dumplings, as well as specialties from other former Soviet republics — especially the fenugreek-flavored Georgian beef and rice kharcho stew and Ukrainian borscht that comes in two colors, red with beets and beef or green with sorrel and veal.
Uzbek lagman, chuchvara and kharcho, $5-$8.40 from Chaikhana Uzbekistan Restaurant, 📍12012 Bustleton Ave., 📞 215-671-1990, 🌐 uzbekistan-restaurant-restaurant.business.site
Fish soup at Spice C
You get soup and a show at this Chinatown favorite for hand-drawn noodles, where diners can watch chefs behind glass magically spin and stretch a single lump of dough into a fistful of fine noodles. The soups which contain them are just as spectacular, with multiple varieties to consider, from roast duck to the innard medley of “the Bomb.” I’m particularly fond of the fish soup, especially for its contrast of delicately crisped fish fillets against the boldly spiced aromatics of a Sichuanbroth. Better idea: Order two different bowls, including one with hand-shaved noodles that offer a wonderfully irregular, frilly-edged chew.
Fish soup with hand-drawn or shaved noodles, $10.25, Spice C, 📍131 N. 10th St., 📞 215-923-2222; 🌐 spicecphiladelphia.com
Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Ray’s Café & Tea House
There’s probably no single neighborhood in Philly as rich in soup as Chinatown. Ray’s Café has been at it consistently for more than three decades, and Grace Chen’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of the area’s most essential bowls. This soulful bowl of sublimely tender beef, snappy greens, and soft noodles luxuriates in a very special broth, a complexly dark brew made to a family recipe that is aromatic of cinnamon sticks, orange peels, and myriad other spices.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup, $17.99, Ray’s Café & Tea House, 📍141 N. Ninth St., 📞 215-922-5122; 🌐 rayscafe.com
French onion soup at Crème Brûlée Bistro and Café
Cheese-loving Philadelphia has its share of French onion soups, from Parc to Gabi to the Dining Car in Northeast Philly. But the version from cozy little Crème Brûlée Bistro and Café in deep South Philly is unlike any I’ve tried. Mexican-born brothers Armando and Dario Tapía, who trained in French cuisine for years with New York’s Francois Payard before moving to Philadelphia, make their French onion soup entirely vegetarian. It’s essentially caramelized onions, wine, and fistfuls of herbs, patiently cooked down to savory richness then gratinéed in a bowl over a slice of house-baked sourdough.
French onion soup, Crème Brûlée Bistro and Café, 📍1800 S. Fourth St., 📞 215-334-9000; 🌐 Facebook.
Vegan matzo ball soup at Miss Rachel’s Pantry
If I had to pick one soup for its restorative powers and tug of childhood nostalgia, it would be the epic bowl of matzo balls from the Famous 4th Street Deli. Rachel Klein felt the same way about her grandmom Sybil’s matzo ball soup. But as the now-vegan chef-owner of charming Miss Rachel’s Pantry in South Philadelphia, she had to figure out how to replicate that recipe’s richness without the eggs and schmaltz. After more than a decade of refinement, using soy and nut products for binder, she’s perfected her matzo balls as fluffy yet firm, along with a rich broth full of carrots that are one of Sybil’s signature moves. Her efforts are impressive: Just ask her dad, Inquirer staffer Michael Klein: “This is a case where the student has surpassed the teacher. ... Rachel’s is tastier. I say this fully aware of a guilt trip from my 85-year-old mother when she reads this. Oy.”
Vegan matzo ball soup $9 a pint, available at monthly “Soup Stock-Up” events, Miss Rachel’s Pantry, 📍1938 S. Chadwick St., 📞 215-798-0053; 🌐 missrachelspantry.com
Fisherman’s stew at Oyster House
The Oyster House remains one the last great bastions of Philadelphia seafood classics, like snapper soup and chowder. But the fisherman’s stew is its best bet for soup as a meal. Topped with rouille-lathered toasts, it loosely evokes French bouillabaisse, with a chunky tomato broth that nods to San Francisco cioppino (albeit without crab). Owner Sam Mink says it’s an amalgamation of the two, and has evolved over a dozen years into a showcase for the seafood bounty off the Atlantic Coast, from mussels to calamari and fish, which makes it a Philly classic all its own.
Fisherman’s stew, $26, Oyster House 📍1516 Sansom St., 📞 215-567-7683; 🌐 oysterhousephilly.com
Pozole rojo at Casa Mexico
Mexican South Philly is a paradise of magnificent soups, from the tortilla soup at Blue Corn to the chicken-rice consommé at Mole Poblano, the caldo de res at Tamalex and the legendary lamb consommé at South Philly Barbacoa. But lately I have regular cravings for the hearty pozole at Casa Mexico, also owned by Barbacoa’s chef Cristina Martinez. She gives it the attention to detail that makes all her food extraordinary. Each kernel of hominy is cleaned by hand so it can infuse the epazote-scented broth with the essence of earthy corn, bolstered by a traditional garnish of tostadas made from house-nixtamalized corn. It’s available with chicken or pork, or vegetarian, tinted with salsa or plain. I prefer mine rojo, emboldened with guajillos and chiles de arbol.
Pozole rojo or blanco, $15, Casa Mexico, 📍1134 S. Ninth St., 📞 267-470-1464; 🌐 Facebook.
Masa balls soup at Primary Plant Based
Chef Mark McKinney’s new vegan outpost in the former Cadence space roams globally for its plant-based menu inspirations. His masa ball soup is a mash-up of Jewish and Mexican influences, turning maseca corn flour into matzo ball-like dumplings seasoned with epazote and cumin that float beside kernels of hominy in a guajillo-spiced riff on pozole soup.
Masa ball soup, $6 cup/$11 bowl, at Primary Plant Based, 📍161 W. Girard Ave., 📞 267-360-2305; 🌐 primaryplantbased.com
Pasta e fagioli at Angelina’s
“It’s simple, but not simple because everyone messes it up,” says Michele Iovino of the pasta e fagioli she cooks at Angelina’s, taught to her by her late mother, Angelina Iovino. The beans in this soup are still whole but also sublimely creamy, gently infused with celery and carrot and just the lightest shade of color from one cherry tomato per batch. Fresh pasta scraps cut from the day’s fresh pappardelle and lasagna production ribbon through the bowl, adding the slightest snap of extra comfort.
Pasta e fagioli, $13, Tavolino di Angelina, 📍743 South Eighth St., 📞 215-660-9008; 🌐 instagram.com/angelindasbyob
Short rib pho at Cafe Nhan
Cafe Nhan is best known for its spicy lemongrass bowls of bún bò hue dac biet hearty with pig’s feet, brisket, and cubed blood. But we’ve also been loving the pho at this West Passyunk Avenue gem, in part because it’s one of the few local Vietnamese restaurants that confidently guarantees its pho is gluten-free. The richly flavored broth is as good as any out there. Order it with a thick pad of short rib, which is one of the most luxuriously tender slices of beef Philly has to offer. One gentle tug of the chopsticks and it just flakes apart into soft threads of crimson silk.
Short rib pho, $14.95, Cafe Nhan 📍1606 W. Passyunk Ave., 📞 215-551-2407; 🌐 cafenhanphilly.com
Thenthuk at White Yak
I cannot resist the velvety, hand-ripped noodles that fill the thenthuk soup at Roxborough’s destination-worthy Tibetan kitchen. But the secret is also in the broth, which chef-owner Treley Parshingtsang steeps for nine hours with oxtails and beef neck bones and then infuses with ginger and star anise. No wonder it’s well-suited for Tibet’s cold winters, she says: “You drink it hot and it warms your body.”
Thenthuk, $14 (beef or chicken) or $13 (vegetarian), White Yak, 📍6118 Ridge Ave., 📞 215-483-0764; 🌐 whiteyakrestaurant.com
Mushroom soup at Parc
Most people go for the French onion at Parc. But I can’t wait for mushroom soup season, between December and March, when the brasserie’s white crocks brim with an earthy, creamy puree of three mushrooms — maitake, pioppini, and cremini — elegantly dusted with chives. Each funghi adds a subtly different shade of woodsy depth, which, once richly creamed into the blend, feels like forest silk on the tongue.
Mushroom soup, $13, Parc, 📍227 S. 18th St., 📞 215-545-2262; 🌐 parc-restaurant.com
Spicy miso mushroom soup at Vernick Coffee
This unusual miso soup is a gorgeous bowl that haunts me because it shows off Greg Vernick’s mastery of the world pantry and effortless global fluency. At first sip, it tastes like traditional miso, with smoky notes of bonito in kombu broth. But one quickly realizes it’s been amped and altered, lightly enriched with pureed mushrooms that lend an earthy note. Emerald beads of shiso-dill oil pool alongside the elegantly bobbing long-stemmed beech mushrooms, their miniature caps cradling thimblefuls of the soup that deliver tiny bursts of intense umami. This mushroom soup showcases both flavor and texture!
Miso mushroom soup, $6 cup/$10 bowl, Vernick Coffee Bar, 📍1800 Arch St., 📞 215-419-5052; 🌐 vernickcoffeebar.com
Tantan ramen at Neighborhood Ramen
Can you put too much chili spice in tantan ramen? Probably. But boldness works beautifully in the kitchen’s favor with the tantan at this meticulous Queen Village ramen atelier, where the blaze-orange bowl of pork and chicken broth gets enriched with sesame paste and Korean-spiced pork soboro crumbles. A careful blend of chilies also resonates with spice. It’s like eating a soup version of Sichuan dandan noodles, in the very best way, reflecting ramen’s lineage of China’s influence on Japan.
Tantan, $16, Neighborhood Ramen, 📍617 S. Third St., 🌐 neighborhoodramen.com
Khao poon “king soup” at Vientiane Bistro
Chef and co-owner Sunny Phanthavong cooks so many memorable Lao soups at Vientiane Bistro, the Kensington sibling to her mother’s Vientiane Cafe in West Philly, it can be hard to choose a favorite. The vegetarian gang naw mai stew with fresh bamboo, whose forest green hue comes from juiced yanang leaves? The beefy tom saap hot pot aromatic with star anise, lemongrass and clove? My choice is the Khao Poon, a coconut broth rice vermicelli blushing red with curry spice, mint, galangal, and a gingery swagger that rightfully earns its nickname as “king soup.”
Khao Poon, $16 (with chicken); $19 (with shrimp), Vientiane Bistro, 📍2537 Kensington Ave., 📞 267-703-8199; 🌐 vientiane-cafe.com
Zurek, pickle soup, and borscht with pierogies at Dinner House Polish Cuisine
The long-standing Polish kitchens of Port Richmond have been disappearing at an alarming rate over the last few years. But the spirit is alive in the zupy bowls and pierogi plates at tiny Dinner House Polish Cuisine, where chef Ela Balka cooks with a grandmother’s touch. I love to combine her specialties into one bowl, filling the ruby red borscht with mushroom dumplings. But there may also be no better regional source for craveable Polski specialties like Balka’s herb-flecked pickle soup, or her zurek rye soup made from a broth of fermented of bread, marjoram, and filled with smoky chunks of kielbasa.
$4, Dinner House Polish Cuisine, 📍2706 E. Allegheny Ave., 📞 267-596-7727; 🌐 facebook.com/polishdinnerhouse.
Somlaw machu kroeung lemongrass soup at Sophie’s Kitchen
The Cambodian kitchen’s embrace of bold sourness and spice together is distinctive, and the big bowl soups at Sophie’s Kitchen are shining examples. The pure lemongrass power of chef-owner Sophia Neth’s hand-pounded spice paste is on full display in the somlaw machu kroeung. A funky boost from prahok fish paste and tamarind powder adds an extra layer of tang to the sweet snap of bell peppers and tiny Thai eggplants, which absorb the soup and burst when you take a bite.
Somlaw machu kroeung, at Sophie’s Kitchen, 📍522 Washington Ave., 📞 215-271-0888; 🌐 instagram.com/sophieskitchenphilly