Commonly Good

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They say chicken soup is good for the soul and zings bodily ills like a shot of penicillin. But what kind of chicken soup are they talking about? Is it chicken with noodles, rice or matzo balls? Or could it be pho ga, tom yam kai or sopa de gallina india?

In Los Angeles, it could be any of the above. Chicken soup in this city is as diverse as its inhabitants, who come from all over the world. Thais, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexicans, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Indonesians and many others have stirred their own flavors into the pot.

The noodles twined in the broth might be fine rice noodles. The rice could be rosy Mexican rice. Instead of carrots, celery and potatoes, the vegetables could be straw mushrooms, chayote or green papaya. Fish sauce and hot chiles may replace salt and pepper. Lime juice, coconut milk and turmeric transform the broth. Cilantro, mint and basil add new herbal flavors.


In fact, these soups taste so different from one another, it’s hard to tell that they have anything in common. But each is a variation on the same theme: chicken broth, vegetables, meat and spices. And each is the quintessential example of home cooking, wherever home may be.

To get an idea of the range, we made a chicken soup tour of Los Angeles, starting with the simple classic with noodles and moving on to more exotic variations.

Our first bowl is an elite version of chicken vegetable soup from the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills. The full, mellow aroma of the Grill’s broth is amazing--just inhaling it makes you feel soothed and nourished. The chicken is juicy. The vegetables, nudged upscale by shallots and leeks, are painstakingly cut into fine shreds. Bits of macaroni add substance. It’s real comfort food, and the power people who lunch at the Grill jam in on Mondays to get it. The only other day it’s served is Sunday.

The soup comes with a big, crusty heel of sourdough bread and a slab of sweet butter, which is enough for lunch. The appointments are first-rate. You feel naughty scattering crumbs on the starchy white tablecloth and wonder if the waiter is miffed because you haven’t ordered anything else. Nevertheless, this aristocratic bowl of soup is just $5.75.

Starring: The Matzo Ball

Our dinner stop is Nate ‘n’ Al’s a few blocks away on Beverly Drive. This restaurant and deli also draws a power crowd. The man at the next table is on his cell phone chatting in film jargon. The good-looking blond guy across the room shows off his biceps with a black T-shirt and wears sunglasses, although it’s dark outside.

Like scads of Hollywood famous and other key players, the cell-phone talker is spooning up Nate ‘n’ Al’s celebrated chicken soup with matzo balls. There is no meat in the soup, just broth, dominated by two huge matzo balls so fluffy and light it’s a wonder they don’t float out of the bowl. You can’t find more soothing food than this.


And you can’t help but feel good in a place where the waitresses check on you as if they were Mom. They look comforting in their old-fashioned uniforms, white socks and sneakers. I tell my waitress I have a cold and ask if the soup will help. “I hope so,” she replies. “Jewish penicillin--isn’t that what they say? I hope you feel better soon.”

Nate ‘n’ Al’s provides rye bread, sauerkraut, kosher dills and “half-done” (partially cured) dills with the soup. It’s quite a meal for $5.25.

Mexico: Bright Flavor

On Day 2, we head to Glendale for lunch at La Cabanita on Verdugo Road. This Mexican restaurant has created a stir with its caldo de pollo, a beautiful bowl of chicken and vegetables topped off with a golden slice of corn on the cob, cilantro and sliced avocado. Along with green beans, carrots, tomatoes, potato, zucchini and chayote, the bowl contains a spoonful of the same red rice that accompanies most main dishes.

A basket of hot, handmade corn tortillas accompanies the caldo, and a little container of lime wedges and chopped onion is tucked against the bowl. To eat it Mexican style, squeeze lime juice into the soup and add onions and salsa to taste. There are two salsas, a dark one of tomatoes and chile de arbol and a bright green blend of serrano chiles and tomatillos.

Owner Francisco Jimenez says the recipe is from his mother, Maria Vazquez. They’re from Mexico City. If you can swing it, go for lunch during the week, when the caldo is $5.95 and comes with a plate of rice and black beans and a soft drink. At night and on weekends, it’s $7.95 without the extras.

Philippines: A Ginger Zing

On the way back to Los Angeles, it’s easy to swing into what street signs designate as “Historic Filipinotown.” This area along Temple Street approaching downtown still includes a few Filipino restaurants.


Nanay Gloria, at the back of a corner mall, is set up for takeout. Dishes in the steam table include chicken tinola (tinolang manok in Tagalog), which is ginger-flavored broth with chicken chunks, spinach and chayote. The original is made with green papaya and chile pepper leaves, but even some cookbooks published in Manila authorize the substitutions. What stands out about Nanay Gloria’s soup is its richness. Stored overnight in the refrigerator, the broth partially gels. A big serving is $4.

El Salvador: ‘Rancho’ Style

Dinner on Day 2 takes us to El Zunzal, a small Salvadoran chain restaurant on Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown. It’s a cheerful place with yellow-print tablecloths, golden walls and artificial yellow tulips on the tables. One of the dishes in the illuminated menu behind the counter is sopa de gallina india--Salvadoran chicken soup. “Gallina” means hen, and “india” indicates freshly killed poultry--chicken “from the rancho,” the woman behind the counter explains

This is rustic food: big chunks of zucchini, potato and onion as well as green beans, celery strips, bell pepper, tomato and a few limp leaves that I’m told are mint. Spoon around the bowl and you uncover chicken gizzards and perhaps a piece of bone, but no meat. That’s on a separate plate. After being boiled to make the broth, the chicken is browned on a grill and set on a pile of rice beside a salad of shredded cabbage, sliced radish, tomato, cucumber and a lime wedge.

This $6.99 meal also includes thick, hot, freshly made tortillas. You can hear the slap slap slap as they are patted into shape in the kitchen.

Thailand: Chile and Citrus

On Day 3, the lunch destination is one of the most authentic Thai restaurants in the city, Sunshine Thai in North Hollywood. Here, the chile pastes that season soups, curries and other dishes are made from scratch in the kitchen.

Our soup is tom yam kai, which is the chicken version of hot and sour shrimp soup (tom yam goong). The heat comes from small dried Thai chiles, the sourness from lime juice. The key seasonings are lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce. Cilantro, straw mushrooms and chicken bob about in the broth, which is colored orange with nam prik pao, a chile-shrimp paste made at the restaurant.


The soup arrives in a chimney pot, just as it would in Thailand. Flames briefly flare up the chimney as the fuel inside is ignited. It’s $8.50 for a large serving, $5.95 for a small one.

Vietnam: A Noodle Elixir

The fourth and last day of the tour starts with lunch in Chinatown, not in any of the well-known spots but in a tiny Vietnamese cafe hidden inside a shopping plaza. Hoan Kiem has only six tables, and they fill quickly, so you may have to wait for a seat. The big demand is for the restaurant’s only soup, pho ga.

This is a Vietnamese rice noodle soup with chicken. If you happen to have a cold, it’s a must--no other soup offers the medicinal punch of this one.

First, you’re handed a foam cup of hot tea. Then comes the bowl of hot broth with shreds of chicken, cilantro, green onion and flat rice noodles. A side plate contains a lemon wedge, bean sprouts, more cilantro and jalapeno slices.

Squeeze in the lemon juice, dump the other things into the soup, then add a dash of Sriracha hot sauce from the squeeze bottle on the table. That’s enough hot chile to burn out any cold, plus lemon juice for vitamin C. You get all this for $3.20, which includes tax.

Indonesia: Coconut Broth

The tour ends with soto ayam at Ramayani on Westwood Boulevard, one of very few Indonesian restaurants remaining in Los Angeles. There are many different styles of soto, and Ramayani’s version is especially pretty: a bowlful of pale yellow chicken broth is colored with turmeric and lightened with coconut milk. Hard-boiled egg slices circle the rim of the bowl. In the center are pieces of chicken and crunchy bits of fried onion. Bean sprouts and wiry fine rice noodles fill out the soup.


Subtly seasoned with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, soto is gentle--until you add a hot sambal from the condiment jars on the table. Sambal terasi is a bright green mixture of fresh chiles, shrimp paste and lemon juice. Sambal bajak, which seems nicer in the soup, is an oily red chile paste flavored with garlic, onion, dried shrimp and sugar. Made at the restaurant, the sambals are on sale in a small shopping area at the front, along with a variety of snacks and Indonesian ingredients such as the sweetened soy sauce called kecap.

Soto ayam--”ayam” means chicken--is $7.95. There are two other sotos on the menu, soto betawi, which contains beef, tripe and chitterlings, and soto madura, another soup with variety meats. Just say “I am,” and you’ll get it right.


Caldo de Pollo

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

From La Cabanita in Glendale. The restaurant uses cooked Mexican red rice in the soup, made by cooking rice in chicken broth and a puree of fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, chopped garlic and onions.

1 1/2 gallons water

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 onion, unpeeled and cut in half

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

1 baking potato, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces

1 chayote, peeled, cored and cut into 2-inch pieces

1/4 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 ear corn, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

3 cups cooked rice

1 teaspoon salt

1 avocado, thinly sliced

2 limes, cut into wedges, for garnish

Chopped onions, for garnish

Combine the water, chicken, onion and garlic in a stockpot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, skimming the top occasionally.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, potato, chayote, green beans and corn. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the vegetables are almost done, about 15 minutes. Add the zucchini and continue to cook until the vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the vegetables and set aside.

Remove the chicken pieces from the broth and shred into bite-sized pieces, discarding the skin and bones.


Strain the broth into a clean saucepan. Boil over high heat until reduced to 10 cups, about 20 minutes. Add the chicken, vegetables, cilantro, rice and salt.

Cook over medium heat just until heated through, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the avocado.

Serve in bowls with the lime wedges and chopped onions alongside.

8 servings. Each serving: 335 calories; 328 mg sodium; 71 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 2.76 grams fiber.


Tom Yam Kai

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes

From Sunshine Thai Cuisine in North Hollywood. Kaffir lime leaves and chile paste with soya bean oil can be found at Asian markets. Fish sauce and canned straw mushrooms are found in the Asian aisle of well-stocked supermarkets.

1 boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch slices on the diagonal

3 cups water

1 tablespoon kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (2 leaves)

1 thin stalk lemon grass, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon minced cilantro

1/2 cup whole peeled straw mushrooms

1 tablespoon chile paste with soya bean oil (nam prik pao)

Combine the chicken, water, lime leaves and lemon grass in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Add the fish sauce, lime juice, cilantro, mushrooms and chile paste. Stir to combine and serve.

2 servings. Each serving: 193 calories; 847 mg sodium; 72 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 0.34 gram fiber.



The Grill Chicken Vegetable Soup

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes, plus 30 minutes chilling

1/2 pound chicken thighs (2 thighs)

Salt, pepper

1 teaspoon butter, melted

2 cups raw elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 quarts water

2 bay leaves

1/4 cup chicken bouillon powder

1 cup sliced onion (2-inch-long thin strips)

1 cup sliced celery (2-inch-long thin strips)

1 cup sliced carrots (2-inch-long thin strips)

1 cup sliced green beans (2-inch-long thin strips)

1 cup sliced leeks (2-inch-long thin strips)

1 cup sliced zucchini (2-inch-long thin strips)

1/4 cup diced tomatoes


Hot pepper sauce

Parsley sprigs, for garnish

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the chicken in a 9-inch square baking pan and season the chicken to taste with salt and pepper. Brush with the melted butter. Bake until cooked through, 45 minutes. Refrigerate the chicken 30 minutes, then remove the skin and bones, and shred into 1-inch pieces.

Cook the macaroni in boiling water until al dente, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Cook the shallots in the butter in a large saucepot over medium heat until the shallots start softening, 5 minutes. Add the water, bay leaves and chicken bouillon and bring to a boil; boil for 5 minutes.

Add the onion, celery, carrots and green beans and cook 3 minutes over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and zucchini and cook another 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken and return to a boil. Cook 3 minutes at medium boil then add the tomatoes. Season with salt and hot sauce to taste. Remove the bay leaves.

To serve, place the cooked noodles on the bottom of each of 8 soup bowls and ladle 1 cup of soup over the top of each. Garnish with parsley sprigs.


8 servings. Each serving: 141 calories; 1,021 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 2.67 grams fiber.