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, makrut 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 makrut 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.