Soup helps, at least for a warming few moments, at least for a little bit. Soup leads helpfully to an afternoon lie-down or an early bed, both of which seem like better ideas now than ever before. The five takeout soups here include some old favorites, some new, that are ready to comfort and sustain us during these very scary times. Here — have some soup.
Phnom Penh Special Rice Noodle from Phnom Penh Noodle House
913 S. Jackson St. Suite A, Seattle; 206-785-6936; phnompenhnoodlehouse.com
Soup doesn’t have to be exciting, nor offer variety as the spice of life — one star ingredient, nice and soothing, is absolutely OK. Phnom Penh Special Rice Noodle ($11.95), however, has so much more going on, in the best possible way.
Diane Le runs Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle’s Chinatown International District with her two sisters, Dawn and Darlene Ung, and she says that in Cambodia, this rice noodle soup is eaten throughout the day, a street-food staple. For to-go purposes, they package it as a kit, and after loosening the nest of rice noodles in the subtly flavored pork broth, it’s fun to arrange everything else across the top. Use your hands — no one cares — to get a tactile sense of all the textures your mouth’s about to experience: a still-firm, pretty pink Gulf prawn; soft crumbles of ground pork; glossy, bouncy fish balls; more pork, thin-sliced but with some chew to it; even-thinner-sliced, delicate fish cake; calamari cut into a flowery topiary, the better to hold the broth; and green onion and cilantro, peppery and fresh. Little bits of roasted garlic sneak aboard, too — your mouth will notice them more than your eyes do.
The Phnom Penh Special Rice Noodle has been on the menu since Sam Ung opened the restaurant in 1987. So much has happened since. The place became a beloved community hub, then had to move when the roof caved in; when Ung retired in 2013, his daughters took over, then closed due to financial exigencies following a terrible car accident in 2018. With the help of a grant from the city, they planned to debut their new space on March 14, 2020 — one day before the COVID-19 dining-in shutdown. It’s been a struggle, and Le notes that right now, business is extra-slow.
Le says she thinks it’s the fried garlic that makes their No. 1 soup “so good.” Don’t neglect squeezing the lime wedge over it all for brightness. Le’s tip: “I add a dash of our spicy saté sauce” — they’ll offer it with your order, and the answer is yes — “and this noodle bowl is perfect.” The housemade sauce, rich, oily and smoke-scented with dried arbol chili, also comes by the jar.
Duck Fat Matzo Ball Soup from Rubinstein Bagels
2121 Sixth Ave., Seattle; 206-550-1666; rubinsteinbagels.com
What does duck fat do to a matzo ball? The one lolling in the soup ($7 cup/$9 bowl) from Rubinstein Bagels practically glows, an especially rich, firm yet yielding little planet of goodness. “I wanted a traditional soup that was a little beyond,” owner Andrew Rubinstein says, so when they found they couldn’t source regular schmaltz well enough, they went with duck. The broth stays conventionally chicken, exactly the right side of too salty, with a slight surface shimmer of lip-slicking fat. Hunks and bits of soft, deeply flavored chicken meat play their usual part with unusual aplomb. The vegetables get sliced extra-thin, then dropped in at service rather than cooked and cooked. It seems like a small adjustment, but it preserves the crunch and flavor of carrot, fennel, celery, onion, shallot, leek and chives, giving some bites a surprising allium peppery-spice. Still, the soup remains deeply comforting, and duck fat matzo balls turn out particularly beautiful, golden-orange orbs. Is it kosher? “Not in any rabbinical way, no,” Rubinstein says. “Parts may be. I’m a bad Jew.”
Rubinstein Bagels’ new Denny Triangle location has online ordering for pickup, as well as delivery, too, so the duck fat matzo ball soup — along with some of Seattle’s best bagels — can come to you.
Corn Chowder from Communion
2350 E. Union St., Seattle; 206-257-4227; communionseattle.com
Note: Communion is on break, returning Jan. 18 with a special holiday menu for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, then Jan. 20 for regular hours/regular menu.
“It’s definitely vegan!” chef Kristi Brown says of the corn chowder ($6/$11) at her brand-new Central District restaurant, Communion. But this superlative soup could fool the biggest butter-lover: luxurious in texture yet also earthy, sweet and slightly smoky, spicy but sneakily so. The star ingredient is joined by a full supporting cast of sweet potato, carrot, celery and onion, served topped with lots of green onion diagonal-cut for peppery freshness. Brown says high-quality olive oil also plays a huge role, and that “it’s the stock” — the result of much experimentation with saved vegetable scraps. Oh, and there’s her own seasoning mix that she calls sez’ in there, “like 18 different spices.” She’s not going to reveal them, is she? “I’m not, I’m not!” she says, laughing.
Communion’s corn chowder forsakes the usual restaurant goal of consistency in favor of homestyle evolution. Sometimes when you order it, distinct cubes of vegetables loll in a thick, creamy broth, contrasting and complementing each other; sometimes the soup’s moved on to a smoother, more uniform texture from sitting happily on the stove in a big pot with all the ingredients getting to know each other better. Communion now offers a version with salmon ($14), which was actually Brown’s original recipe; she altered it specially, while also making all her sides vegan. From her catering background, she knows you’ve got to have something for everyone. Still, she says, “The vegans are super mad at me right now because I don’t have a [vegan] entrée. I’m like, we just opened! I’m coming!”
No one’s that unhappy, if sales are any indication. “One week, we made 20 gallons of this damn soup, and I’m like, is this my life now?” chef Brown says, laughing some more. “It’s a good life, though!”
Kimchi Jjigae from The Gerald
5210 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-432-9280; thegeraldseattle.com
Owner Wes Yoo added kimchi jjigae to the menu at The Gerald in Ballard specifically for wintertime comfort food during this winter of our supreme discomfort, and you kind of want to climb into it and never get out. Some versions of what Yoo calls “the national soup” of Korea taste one-note or maybe two — extremely spicy-hot and/or eye-wateringly sour. The Gerald’s take on it has levels of richly warming umami, earthiness as well as tart heat, a deep orange color and just the right amount of grease. It’s made with pork belly, which is a regular addition, but also chicken stock, which isn’t.
Yoo — who loves to expound about The Gerald’s food — explains: “We went with chicken broth for more familiar warmth of chicken soup, as well as heartier flavor. Typically, just water is used as a base. … Kimchi jjigae is popular because it’s delicious, of course, but also because of practicality. It’s simple: Every Korean home has kimchi. Kimchi ferments. Kimchi that’s been fermented long starts to develop a more sour taste. Some people like this, and some people don’t, but overfermented kimchi is best for cooking. It lends a depth of flavor you can’t replicate without it. Plus, it’s a good way to use up kimchi when it’s past its prime.
“My mom’s not a fan of pork, but the rest of us are, so it was always a battle. In a compromise, she’d do things like boil the pork with aromatics first to get the smell off it. Sometimes, though, she’d make it for us how we wanted it, and she’d eat something else. Sorry, Mom — we had to put pork in this. … Once COVID is over, we’ll see if she’s on board with this method.”
“This is ultimate comfort food for me. After having spent so much time in the States, I love my mac and cheese, grilled cheese, spaghetti and meatballs … but at the end of the day, nothing does it like this.”
Sopa de Albondigas from Fogón Cocina Mexicana
600 E. Pine St., Seattle; 206-320-7777; fogonseattle.com
Neighborhood restaurants mean so much right now. Getting something to eat that’s been a forever favorite takes us back to pre-pandemic times in such a comforting way, a familiar taste acting like a hug. Even if the eating has to happen at home, it reminds us that if we can all hang on and support each other, we’ll — hopefully, knocking very hard on wood — meet again at our beloved places in person, safe and celebrating.
I’ve been taking the opportunity to break a bad habit of always ordering the same thing from my favorite spots, and branching out brought me to the sopa de albondigas ($12, half-bowls available) from Capitol Hill’s family-owned Fogón. The tortilla soup ($10) is hard to pass up, so I just got both — why not? What is anyone waiting for anymore? And the meatball soup proved to be an understated, homestyle masterpiece: glossy, tomato-colored chicken broth that’s peppery but herbal; carrot and zucchini cut in big, trunklike cross-sections that keep their integrity while attaining tenderness; not too much potato; and three large-gauge pork meatballs, coarse-ground and meaty yet also somehow light. Co-owner Noel Cortez says the albondigas are made with rice, which seems key, along with mint, spices and egg to bind. The onion, cilantro and lime served on the side should go right in for bite and brightness. And Fogón’s rightfully famous handmade tortillas also come with — soak them in the soup, like a piece of bread.
Cortez says that, to be honest, he’s not sure where the recipe came from, but that it’s pretty much the way his mom does it. (His parents run Pueblo Viejo, a little grocery in Monroe, and Fogón’s tortilla chips are made there.) Fogón also serves sopa de camaron, but Cortez says the meatball soup is his favorite.