It's cold now. It's decidedly more difficult these days to get out of your warm bed in the morning and into the shower. Last night, before you went out, you had to fish out your jacket from the back of the closet. It's that time of year: soup season. So here are ten great soups to enjoy in OC. The list also contains a few noodle soups as well as some congee, because, well, you can never have enough of either, especially when it's soup season.
1. Tofu Soup at Tasty Thai
Tasty Thai has but one cook. You'll know this because you'll say to hi to the guy when you go through the kitchen on your way to the restroom. That one cook produces a menu as crowded with dishes it might as well be a Thai food encyclopedia. You'll need at least several months to explore even a fraction of that list; but his simple tofu soup is a dish that makes the place essential, even if that was the only thing he served. The broth is the kind that at first glance, doesn't appear to be anything special, but you'd be dead wrong to assume so. It is, in fact, a nectar so unbelievably good, it trumps their Tom Yum Goong or Tom Kha Gai. Unlike those soups, which relies on a souring agent and coconut milk, this broth is pure in its clearness and intent: to animate the silken cubes of tofu and invigorate the boiled greens and carrots.
2. Soondubu at Doore
DooRe does one of the better pots of soondubu in Irvine. The second you receive custody of the soup, crack a raw egg into it, then tuck the yolk under the layers of boiling soybean custard, meat bits, and broth. Let it sink to the bottom to be swaddled in the warmth. By the time you slurp your way back to the egg, it'll be soft poached, ready to be spooned up with the rest of the meal, which will include at least a half dozen smaller dishes call panchan. So nibble on a cooling celery salad here, a wiggly cube of jelly there. The whole meal would not be complete without rice, here served in lidded metal bowls. You can technically just ask for one tofu soup to share, which comes with one bowl of rice. Then, just order another bowl for a buck, which instantly stretches the meal to become a two-fer.
3. Tom Yum Kha Gai at Thai Nakorn
Two soups you should never pass up ordering at Thai Nakorn are the tom yum kah gai and the tom yum kung. The tom yum kah gai is the milder of the two, but not by much. The level of heat, no matter how hot, will be tempered by a good dousing of creamy coconut milk, going on stealth mode because of it. The first sip twangs with the tartness of lime, the sugar, and the distinctly herby touch of galangal and lemongrass which hid behind a silky screen of sultry coconut milk. On the second sip, the raucous heat of Thai chili begins to hit you. By the third, a numbing sensation from the chiles creeps in. You'd be tempted to muffle the heat with a mouthful of rice.
4. Corn Chowder at California Fish Grill
Every once in a while, the California Fish Grill chain puts out specials that we wish were permanent. The corn chowder is one of them. The last time they served it, they ladled it in two sizes of bowls at the Irvine store. The orange-tinged brew is not unlike the clam chowder, except it's seafood-free (grilled shrimp can be added for a nominal fee) and has a deeper, slightly spicier flavor in its milky-thick soup. What it lacks in protein it makes up in fire-roasted bits of corn, whose char can be seen in the generous amount of kernels suspended in the liquid. It is not obvious whether the restaurant makes it in-house or if it's from a supplier, but who cares when it's this good. Let's just hope they start offering again and more permanently. 5. Sweet Corn Soup at Raya
Raya's sweet corn soup is a seasonal offering, so they may not serve it right now. But when they do, find it unassembled so you can appreciate all that goes into it, like a Ferrari dealer giving you a peek under the hood before handing you the key. On the plate are the soup components for your joy ride: a perfectly cooked clam; tiny tufts of crab and lobster meat; puréed avocado in an artful swipe; a truffled masa dumpling that looks like a tater tot; and, finally, a black blot of puréed huitlacoche, the corn fungus that launched a thousand hilarious gross-out blog posts (though it's really nothing to be scared of). All could easily constitute a gourmet-plated dish unto itself, but then, when you give the signal, your server drowns it with the gold liquid of the creamed corn soup poured from a gravy boat. Your first sip is astoundingly silky. On your second, you realize it's as fun as an Etch A Sketch. Flick your spoon one way, the inky huitlacoche streaks through the yellow soup like a calligrapher's quill on parchment. Flick it another way, and you're reacquainted with the salty flecks of crab meat you met earlier. Figure out how you'll pay for the rest of the dinner later.
6. Chiu Chow Rice Noodle Soup at Trieu Chau
This is a noodle soup's noodle soup. Though it may be seem Vietnamese, the dish is credited to Chinese who immigrated from, where else, the Chiu Chow region. Bowls at Trieu Chau aren't for the faint of heart. You'll find liver in it -- big, inelegant chunks that tastes of, well...liver. As for poultry, don't expect cleanly sliced white breast meat. Here they use nothing but dark meat chicken and duck pieces, still on the bone, and hacked haphazardly with a cleaver with a flagrant disregard to the location of the animal's actual joints. As an inevitable consequence, you might find occasional fragments of bone in the soup. Spitting them out into a napkin is not frowned upon; it's expected. The meat that clings to those bones is perfect, especially enjoyable when there's still scraps of its gelatinous skin attached. Shrimp, meat balls, fish cake, and an uncharacteriscally lean hunk of pork completes the protein-heavy bowl. But it's the broth that ties it all together--a marvelously hot, glorious, mouth-filling nectar wrung from the soul of bird and hog. I'm not sure if MSG is involved (probably) but for sure the fried garlic bits contribute to the umami, exploding in bursts of flavor.
7. Congee at Capital Seafood
Jook. Porridge. Arroz caldo. Congee. Gruel. It takes on many names. A roommate once made it by accident when he put too much water in the rice cooker and we made fun of him; but when it's intentional, congee has bits of meat, fine juilennes of ginger, a sprinkle of scallions and is best served when you yearn for the simple and the comforting. No, it's not technically soup, but it's just as good. And oh how you'll want this when it's nippy out, especially the one Capital Seafood at the Irvine Spectrum serves in a big honking bowl if you ask for it during dim sum. Ladle a bowl's worth, gulp it down, and feel the all-enveloping sensation of the starchy goop warm you from the inside out. If there's a secret ingredient, it has to be that ginger. It transforms what's potentially bland and boring into a substance worthy of a better name than gruel. 8. Any Soup at Cafe Hiro
One of OC's great constants is Cafe Hiro, where you can get a expertly constructed meal of Japanese-Italian-French origins for not much more than $20 that already includes a salad, and Chef Hiro Ohiwa's soup of the day. Even if it weren't part of the meal, the soup is always reason enough to visit. The carrot soup is dreamy; the kabocha one, silken; the potato, perfumed of curry. Pictured is the minestrone, which is probably one of the best ones of all--light, wholesome, and comforting as a blanket.
9. Pho at Pho Thanh Lich
The room smells of the sour tang of dried mops, mildewed dish rags and sweat. There are what appear to be Christmas garlands left up from holidays long forgotten. Around you, like-minded thrifty souls gather, the restaurant filling up the later it gets. Here, like nowhere else, there's the feeling of community among strangers, a shared experience of something good, something special: the pho. Here is pho as pho is meant to be: cheap, hot and good. Thanh Lich's soup is a wondrous elixir of clearness, ladled out from vats as tall as a desk chair, a pot simmered long and slow, inside the vessel is a liquid lovingly looked after. It's poured scalding onto the clumped mound of noodles at a palate-singing temperature. Deep is the flavor, a tang, a freshness, a beef juice diluted to a brew as invigorating to slurp as the beach air is to breathe. The whole bowl tells the story of beef, with the broth the constant narrator and the cuts of cattle, from the very tender to the very, very tender, an indispensable character list of protagonists. Tai, rare steak, just melts. Beef tendons get boiled down to an aspic-like gel. And the tripe tastes as tripe should taste, with some of its barnyard stink still distinguishable. The toppings, they almost don't really matter. Bean sprouts, the saw-tooth herb, basil, lemon and jalapeño become chatter, noise, interruptions to a symphony that already has the harmony in place. Above all, this soup doesn't inhibit the kind of thirst lesser pho broths do, a sign of its uncompromising pedigree and lack of MSG, a known and oft-abused shortcut that's unthinkable here.
10. Ramen at Santouka
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Santouka's ramen broth is a soup that transcends soup. The elixir has so many layers, both figuratively and literally. The first layer is a melted, glimmering substrate of pork fat, insulator to the milky, sweet and rich super-broth beneath. The fat fulfills a dual purpose: it keeps the soup hot throughout your slurps, and to the still-chewy noodles you lift out of the bowl, it coats the strands in flavor, acting like lubricant that hastens the next mouthful. The rest of the bowl is an immaculately arranged piece of art, full of color and contrasting textures: bamboo shoots snap noisily, the pork is tender, cut generously thick; but it's that broth that'll sustain you, invade your senses and make you very, very happy. Every sip of it seems like a meal in and of itself.