At life’s weak moments, the right soup can right wrongs, lift spirits, even make a bad head cold seem tolerable — for the moment, anyway.
There is something about a well-made soup that nourishes and soothes both body and soul. Fortifying and life-affirming, soup can be almost magical, a spell cast in thousands of flavors and foundations.
In Houston, we’re lucky to draw on the riches of all our indigenous and latter-day cuisines to make up our dazzling soup repertoire. Mexico, Louisiana and the Deep South have long contributed to the oeuvre, and a rich spectrum of Asian traditions now chimes in.
Simply put, there has never been a better Houston era for the consumption of soups. And optimal time to enjoy them is right now, in the unpredictable depth of midwinter.
Here are some of our favorite — or dare we say “super”? — bowls to add to your life list.
Posole Verde at Cuchara
Some Houstonians swear by red pozole when the weekend rolls around, a traditional time to serve this Mexican hominy soup. But at Cuchara’s lively brunch , which feels like a mini-vacay in Mexico City, it’s the verdant green chicken pozole that haunts: its green-chile-spiked broth earthy and alive, its hominy kernels nice and springy, its textures animated by lots of fresh add-ins. Squeeze in some lime juice, some crunchy radish and onion, some leafy cilantro. Crumble in some crackly fried mini-tortillas. It’s a dance in a bowl.
Details: $12, weekend brunch only; 214 Fairview; 713-942-0000; cuchararestaurant.com
French Onion Soup at Maison Pucha Bistro
There’s nothing so suited to winter as the savor and cheesy stretch of a well-made French onion soup. This letter-perfect version, by French-trained Ecuadoran chef Manuel Pucha, gets its gravitas from deeply caramelized onions, mahogany broth touched with a tinge of espelette pepper and just the right quotient of elastic Alpine cheese. Bonus: It sidesteps the common over-sweetness trap, and its baguette crouton doesn’t fight back.
Details: $10; 1001 Studewood; 713-637-4976; maisonpucha.com
Chicken Avgolemono at Niko Niko’s
Niko Niko’s owner Dimitri Fetokakis omits the usual egg whisked into the clear, lemony avgolemono — it’s how his Greek mother did it. That only amplifies this sunny soup’s curative powers. The key is generous amounts of dill and the perfect ratio of broth to elements (chicken, rice, shredded carrot, onion, celery). With pita slices for soaking and an extra squeeze of lemon, it’s a day-brightening gift.
Details: $6.50; 1040 W. Sam Houston Pkwy. N. (832-981-4976), 2520 Montrose (713-528-4976) and 301 Milam (in Market Square Park); nikonikos.com
Tonkotsu Ramen at Ramen Bar Ichi
The creamy, five-hour tonkotsu Kurobuta pork broth exhibits a level of richness and depth of flavor that can only be achieved with true mastery of the ramen craft. Add thin, Hakata-style noodles and toppings — fresh-scorched chasu pork belly slices, wood-ear mushrooms, marinated bamboo shoots, a tuft of green onion and a sheet of crisp nori seaweed — to balance out the broth. A joy to slurp to the very last drop.
Details: $11; 1801 S. Dairy Ashford, Suite 108; 281-531-7980; ramenbarichi.com
Honorable mentions: Spicy Miso Ramen at Tiger Den; Spicy Soy Ramen at Kata Robata
Southern Bean Stew at Better Luck Tomorrow
A vegan soup filling enough to be a whole meal, served at a cocktail bar co-owned by a James Beard Award-winning chef? Yep, and we never get tired of eating it. The heart of the lively, tomatoey stew base is the “beans” — chef Justin Yu switches between black-eyed peas and purple hull peas. The nourishing arteries are wilted greens (currently an Italian variety of lacinato kale, sometimes collards) and caramelized carrot cubes. Mixed together, it’s soul-satisfying stuff.
Details: $14 for a bowl; 544 Yale; 713-802-0845;
Snapping Turtle Soup at Brennan’s of Houston
The turtle soup has been on the menu since Brennan’s opened here in 1967. And it remains one of the joyous constants of celebratory dining in Houston, a roux-dark swamp of haute-Creole magic. Enriched with veal stock and livened with lemon juice, this bracing, voluptuous elixir — with its traditional splash of dry sherry at the table — is, by all rights, legendary.
Details: $10; 3300 Smith; 713-522-9711; brennanshouston.com
Kimchi Soft Tofu Soup (Soondubu Jjigae) at Korean Noodle House
Soondubu jjigae can come with mushroom, seafood or beef. But at Korean Noodle House, the kimchi version is the standout. Using house-made, 2-week-old fermented kimchi, owners Raymond and Myung Kim cook the kimchi in a beef broth base to yield a thick, pleasingly pungent liquid. King Oyster mushroom and radish are added for texture. The soup arrives at the table in a bubbling cauldron. Glorious.
Details: $11.50; 10016 Long Point; 713-463-8870
Honorable mention: Soondubu Jjigae at Jang Guem Tofu and BBQ House
Red Lentil Soup at Empire Turkish Grill
This classic central Anatolian-style lentil soup matches the Memorial dining room’s serenely genteel environs. Puréed but not quite, tomato paste helps smooth the gritty texture of the lentils, and it’s all gently lifted by a bit of mint and balancing spritz of lemon. An ideal precursor to a grilled-meat platter — or as a hearty lunch, given a basket of fresh-baked, sesame-laden Turkish bread.
Details: $4.50; 12448 Memorial, 713-827-7475; empireturkishgrill.com
Honorable mention: Lentil and Sausage Soup at Carrabba’s
Wagyu Pho at Saigon House
Chef Tony Nguyen’s oxtail pho broth — oxtail and beef bones simmered for 12 hours with spices and aromatics — is intense. His Wagyu Pho is next level. Nguyen grills paper-thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth Marble Ranch beef, then serves them rare atop a bed of fresh noodles. With copious amounts of green onion and gold flakes for pizazz, the bowl is then carried to the table where the broth is poured table-side.
Details: $17.99, 3101 Main; 713-529-1100; saigonhousehouston.com
Honorable mention: Pho Dac Biet at The Pho Spot; Vegan Pho at Les Noo’dle
Smoked Chicken Tortilla Soup at Tribute
It starts with a stock made with chicken feet, then the bones of smoked chicken, then a spicy undertow of dried guajillo and ancho peppers. Onion and tomato, too, naturally. That’s the essential broth to chef Neal Cox’s revelatory bowl of goodness that will spoil you for any other tortilla soup in town. It’s poured over house-smoked chicken meat, fried corn tortillas and other goodies. Don’t pass on the honey butter yeast rolls.
Details: $10; The Houstonian Hotel, 111 N. Post Oak; 713-685-6713; houstonian.com
Niku Udon at Ishin Udon
Restaurateur Mike Tran offers a variety of broths and toppings at Ishin Udon, from Kakuni udon topped with pork belly to Kanuki udon topped with tempura. But the Niku, or beef udon, is the real winner. Served in a slightly sweet dashi and topped with a generous helping of thinly sliced, marbled beef, the thick wheat noodles have a wonderful slippery elasticity that make them super fun to eat.
Details: $8.50; 9630 Clarewood, Suite A15-B; 713-239-2955
Mole De Olla (Oxtail Soup) at Hugo’s
Served in fall and winter, this richly beefy oxtail soup is like some supernal caldo de res. Tender oxtail with traces of sumptuous, gelatinous connective tissue meets roasty zucchini, crisp seared green beans and spears of baby corn in a brick-red beef broth energized with just a bit of guajillo chile. Those aren’t mushroom caps bobbing around — they’re cushy yellow and blue corn dumplings. Add some cilantro, onion and a squirt of lime if you like, but this soup is magnificent as is.
Details: $14; 1600 Westheimer; 713-524-7744; hugosrestaurant.net
Borscht at Riel
On the menu since it opened two years ago in Montrose, the warm borscht at Riel is pure beet immersion. Chef Ryan Lachaine uses salt-roasted beets as the vegetal base but adds a tinge of maple syrup, true to his Canadian roots. Veal stock, tomatoes and a touch of vinegar bring depth and complexity to the bowl, topped with grated fresh horseradish, crème fraîche and dill.
Details: $10; 1927 Fairview; 832-831-9109; rielhtx.com
Seafood Gumbo at Floyd’s Cajun Seafood
Houston is not really a great gumbo town. (Sorry, it’s true.) Still, there are plenty of spots to get your fix. We love this one for its deeply flavorful, tar-colored roux and for the amount of protein — chunks of crab meat and multiple plump, well-cooked shrimp — packed into even a small cup. It’s more brothy than porridgelike and doesn’t get bogged down in frivolous vegetables outside a bit of a green onion garnish. Rice comes on the side for personal customization, along with lagniappe toasted garlic bread.
Details: $5.95 for a cup, $8.95 for a bowl; 20760 Interstate 45 S., Webster; 281-332-7474; other locations in Cypress, Pearland and Sugar Land; floydscajunseafood.restaurant
Honorable mention: Seafood and sausage gumbo at The Rouxpour; seafood gumbo at Goode Company Seafood
Vietnamese Duck Noodle Soup at Le Colonial
Everything about this soup is extraordinary. Executive chef Hassan Obaye cures Long Island Rohan duck for four days before roasting it until the skin glistens with a mahogany sheen. The fragrant, pure duck broth is prepared in the traditional French method, simmered with myriad spices. For the final product, duck breast is sliced and served atop al dente wonton egg noodles, with shiitake mushroom and bok choy and a side of colorful Vietnamese pickles.
Details: $22; 4444 Westheimer; 713-629-4444; lecolonialhouston.com
Honorable mention: Mi Vit Tiem at Thim Hing Sandwich
Minestrone at Damian’s Cucina Italiana
One of Italian cuisine’s iconic soups can be found at one of Houston’s iconic Italian restaurants. The minestrone is the original recipe from founder Damian Mandola — cabbage, potatoes, zucchini, squash, carrots, onion, celery and beans in a tomato-tinged chicken broth. Its simple purity and veggie goodness make it essential.
Details: $9.50; 3011 Smith; 713-522-0439; damians.com
Matzo Ball Soup at The Classic
The umami-rich broth, perhaps thanks in part to koji seasoning on the chicken, sets this soup above the fray. Stock is made fresh daily with hormone-free, non-GMO whole Red Bird chickens. The hand-rolled matzo balls — the Classic uses from-scratch matzo meal and duck fat instead of schmaltz — soak in the broth before the whole package, sprinkled with ample chives and shredded carrot, is delivered. Blessedly, the accompanying silver pot contains enough broth to refill your bowl twice.
Details: $5; 5922 Washington; 713-868-1131; theclassichouston.com
Honorable mention: Mishmosh Soup at Kenny & Ziggy’s; Matzo Ball Soup with noodles at New York Bagels
Shabu Shabu at Shabu Zone
Premium ingredients such as Heartbrand Wagyu beef, large freshwater prawns and fresh blue crab are only part of the draw at this busy shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot) buffet in Asiatown. A wide assortment of fresh vegetables, noodles, house-made sauces and a choice of seven broths (dashi, spicy original, miso, tonkotsu, shoyu, vegetable and sukiyaki) served in individual pots over a quick-heating induction burner make the all-you-can-eat experience so pleasurable you’ll want to repeat it, and often.
Details: $16.99 (lunch), $25.99 (dinner); 11201 Bellaire, Suite 2, 832-850-7849; shabuzone.com
Tortellini en Brodo at Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino
So simple. So gripping. That is the tortellini in brodo at Giacomo’s, where chef Lynette Hawkins’ housemade pasta ringlets swim in a clear, bracing mixed-bone broth that employs turkey, beef and chicken. The tortellini are stuffed with a mortadella, chicken and pork mix sharpened with salty Parmesan, so that they stand out in bold relief from the gentle, nourishing broth. It’s a contrast that captivates from the first spoonful to the last.
Details: $9.50; 3215 Westheimer; 713-522-1934; giacomosciboevino.com
Mien Ga at Pho Ga Dong Nai
Feeling puny, or dissatisfied? This chicken and cellophane-noodle soup is a deeply restorative outlier on pho specialist Pho Ga Dong Nai’s menu. Its powers spring from the exceptional clear, golden chicken broth that’s a stock in trade here, brewed slowly from the bones of Texas free-range, organic chickens. Then come soft, expressive chicken slices, savory-sweet shallots frizzled in garlic oil and slippery, transparent bean threads. Host Christine Dang likes to add big pinches of ground white pepper for a spicy grip that turns warm on the tongue.
Details: $7.95; 11528 Bellaire, Suite G; 281-530-2323; facebook.com/PhoDongNai
Menudo at Puebla’s Mexican Kitchen
Tripe isn’t everyone’s cup of soup. But if you like the classic Mexican “hangover soup” of tender hominy and supple tiles of beef tripe, Puebla serves its hearty menudo on Saturday. The slick red broth offers depth and complexity with luscious chile goodness flavored with oregano, garlic and onion. Perfecto.
Details: $9.99; 6320 N. Main, 713-426-9062; pueblasmexicankitchen.com
Honorable mention: Teotichuacan Mexican Cafe’s bracing bowl of spicy red magic.