Food Fight: Battle Tortilla Soup
My name is Ruthie, and I am a soupaholic. Hot soups, cold soups, broths and purees. Hot weather or cold. Any time of day, every season in the calendar. It can be canned or homemade... borscht, gazpacho or Campbell's Chicken and Stars. I never outgrew Top Ramen. There's no support group for people like me. And until there is, I will continue to feed my soup addiction at every restaurant around town.
Tortilla soup has always been a favorite. And you know there's some great ones in Houston, a town fanatical for Tex-Mex. It's a step up from the classic chicken soup, adding a bit of southwestern flair in the form of chilies and spice, but the real pleasure of the soup lies in the various garnishes and iterations. I love the chunky avocado, the smoky peppers, the starburst of cilantro, and the satisfying crunch of the sprinkled-on tortilla strips -- but each restaurant does it differently. And while it's easy to make and customize your own version at home (Rick Bayless has my favorite recipe), there are oodles of outstanding versions around town for the sampling.
This week's Food Fight features two well-loved and semi-longstanding Houston restaurants: Chuy's and El Rey. And considering their *diehard* fan bases, I'm almost too scared to pen the results.
I've never been a huge fan of Chuy's and its obsession with all things Elvis, but the atmosphere is friendly and upbeat, and the menu certainly has redeeming qualities to it. I dislike that many dishes there are slathered in superfluous amounts of cheese, as if to disguise the quality of the contents below, but I do love some of the sauces and salsas. The Hatch Green Chili sauce, for example, is totally kickin'.
But onto the main event. The Tortilla Soup at Chuy's is a thing of beauty, a golden broth studded with avocado, corn, strings of fresh chicken, tomatoes, chili peppers, cheese and cilantro. The broth is the backbone of any tortilla soup, and this version has just an ounce of complexity to it. It's neither salty nor watery, but rather serves as an excellent canvas to showcase the handful of fresh ingredients within. The whole package is semi-picante and fully delicious. It's precisely the kind of soup that you'd want to soothe a head cold or subdue a sore throat. It's warm, delicious and comforting. Keep that in mind as we approach sick season.
El Rey is a teensy counter-service joint on Washington at Shepherd that has a list of evangelists a jabillion miles long. I've never quite understood the unwavering devotion people hold for this place, as my three or four meals here have all been mediocre at best. But several friends swear by the tortilla soup so wholeheartedly that even suggesting that another version might be better sends them into waves of anaphylactic shock. That's pretty much how I feel about the macaroni 'n cheese at Luby's, so I get where they're coming from.
El Rey's Tortilla Soup is simple and straightforward. There are no fancy-like ingredients clouding the flavor. It's just a brown broth filled with avocado, cheese, tortilla strips and giganto-colossal hunks of tender rotisserie chicken. Seriously? There might have been a whole hen in that bowl. The chicken is a definite winner... But while the soup's innards offered both quality and flavor, El Rey's version stumbles at the most basic level: The broth needs a-fixin'. That stuff is Dead Sea salty.
Chuy's tortilla soup excelled in every category, while El Rey's failed kindergarten. Chuy's version is happy, hearty and healthy. It's a soup I'd be happy to go back for, especially now that the temperatures have dropped to below atomic.