Food Fight: Battle Takeout Soup Bar
When the weather gets cold - and stays cold - there's nothing like a piping hot bowl of soup. Sometimes you're in the mood for chicken pho. Other times it's tortilla soup. Or maybe French onion soup. Or maybe split pea soup from a packet. (Hey, what can we say? We love soup.)
Whole Foods' cioppino on the left, Central Market's clam chowder on the right.
Still other times you want soup at home, but can't (or don't want to) cook for yourself. Or maybe you can't decide which kind of soup you want. Times like these were made for takeout from a soup bar. Unlike other EOW bloggers, I'm not a fan of Sweet Tomatoes (aka Souplantation). It's not that I hate franchise restaurants or all-you-can-eat soup and salad places. I happen to love Dunkin' Donuts, and if I lived near a Soup R' Crackers, I might eat there every day. I simply think Sweet Tomatoes has crummy food. Also, it's against nature to order takeout from an all-you-can-eat restaurant.
When it comes down to it, I can't think of many places with soup bars, quality soup, and a wide selection. There's Central Market, Whole Foods, and ... and ... help me out here! Some of the Flagship Randalls and Signature Kroger's have soup bars, but they are small and a bit woebegone. And while numerous fast-casual places, including La Madeleine and Black Walnut Cafe, sell soups to go, they only offer a few choices.
Central Market has a single large soup bar with 10 large pots of soup. The selection varies daily, among 20 or so possibilities. Yesterday, the choices were Cauliflower Cheddar Soup, Tortilla Soup, Butternut Squash Bisque, Broccoli and Cheddar Soup, New England Clam Chowder, Chili Con Carne (without beans!), Poblano Corn Chowder, Vegetable Minestrone, and Roasted Tomato Bisque. There is always at least one vegetarian soup, and typically a couple that are a bit spicy-hot (although it's always Mexican-style spicy). I have never seen an Asian-style soup or a stew, unless you count gumbo.
The soups range from excellent (the tomato bisque is sublime, and I don't particularly like tomato soup) to insipid (a few months ago, an alleged pasta e fagioli tasted like spaghetti water). The biggest problem is that the kitchen often has a heavy hand with the salt. But - and here's the genius of the system - you can taste the soups before you buy. Indeed, Central Market wants you to taste before you buy. They set out stacks of tiny plastic bowls so you can see what looks good and then make sure it actually is good. Yesterday I had the clam chowder, which was thick, rich, full of potatoes and clams, and (sigh) too salty.
Whole Foods's Kirby location has made the questionable decision to break up its soup bar thematically into three stations, each with six pots of soup. The first station offers "Seafood Soups and Chowders" (yesterday's selection: Butternut Squash Crab Bisque, Seafood Jambalaya Soup with Shrimp & Chicken, Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Alaskan Cod Chowder, Fisherman Style Cioppino, and Billi Bi Mussel Bisque). The second station features "Hearty Soups & Stews"(yesterday's selection: Beef Chili, Beef Stew, Blackeyed Pea Soup, Turkey Chili, Navy Bean Soup with Ham, and Chicken Tortilla Soup). The final station is unnamed, but offers vegetarian and lighter soups (yesterday's selection: Carrot Ginger Soup, Hot and Sour Soup, Tuscan Bean Soup, Curried Lentil Soup, Chicken Noodle Soup, and Tomato Basil Soup).
Unfortunately, when I visited, several of the soups had run out or were about to. This was at 5 p.m., when the store was full of people shopping for dinner. Unforgivable! Just as bad is that you can't taste any of the soups, although I suppose you could ask someone for help. Yesterday I got the cioppino, which was tangy and pleasantly briny, yet devoid of a single visible piece of seafood. I sure saw a lot of carrots, onions, celery, and red pepper though. And maybe the white specks used to be fish.
Central Market, in a split decision. Whole Foods wins on selection, and maybe even flavor (the jury's out), but what's the point when they run out so often and don't let you taste? Also, Whole Foods charges about 30 percent more. And having the soups split into three locations is annoying.