While wearing my chef whites in Washington D.C. – the one place I’ve lived that’s actually hotter and more humid than St. Louis – I was always baffled by what the staff called the “soup phenomenon.”
You see, in just one night we could easily sell twelve or fifteen orders of our French onion soup. Every time an order came in I immediately stared out into the dining room, wondering who in the hell had wanted to cozy up to a brimming crock of magma hot soup when the heat index had hit 104 degrees earlier that afternoon.
I guess now that I’m on the other side of things as a diner I can finally understand the seemingly illogical draw of soup in summer.
For some reason it became my mission this past July to seek out some of the tastiest soups of St. Louis. On my list were three restaurants I had been meaning to try – Pho Grand, Mai Lee and Corner 17. The first two places have a loyal bunch of followers, or junkies if you will, that flock for the pho, which is one of my all-time favorite dishes. The latter of the group, Corner 17, has created quite a buzz as the newest addition to The Loop this summer, but was one I kind of unintentionally stumbled upon.
First up was the pho. If you’ve never had the pleasure, all you need to know is in the broth.
Now, in a good Vietnamese restaurant this is not just any ol’ stockpot that serves as the dumping ground for kitchen scraps. Rather, this beef broth is lovingly cared for by the chefs who softly simmer, skim and season it until all of the flavors are coaxed from the bones and aromatics. Once everything is strained, the liquid may look unpretentious and almost bland, but just wait.
The second step for pho is layering the ingredients (which in my bowl included rice noodles, shaved medium-rare eye of round, chunks of beef brisket, little homemade meatballs and tripe) and then pouring over the piping hot broth.
When this bowl hits the table you instantly forget about how sweaty you got on the walk from your car to the restaurant’s front door and allow a cloud of steam to give you a nice little facial. Now, before digging in with your chopsticks, you have to add the accoutrements synonymous with Vietnam – bean sprouts, Thai basil, mint, cilantro and limes. I add everything plus a little nuoc cham (Vietnamese hot sauce), loving the way it transforms the wafts of steam into a complex perfume.
Even though there’s a lot going on, if pho is done right the flavors should never taste overpowering or clunky. With every slurp you should be enjoying the delicate balance between the beef, noodles and herbs. Both Pho Grand and Mai Lee take great care to keep their recipes authentic, and you’ll be surprised how much you care too once you go check them out.
The next stop on my list was somewhat unexpected, but sometimes that is what makes food taste the best. It was a blistering hot afternoon and I found myself in the Delmar Loop running some errands when girls walking by with bubble teas caught my eye. Dear God, did those drinks with their extra-awesome neon green straws looking so satiating!
Before I knew it I had crossed the street and retraced their footsteps back to the door of Corner 17, the Loop’s newest Chinese restaurant.
Little did I know walking in that this was no Asian version of Jamba Juice, but rather a full-fledged noodle house complete with an adorable old lady stretching each noodle strand by hand in a little glass-windowed kitchen. Somehow, I wasn’t hot anymore (thanks A/C!) and was asking the waitress what soup she recommended.
Not 10 minutes later and I had a beautiful bowl ofbeef noodle soup before me. Armed with chopsticks in my right hand and spoon in my left I began to slurp my way through the dish.
The noodles were superb. Their elasticity was unlike anything achieved by Italians (sorry folks from The Hill) and they picked up a terrific amount of flavor from the broth.
Making my way through the soup, I discovered little jewels of beef short rib that quite literally melted when I bit into them. Just like the pho, I also ended up spicing up the mix with a little Chinese chili paste, which added a nice zing to the baby bok choy and broth.
So now that St. Louis is at a semi-chilly temperature, you should go explore the world of soup. Trust me, there’s much more than chicken noodle out there, so be adventurous and go fall in love with an often under-appreciated dish.