photo: courtesy of Swim Cafe; squash soup
It's time to bid farewell to light, delicate finger foods and welcome in hearty, fall-inspired soups. From West Town all the way to Skokie, Chicagoans (and suburbanites, no less) are going nuts for hot bowls of broth and creamy concoctions. We've selected some of our favorites, from a carrot-ginger combo to Vietnamese pho; and for foodies who go gaga over gourd, we dug up more than enough butternut squash to go 'round, too.
A Jewish standby at Bagel (Old Orchard Shopping Center)
If a trip to the Old Orchard Mall doesn't leave you loving Skokie, then you haven't been to the Bagel. Enter this classic Jewish restaurant, full of vintage movie posters and handsome wooden decor, and inhale the too-strong granny perfume while watching dedicated customers (who are probably older than this restaurant) sink into warm, thick slices of challah bread and hot matzoh ball soup. Avoid anything with "veggie burger" in the title, open your menu and, oy gevalt, order the freakin' matzoh! Soon you'll see why everyone here treats the Bagel as their home away from home. Take a pint to-go for $4 or go all-out with an $8 quart.
Seasonal switcheroos at Swim Cafe
You know Swim Cafe for its trademark, hand-painted wave benches and underwater theme, but did you know about its ever-changing organic soup offerings? Owners Ken and Karen Gerod buy their herbs from the Green City Market and veggies from a personal gardener in Humboldt Park, so all ingredients are local and organic. "We don't really have recipes or plan soups in advance; it's really about whatever is in-season and on-hand," says Ken. One day, chef Dianna Ryan created a psychedelic soup made from purple cauliflower, black walnuts and a thick potato base. The next day, she created a butternut squash soup, so you never know what tomorrow will bring. No matter what, at $3.50 a bowl, you'll be swimmingly surprised.
Downright gourmet at Sweet Bean and More
This cafe on Diversey Avenue, where former Graze chef Grant Carter makes stocks from scratch, is at once both gourmet and laid-back. Fall fever has no doubt hit Carter, who was in the middle of cooking an organic butternut squash soup when we spoke via phone. When he searches for that perfect autumn veggie, Carter usually ventures over to the local farmers market or to Stanley's Fruits and Vegetables to buy whatever is in season. Other warm delights that pop up on his soups-to-make list include carrot ginger, eggplant or black bean varieties, though he, "never plans more than two or three days in advance."
A Vietnamese-take on a classic at Tank Noodle (Pho Xe Tang)
If you're looking for an Asian version of your Western grandma's chicken soup, check out the chicken pho ga at this Vietnamese standby. Pho soup originated in Vietnam and, depending on whom you ask, was influenced by French and/or Chinese cooking. Mixed with beef, onions, garlic, anise, ginger and thin Vietnamese rice noodles, the beef-based broth tastes slightly sweet. About 30 seconds after you order, a server brings over a giant plate of fresh basil, saw leaves, bean sprouts and jalapenos for you to add to your bowl as desired. Snatch the hoison and hot sauce, squirt generous amounts of both into the soup and slurp it all up for less than $7.