Desperately Seeking Soup

Insatiable

A delicious curry dish Thai Xing

Cold weather sent us in search of soup. Thick and hearty, rich and brothy. We needed a reprieve from DC’s damp winter days. We found great soup, but along the way....

Come for the Soup, Stay for the Pork Belly Pizza

Ulah Bistro (1214 U St. NW, www.ulahbistro.com) has been on my list to try for a while. From the owner of Tunnicliff’s on the Hill and Station 4 in Southwest, Ulah feels as comfortable in your suit right from the office as it does in your good jeans. I walked in to a warm greeting and tempting look at the menu from manager Kathleen Bohrer. 

My friend Greg arrived and we sat down to take the menu out for a spin by ordering far too much food. We started light with a bowl of gratineèd French onion soup and a roasted pork belly pizza from their wood-fired oven. My definition of good French onion soup is rich with slow caramelized onions and hours-long steeped stock. It gets a sharp balance from gruyere, melted crisply down over the sides of the bowl. A splash of brandy or sherry gives depth to balance the caramelized sweetness. Ulah’s did not fail me. However, it was eclipsed by the pizza that came next.

The soup never had a chance. A crisp brick oven crust was topped with caramelized onions, gorgonzola cheese, sweet fig preserves, bright, peppery arugula, and, of course, pork belly. Unlike newsboy hats, this darling of the hipster scene just never gets old.

Boxing up half the pizza, at Kathleen’s suggestion we next ordered the braised lamb fettuccini. The slow-cooked lamb shank was tender and gamey, paired perfectly with a port wine reduction and balanced by the sharp bite from curls of parmesan cheese. I’d love to tell you that the leftover pizza tasted just as good the next day, but we ate it as soon as we returned home.

Come for the Soup, Stay for the Empanadas

The next day I met a friend at Union Market (1309 5th St. NE, www.unionmarketdc.com) for a cup of coffee (Peregrine Espresso, if you’re wondering. www.peregineespresso.com). Walking toward DC Empanadas, I was waved over, from behind the counter, by my friend Mikey Torres. In addition to managing their stall at Union Market, Chef Mikey makes all the soups they sell both there and from their food trucks. 

That week he had cooked up a batch of tom kha – spicy Thai coconut soup – one of my favorites. But Mikey’s was unlike any I had tasted before. The tom kha I typically eat is a rather coarse, but comforting, battle between rich, sweet coconut milk and spicy Thai chilies. This was far more subtle and complex. The balance of heat and fat was delicate: galangal, lemon grass, kafir lime leaf, and nam pla – fish sauce – gave this soup elegant depth.

My husband Jason knows that I would eat Asian food every day if I could, but I’ll have to wait a little while for another bowl. DC Empanada’s food trucks serve a different soup every week. Mikey’s repertoire includes Mexican tortilla soup, shrimp gumbo, and lamb chili. The menu changes seasonally and with the weather. Cold, wet week? Expect something hearty and rib-sticking.

The small pies DC Empanadas has built their name on also change weekly and seasonally. If you’ve got to have their basics – beef, pork, chicken, vegetarian, and cheese – you can always find them at Union Market. Founded by Guatemalan-born Anna and her husband, Shawn Leis, the business began with a food truck that continues to circulate DC each week. The locations and menu are available on Twitter. @DCEmpanadas tweeted out from Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol with vegetarian and shrimp teriyaki options for Lenten dining.

Come for the Beer, Stay for the Soup

It had been far too long since Mikey and I had gotten to sit down and catch up, so we booked a dinner date with our husbands for the following week. Our first stop was for a drink at Bistro Bohem (600 Florida Ave. NW, www.bistrobohem.com). 

My husband Jason and I met Mikey’s husband Dan and ordered impossible-to-pronounce beers and wines from countries too poor to afford vowels. Charming bartender Daniel graciously smiled through our butchered pronunciations. With soup on the brain I ordered a bowl of borscht off the daily specials. As we’ve experienced with their menu before, it was hearty peasant food, delicious and earthy, with large pieces of pork and cabbage, almost a stew. This is exactly what you want to walk into on a damp, cold winter day.

Come for Whatever They Feel Like Serving. Stay.

Running late from hand-shaping hundreds of wontons for a Chinese New Year soup, Mikey met us at Thai Xing (pronounced “crossing,” across the street at 515 Florida Ave. NW, www.thaixing.com). It’s not immediately clear how to enter the restaurant, located in a row house, but the awkwardness of opening a door and hitting the back of somebody’s chair is totally worth it.

Chef and owner Taw Vigsittaboot’s restaurant has a different menu each night: whatever he feels like cooking. Except for some nights offering fish and others fish or vegetarian dishes, you have no choices. You can’t even order a drink, which we discovered when they set glasses and a pitcher of water on the table.

Our table was in the front window: low stools and a divan comfortably huddled around a coffee table. We were asked if we wanted fish, and the dishes began to appear. The tom kha was delicious, hearty and simple (but I’ll take Mikey’s sophisticated take first, any day!).

The soup was followed by a papaya salad, bright citrus balanced with earthy, sweet peanut. Our waiter mumbled the name of the next dish, but we all decided that it was the Thai fish version of chicken nuggets. Next up? A whole fish.

Pompano is oily and tastes like the ocean. It’s not for sissies, but it won’t slap you upside the head like mackerel. Dan deftly filleted the fish and we enjoyed the perfectly cooked and seasoned meat. Two tofu dishes proved that tofu does not need to suck, and set the stage for the best dish of the night. 

I would miss the season finale of “Downton Abbey” for another plate of their pumpkin curry. Large, sweet chunks of squash were coated in a rich, spicy coconut milk sauce, lightened with fresh basil, bright with red curry paste. It was a hearty winter dish that never felt heavy. This may be why the good Lord put pumpkins on this earth.

The Punchline

We spent a month searching out soups. DC Empanadas came out clearly on top with their elegant take on tom kha. Ulah Bistro made us forget all about soup with their pork belly pizza, while Bistro Bohem made us forget the cold night with cold beer. Thai Xing made us forget our already tired New Year’s resolutions about serving two couples enough food for four families. The best moment of our gluttonous night was the bill. The entire evening at Thai Xing was $30 a head. With fat and happy wallets we headed back to Daniel for another drink.

Jonathan Bardzik is a demo chef and food writer in Washington, DC. When fresh produce returns to Eastern Market you can find him cooking outside each Saturday morning. To find out what Jonathan and his husband Jason eat at home when they are not dining go to his blog, www.whatihaventcookedyet.com, or his Facebook page of the same name.