In the winter, soup can be the best kind of meal if it’s really done right. Good meal-soup fills you for hours, warms you to your bones, and has the added benefit of rehydrating any skin on your face that may have been dried out by driving winds or an over enthusiastic heating system. Some soups can even cure colds and flus (almost).
This is a guide to some of the best, MBTA accessible, affordable, dinner-sized meal-soups in Boston (and Cambridge.) Each has been defined; the experience of eating it described/reviewed; and then it has been ranked 1-5 on the following criteria:
Taste – How delicious is it? Is it addictive? Does it taste even better than foods that are not soups?
Value – Not necessarily always price, but bang-for-buck factor.
Fillingness – Is it really a meal? Will you feel full for a few hours afterwards, or do you need to eat something else with it to accomplish that goal?
Warming quotient – Can you walk for 25 minutes in 25 degree weather after eating it without getting cold?
Experience – That is unless just going to get the soup is an extraordinary experience, in which case walking 27 minutes in 25 degree weather or some other inconvenience might be worth it.
Steaminess and other health-giving qualities – Does the soup include a free facial? Can it cure cancer or reduce the discomfort of the common cold?
Soups are listed in order of their total scores, regardless of their genre or geographic origin, going from lowest to highest.
611 Dorchester Ave
Boston, MA 02127
Total: 20 (T=4 V=4 F=3 W=3 E=5 S=1)
Most of the soups available in Boston that are meant to be meals are Asian soups, but the Borschts and soup specials at Cafe Polonia in Dorchester are a highly notable exception. Borschts are an Eastern European specialty usually based on beet, but some variants have a tomato base or are “white” and feature potatoes and cabbage. Polonia typically has a couple of varieties depending on the whim of the chef, as well as a Beef Tripe Soup that is always on the menu. The prices are very right: $7 for on-the-menu soup, $5 for any of the soups du jour. But portion sizes are pretty small. The bowl is more of a large (double-handled) mug. Still, some of the soups are extremely hearty, and all are served with a basket of bread and smearable (chicken?) fat.
The Borscht on the menu is the thin (as in brothy) pink kind. It has no cabbage or shredded beets or anything like that, but the flavor is good, and what it lacks in finely chopped veggies, it compensates for with several chewy, flavorful, handmade mushroom ravioli-dumplings. Ask for sour cream to richen things up a bit and with the bread/fat, you’ve definitely got lunch, but not quite dinner. Some of the soup specials though, despite being small portions, could pass as dinner. The pickle soup is especially good: chunky, savory and tangy.
The steam factor here is low, but the soups seem abstractly healthgiving and the atmosphere is perfect. It feels equally authentically Old World Polish and authentically Townie. Be forewarned: if you order anything except for the soup, you will be stuffed for days. The only reason the soups are not enormous is because the entrees are. Cafe Polonia is a very short walking distance from the Andrew Square stop on the Red Line.
58 Harvard Ave
Boston, MA 02134
57 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Total: 23 (T=3 V=4 F=5 W=5 E=3 S=3)
Some say the Harvard Square branch of Kaju Tofu House is better than the original Allston branch, but the Cambridge branch doesn’t insulate its windows with bubble-wrap all classy, like the way the Allston branch does in the winter. It sounds tongue in cheek, but the bubble wrap actually looks very cool—kind of sci-fi. It also keeps all of the hot soup steam in the room, which is nice because if you head to Kaju Tofu House anytime after about 5 p.m. on most nights, chances are strong that you’ll be coming in from waiting outside in the cold for awhile. The soup steam and bubble-wrap are worth savoring, as they are the only real amenities here.
But soup is not really about ambience, and these $12.99 Korean tofu soups 100% fit the bill of being full-on dinner sized meals in and of themselves. Well, in and of themselves along with their traditional accompaniments: an egg, a bowl of rice, and a large collection of “banchan” (pickles, salads and kimchees.)
This style of soup (called “soondubu jjigae”) arrives at your table boiling and bubbling in a little caldron. Crack and drop your egg in quickly so that it will cook before it begins to cool, and then lean over and let the spicy smelling broth clear your sinuses. It will be a minute or two before it cools enough to eat. The base of the soup is reddish and filled with soft tofu, green onions, mushrooms and some less identifiable elements. The vegetarian option focuses on the mushrooms, collecting together several pungent varieties, and is just as flavorful, but slightly less rich than the meat options are. To put yourself in a position that involves waddling rather than walking home, try the Kimchee Beef soup. It has several dense, juicy layers of funk and heat that meet about halfway between being medicinal and indulgent. Kaju Tofu House is roughly a six minute walk from the Harvard Ave stop on the (B) Green Line.
80 Brighton Avenue
Allston, MA 02134
16 Tyler Street
Boston, MA 02111
Total: 26 (T=3 V=4 F=5 W=5 E=4 S=5)
Eating Shabu is as much a ritual activity as it is a soup, and Shabu-Zen does a great job of guiding you through the experience.
The process of eating Shabu involves making a lot of choices. First you have to pick a broth. To keep it cheap, choose a free house broth—veggie, chicken or pork. Or spend a few more bucks and try a spicy Mongolian version, a Japanese Miso-based broth, or the Chinese Herbal one if you’re fighting a cold. You usually get to pick two broths if you’re a party of two or more. Once the broth issue is settled, you’ll have to pick a meat, veggie or seafood. Choose what appeals. The lowest cost option is a pork or chicken main course, each at $12 (including a platter of tofu/veggies, noodles or rice, and bean-dessert) and there are upgrades and downgrades (a la carte options) galore. If you eat meat, and have the cash to spare, the finer cuts of beef are often worth it. It is also perfectly legitimate to order one or two “main courses” to share among people. Finally, you must choose a starch (udon, vermicelli or steamed Jasmine rice) for each main course order.
After all of the decisions, you can rest for about seven minutes while a giant pot of broth is brought to your table, your table stove is turned on, and everything comes to a boil. Then it’s time to plop individual vegetables and finely cut strips of meat or chunks of seafood or tofu into your broth one at a time, and then to supervise them like children in a swimming pool until they are cooked enough to be fished back out and plopped into your personal little bowl with noodles or rice, freshly chopped garlic, green onions, chili peppers and some broth. Then slurp/chopstick from your little bowl into your mouth, and repeat the whole process. Eventually you get a rhythm going so that something is always cooking while you’re eating, and you’re eating while things cook, until suddenly you’re completely full—absolutely packed. But the broth pot is bottomless, so no need to stop until you’re certain you can’t eat any more.
The broths themselves range in richness and flavorfulness, as does the meat and the other cookable stuff, but the experience is of the extreme-steam variety and Shabu ranks right up there with its better known cousin Vietnamese Pho for beating back cold weather and the common cold.
Each Shabu-Zen location is about a five minute walk from an MBTA train stop. The Allston location is close to Packard’s Corner on the (B) Green Line and the Chinatown location is near the Tufts Medical Center stop on the Orange Line.
86 Bedford St
Boston, MA 02111
Total: 27 (T=4 V=5 F=5 W=5 E=3 S=5)
Gene’s has long been a foodie favorite for its hand-pulled noodle dishes, but the soups are worth considering separately as winter meal-soups as long as you can get yourself there before 6:30 p.m. (7 p.m. on Saturday). Once you’ve walked the five or so minutes from the Downtown Crossing stop on the Red or Orange Lines and glided through the plastic baleen entry way, you can either eat in or take out, and there are two soups to choose from. The obvious bargain is the $6.50 House Noodle Soup. It’s large, steamy, and packed with potatoes, peas, green beans, meat and skinny handmade noodles. It can serve as dinner, but you might need a late night snack.
If you want to insure that a soup-meal eaten at 5 or 6 p.m. will last you straight through until the next day, spend $11 and get the Lamb Hand-Pulled Noodle Soup. This features the thick Xi’an-style noodles (or is it one long noodle?) that Gene’s is famous for, plus thin, fatty slices of lamb, a chewy semi-translucent mushroom, and yellow-green shoots of some kind topped with with fresh cilantro. The broth is thin and has hints of cinnamon and star anise along with a slightly spicy reddish (chili?) oil on top.
The steam will easily fog any eyeglasses within a two foot radius, and the soup needs to cool slightly before it can be eaten. During this waiting period, and throughout the 45 minutes or so that it takes to eat, the noodles will continue to cook and the fat from the lamb will slowly become one with the broth. You will have no trouble finishing the giant noodle (or noodles?) and the eating of the lamb and veggies will go fairly quickly as well, but you will be racing against an inexplicable stupification process in your efforts to finish the broth. The broth becomes more dense at the same time that you do, so as you near the end of the bowl, you have to consider whether or not you will be able to make it home without falling asleep if you finish completely. Recommended as a cure for anxiety or insomnia, as well as cold weather. It’s actually unclear whether this soup really fills you up all night, or just puts you to sleep so quickly after eating it that you never have a chance to get hungry again.
1923 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02140
Total: 30 (T=5 V=5 F=5 W=5 E=5 S=5)
This article was going to focus exclusively on meal-soups available in Boston proper, but an exception had to be made because of Yumo Wo Katare. Yumo Wo Katare is only about a two minute walk from the Porter Square stop on the Red Line, but you should dress warmly if it’s a cold night because there is not a chance in hell that you aren’t going to be standing outside waiting for at least 20 minutes no matter what time you arrive. In fact, be sure to call or check their website before heading out because they aren’t open every night, and they occasionally run out of soup before their official closing time of 11 p.m.
At Yumo Wo Katare there is really only one option: a steaming bowl of Ramen. Your only choices are what size to get and whether or not to add freshly chopped garlic. The “regular” size is enormous, and the “small” is humane. All bowls are the same size, the options just refer to how many of the chewy, freshly made noodles are piled into them, and how many pieces of pork belly rest on top of this. The smallest small includes a half portion of noodles (about the size of a baby’s head) and two giant pieces of pork belly. The largest large includes a double portion of noodles and five giant pieces of pork belly. Say yes to the freshly chopped garlic unless you’re allergic or something—it quickly cooks in the steaming bowl and melts seamlessly into the soy-based broth along with the pork fat, some bean sprouts and cabbage.
But this isn’t just a meal-soup—it’s also kind of a conceptual art experience. After the freezing phase of waiting in line, you’ll be carefully guided single-file into the very small storefront restaurant to wait for an actual eating spot. You’ll hand over $12 dollars in cash (or $14 if you’re going big) and breathe in secondhand steam while you wait for someone at one of three rows of bench seating facing the chef to either finish or give up on finishing their bowl. If they finish, they get a room-wide cheer for doing “perfect” and if they don’t, they still get a “good job” cheer. (Unless you cheat and share a piece of your meat with someone else, in which case your eating skills are smiled at, but not cheered. Just a warning.) You will also be offered an opportunity to share your life’s dream with everyone in the room, and some people stand up and do it.
Even without the experiential components, this is the best and most unusual Ramen in town. It will heal any ill you walked in with, and will keep you full and warm for three or four hours easy.