The days have grown short and the nights have turned—okay, admittedly they haven’t turned that cold. But it’s still winter, the time to pull on a sweater and tuck into a soothing bowl of your favorite soup, even if you are still running the AC. Whether you want a regenerative helping of matzo balls in chicken broth or a decadent lobster curry, there’s a soup for your every craving in Houston. Here are some of our absolute favorites.
Red Lentil Soup
Istanbul Grill & Deli | Rice Village | istanbulgrill.com
The first thing to do is let the aroma of the mercimek, or red lentil soup, from longtime Rice Village haunt Istanbul Grill fill your senses—so much lemon! Tasting the tangy, nearly smooth creation, with its thick base of lentils, carrots, and just a hint of heat, will have you asking questions: Have you ever even tasted lemon before? And did you ever imagine something as prosaic as lentils could pack this much flavor? The dish comes with pide, the crusty Turkish flatbread that’s perfect for scooping up all that soup, and you can always add a side of lamb and vegetable lahmacun, the super-thin Turkish version of Italian-style pizza, for more carb-loaded goodness.
Niko Niko’s | Montrose | nikonikos.com
Like many Mediterranean foods, egg and lemon soup is common in multiple countries, but each has a distinct name and recipe. In Greece, where lemon is practically currency, it’s avgolemono, typically a chicken broth-based soup with egg and that yellow citrus, then meat and vegetables. Houston stalwart Niko Niko’s makes the definitive Bayou City iteration of this soup (listed on the menu as chicken avgolemono) a thin but savory broth with shredded chicken breast, rice, carrots, and celery, but—gasp—no egg, because owner Dimitri Fetokakis’s mother didn’t use or like eggs and he sticks to her recipe. But there is so much lemon it’s impossible to resist. It comes with a free side of pita bread for dipping.
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls
Kenny & Ziggy’s New York-Style Delicatessen | Uptown | kennyandziggys.com
Whether Passover is upon us or you just want to settle in with a comfortable and piping-hot bowl of matzo ball soup, let Houston’s foremost New York-inspired deli take care of you. K&Z starts with a salty chicken broth, adding in chopped celery and carrots, then svelte noodles and shredded poultry. Big and fluffy matzo balls come next. For a little extra home-style flair, we suggest a side order of potato pancakes (also known as latkes) with sour cream and apple sauce.
French Onion Soup
B.B. Lemon | Washington Avenue | bblemon.com
Scholars have debated the origin of French onion soup—whether it was invented by King Louis XIV or, more likely, just a cheap onion-packed way to nourish poor and nocturnal Parisians—but the end result is the same dish. It’s a combo of beef stock, butter, red cooking wine, and minced yellow onions, and it’s pure perfection, especially when served in a piping-hot crock as at New York-style eatery B.B. Lemon. Dig past the coating of gruyére and Parmesan that tops a crusty piece of sourdough, and out comes the salty, spoon-coating broth with caramelized onions, plus whatever dripping, melty mass of cheese and bread that comes along for the ride. Vive la France!
Gumbo and Deviled Potatoes
Cherry Block | Downtown | cherryblockbutcher.com
Here on the Texas Gulf Coast, gumbo is serious business. To that end, chef Jessica DeSham Timmons, who runs the ranch-to-plate concept Cherry Block with Felix Florez of Black Hill Meats, which opened in summer 2019 in Bravery Chef Hall, wasn’t interested in playing games when presenting her incredibly smoky take on the classic Cajun dish, loaded with andouille sausage and smoked ham hocks, thickened with a pork fat roux and given a silky boost when topped off with a scoop of mustard-based potato salad instead of the customary white rice. It’s the kind of gumbo that’ll change how you think about the Louisiana-invented staple.
Peanut Butter Soup
Afrikiko | Southwest Houston | afrikikohouston.com
With origins in West Africa, groundnut soup—also known as peanut butter soup—is a staple of the Ghanaian diet. Afrikiko, a humble strip-mall spot that’s cooked up Ghanaian delicacies for more than 15 years, makes its version with peanut butter, chopped bell peppers, diced onions, minced garlic, tomato sauce, and pepper. It’s pureed until absurdly smooth, salty, and sweet with a strong, nutty bite, and is best enjoyed with goat meat and fluffy, steaming-hot fufu (a sort of bread made from cassava or other root vegetables that have been boiled and pounded with hot water) for dipping.
Malwani Fish Curry
Musaafer |Galleria | musaaferhouston.com
Right along the Arabian Sea coastline is the South Konkan division of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Here is where you’ll find Malvani (or Malwani) cuisine, big on coconut and seafood like mackerel and assorted prawns. Here in Houston, the extravagant Galleria newcomer, Musaafer, showcases the diversity of Indian cuisine with a glamorous twist, including a traditional Malvani coconut curry starring Atlantic cod, a versatile fish that pairs well with the complex spices of the dish. This well-balanced curry—sweet from coconut milk, tart from the dried skin of kokum fruit, and mild thanks to fire-red Kashmiri and byadgi chiles known for their vivid color rather than intense spice—is best eaten with a spoon.
Pork and Preserved Egg Congee
Tan Tan | Asia Town | 713-771-1268
One of China’s ultimate comfort foods, congee, likely dates back to the Zhou dynasty, around 1,000 B.C., and the name is something of a blanket term for a type of thick, starchy soup—typically composed of dashi (broth), rice, salt, veggies, proteins, and toppings like ginger and scallions—that bears a strong resemblance to a savory porridge. Tan Tan, the vibrant Chinese and Vietnamese diner in Asia Town, serves 10 types of congee. We prefer the briny version with pork and preserved egg, also known as a century egg because it’s cured for a very long time (weeks or months; not 100 years) in salt, lime, clay, ash, and rice husks. Plus, rough-chopped mushrooms and crispy onion bits add lovely texture.
New England Clam Chowder
Maine-ly Sandwiches | Spring Branch East, The Woodlands mainelysandwiches.com
Like any good restaurant devoting itself to treasures of the state that Stephen King has immortalized in so much of his fiction, Maine-ly Sandwiches always features two soups on its menu: lobster bisque and New England clam chowder (that’s the white one). The lavish chowder, packed with soft-shell clams, potatoes and onions, and cooked in clam juice and cream, tastes a lot like the stuff you’ll get if you order a chowder in Maine. A cup goes wonderfully with a sandwich—the lobster rolls are amazing, of course, but try the fried clam belly packed in a hoagie roll with lettuce and tart aioli—while a bowl is a meal by itself. And the package of oyster crackers are complimentary.
Backstreet Café | River Oaks | backstreetcafe.net
A classic Mexican dish that likely came to prominence in the Mexico City area, tortilla soup started filling menus across Houston in the 1980s and 90s. In 1990, then-chef John Watt (now the co-operator of Third Coast in the Medical Center) added it to the Backstreet Café repertoire, giving Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega’s landmark restaurant an irresistible trademark dish that’s served to this day. It’s made with homemade chicken broth and filled with soft roasted tomatoes, ripe avocado slices, and shredded smoked chicken. Topping the bowl is the star, a whole lot of fried tortilla strips, adding some big-time crunch. Though you’ll want to savor every spoonful of this soothing soup, you’ll finish a cup in about five minutes.
Snapping Turtle Soup
Brennan’s of Houston | Midtown | brennanshouston.com
Though New Orleans’s classic turtle soup isn’t quite as famous as the city’s gumbo, when done well this essential Creole dish is a remarkable achievement. That’s where the Brennan family comes in. Their iconic New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace (which made chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse famous) and the sister restaurant in Houston—now celebrating 50 years in Midtown—are the keepers of America’s most prized recipe, used in the Bayou City since it first opened. The celebrated Brennan’s variation features snapping turtle meat, a buttery, beefy base brightened with lemon juice, tomato puree, and dry sherry. Although the delicate but slightly gamey flavor of the turtle meat (it’s a cousin in taste to alligator) steals the show, the splash of Lustau sherry, served with a flourish tableside, steals our hearts every time.
Wild Mushroom Soup
The Annie Café & Bar | Uptown | theanniehouston.com
Though James Beard award-winning chef Robert Del Grande’s tortilla soup stands the test of time as one of Houston’s definitive dishes (and is still served at the newest iteration of his cafe now operated by Berg Hospitality Group), may we interest you in his just-as-remarkable and luxurious wild mushroom soup? While this dish, also carried over from the previous Café Annie, is made with cream, the flavor is 100-percent mushroom (meaty Portobello and a mix of buttons and whatever’s in season, such as nuttier varieties like chanterelle and shiitake), and one taste confirms it. The soup is topped with toasted brioche, the Mexican delicacy huitlacoche (the rare tender fungus that grows on corn and is prized because of its woody flavor) and a penny-sized sliver of duck prosciutto. Few dishes capture the many brilliant flavors of mushrooms so succinctly.
Sopa de Poblano
Molina’s Cantina | Braes Heights, Mid-West | molinascantina.com
The poblano chile originated in the Puebla region of Mexico and was a regular part of the Aztec diet. The versatile, broad pepper can be enjoyed in many ways—roasted, grilled, diced, fried, or pureed into a deliriously addictive soup, and that’s just what Molina’s—one of the OGs of Houston Tex-Mex, operating since 1941—has been doing since introducing its sopa de poblano in 2006. The restaurant’s chefs roast and puree poblanos, cooking the paste with heavy cream, diced red pepper, corn kernels, and smoky jalapeño sausage. Lime juice tarts it up a bit and brings out all the beautiful flavors.
Tonkotsu Mild Ramen
Tamashi Ramen & Sushi | Medical Center, Spring Branch East, Central Northwest | tamashiramensushi.com
There are numerous competitors for the title of best ramen in Houston, but no matter who is making the list, at least one of Tamashi’s three locations is always on it. For the richest ramen dish on the menu opt for tonkotsu, its broth made from slow-cooked pork marrow bones—the fat rendered from them adds creaminess to the dish, too. The bowl is traditionally filled with thin wheat noodles and topped with tender chashu (pork belly), bamboo shoots, green onions, black fungus, fish cakes, and a soft-boiled egg. Trust us on this: Order it mild and enjoy the gentle heat from the red chile paste in the broth, and you don’t have to add anything extra.
Southern Seafood Chowder
Ritual | Heights | ritualhouston.com
The best soups put the spotlight on fresh ingredients while offering a wholly comforting experience—or, to put it bluntly, you’ll want to run away and hide out with a steaming bowl of the stuff. The southern seafood chowder at Ritual, which opened in 2016 in the heart of the Heights, is that kind of soup. This bowl combines Gulf-sourced crab meat, shrimp, and redfish with deeply smoky and buttery red pepper bisque and Texas white rice. It comes with grilled sourdough; dip it in and scoop up the seafood, chopped celery and onions, and some of that bisque. Then steal away to a quiet place.