Take almost any kid to the grocery store and their favorite place is likely the candy aisle. Me? I salivated in front of the soups. All those colorful cans promising savory combinations of belly-warming meat and veggies caught my childhood fancy, no matter the season in my temperate hometown of San Diego. Back then, the decision always was between hearty beef barley, comforting chicken noodle, and more-fun-than-tasty alphabet soup. Now my palate has matured but my taste for a brothy meal in a bowl has not. I still consider the greatest dining find to be a liquid lunch with ingredients so fresh and seasonings so rich that ordering a "proper" entrée is superfluous.
LA TAQUERIA MENUDO
If you're looking for a traditional Mexican stew (or just a fantastic hangover cure) in a hipster-free environment, head out of the sunny, skinny-jeaned Mission District and into the fog of the Excelsior. There, at La Taqueria Menudo, you can find a steaming bowl of perfectly spicy pozole. (Similar to menudo, minus the creepy surprises of tripe or Ricky Martin). This under-appreciated neighborhood joint serves the classic dish with plump hominy and pork so tender it comes apart when you stab it with your spoon. The dish is traditionally served with cabbage and radishes, but La Taqueria serves it with limes, cilantro, onions, and chile de arbol. No matter. The spicy depth of the soup's flavor unravels in so many layers, and the accompanying tortillas are always so warm and soft, that those deviations get lost in the mist.
4591 Mission, SF. (415) 333-8604
Overall reviews of this mini-chain are mixed, but we love this company's dedication to organic ingredients and free-range, hormone-free meat. And say what you will about any of the other soups, the chili here is transcendent. Made with four different types of beans, fresh tomatoes, and bell peppers with a bit of crunch, this cold-weather classic is satisfying year-round.
90 New Montgomery, SF. (415) 369-9602; 1900 Powell, Emeryville. (610) 601-7687; soupfreaks.com
It may be rare to get San Francisco days so sweltering you need chilled soup to counter them. But La Mediterranee's cold cucumber soup is worth ordering whatever the weather. The cool blend of fresh fruit (cucumber is one, you know) and warm garlic melds perfectly with the creamy yogurt base, proving bright enough for an Indian summer lunch and dense enough for a nippy autumn supper.
2210 Fillmore, SF. (415) 921-2956; 288 Noe, SF. (415) 431-7210; 2936 College, Berkeley. (510) 540-7773, www.cafelamed.com
It's easy to assume that all German cuisine is bland and heavy, particularly dishes like potato soup. But the kartoffelsuppe at Hayes Valley's Suppenküche proves that central European food can be hearty without inducing a heart attack or a born-of-boredom nap. The thick, savory, beef-based stew may warm your belly, but the balance of spice and starch is delicate enough to delight the palate of diners who've never set foot in Münich or Milwaukee.
525 Laguna, SF. (415) 252-9289, www.suppenkuche.com
Made from a mix of samusas, falafel, cabbage, and fried potatoes, the samusa soup at this Richmond District eatery might sound like the last stop for wayward leftovers, but this thick, salted delight is the reason many diners make the trek to Clement Street in the first place. Indeed, this stewed version of the popular eatery's varied specialties is so good you might be inspired to skip the next course altogether.
309 Clement, SF.