Everyone is talking about ramen, and there’s a ramen shop in almost every East Bay neighborhood. But what about all the other delicious Asian soups out there with the same soul-warming potential? Here are ten soups (at eight venues) you might not have thought of.
Perhaps my biggest discovery, on a rainy December day, was Bún Măm Sóc Trăng, the epitome of a family-style Vietnamese place, with kids screaming, the one server racing around trying to take care of everyone, and the kitchen turning out huge steaming bowls of perfect soup. My favorite was the bún bò hué, spicy lemongrass pork, with rectangles of congealed pork blood, semi-circles of fish cakes, and a banana-leaf garnish, with piles of the requisite herbs (Thai basil and mint) and both bean sprouts and cabbage.
A tried and true spot for local Thai food is Chai Thai Noodles on International Blvd. in Oakland. While its most popular dishes tend to be the more Americanized ones, like pad Thai (which is overly sweet), the soups are more traditional, more balanced in terms of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour flavors, which is why the tom yum is a winner: bright, tangy, and very spicy. Shrimp are gently cooked, and mushrooms and galangal provide the requisite earthiness essential to this dish. The small room is airily cheerful, and servers are friendly and knowledgeable. Despite its size, the dining area is family-friendly, and there tend to be kids running around at all hours of the day.
Champa Garden is a well-known entity, and Lao food is its calling card. Indeed, the grilled Lao sausages and deservedly famous fried rice balls are destinations unto themselves. But the soups are equally marvelous, two in particular: homemade noodle soup is a rich version of classic chicken soup, with chewy, hand-pulled rice noodles, fried shallots, and cilantro. Lue’s noodle soup is made with ho fun (wide, flat rice noodles), fermented bean paste, and pork. There’s even good wine to go alongside from Navarro in Mendocino County; the Edelzwicker is just right for Thai spiciness.
Chef Lau’s Chinese Seafood is a sweet little spot in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown, with a large menu of traditional Cantonese dishes. The go-to soup here is a simple, fragrant bowl of Cantonese seafood soup: homemade chicken broth and egg, chopped shrimp, and crunchy fish tripe. It’s hard to find a spicy accompaniment on the menu, so I put in a small spoonful of chili paste, not a traditional move, but a delicious one. Service is a bit brusque, but nonetheless efficient.
A couple of storefronts down from Chef Lau’s is a bustling dim sum house, Joy Luck Restaurant, where the server was a bit perturbed that I’d asked for a menu. But I’d come for the wonton soup, at the recommendation of a friend from Taiwan, and, though it took nearly a half-hour to get the soup, it was well worth the wait. The homemade wontons were as good as any I’ve ever eaten, and the “house special” version comes with catfish, shrimp, and bok choy in a salty chicken broth. I would certainly go back and try the dim sum.
I drove over to Alameda, at the recommendation of a friend who’d spent time in Japan, for ishikari nabe at Kamakura, a gorgeous bowl of miso broth with generous chunks of skin-on salmon, tofu, and cabbage, sprinkled with togarishi. To my knowledge, Kamakura is the only East Bay restaurant that serves this particular soup. The restaurant appeared to be filled with neighborhood regulars; it seemed as if I was the only newcomer in the room, and I was welcomed warmly.
One of the better pho houses in Oakland is KangNam, which has been rooted in Temescal since long before the neighborhood became oh-so trendy. Aside from a few appetizers and rice plates, it’s all pho, all the time. And all the choices are dandy, but my personal favorite is number seven: tai, nam, gan (rare steak, well-done flank, and tendon). The broth is particularly nice, slightly redolent of sweet anise and ginger. Service is lightning-fast, making it one of the more compelling choices in the area for a quick lunch.
And finally, a wonderful Burmese spot in the previously jinxed spaced on Telegraph Avenue between Stuart St. and Oregon St.: Rangoon Super Stars. The huge menu is spot-on for all manner of traditional Burmese dishes, including a standout tea-leaf salad. The soups are often overlooked here, but shouldn’t be. Samosa soup is vegan, with handmade samosas, cabbage, falafel, lentils, and red onions, made slightly sour by a touch of tamarind. And onoh kawt swe—coconut noodle soup—is a thick bisque-style soup with flour noodles, chicken, onion, lemon, and cilantro, with a bit of tamarind and lemon for tart balance.
Rangoon Super Stars [new name: Royal Rangoon]
2826 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley [map]
Ph: (510) 647-9744
Hours: Daily, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5pm-10pm
Facebook: Rangoon Super Stars
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of non-ramen options, but it’s a laudable start, should your winter soup habits need some rejuvenating.
Please share you favorite East Bay Asian soup spots in the comments.