Soup is a puzzle you can’t solve. It’s a riddle with no answer. It’s a dish, built from the bones we would otherwise discard, that can be as filling as a steak butchered from the same animal. Soup is medicine. It is survival, too, a thin broth served to prisoners who long for something, anything, that will keep them upright. Soup is a jumble of contradictions and histories, each of which just adds to its legend as a dish that knows no boundaries, socially, economically or geographically.
Everyone, at some time or another, no matter where they live or how much they earn, has a hankering for soup. Sometimes it can be on doctor’s orders. I can slurp soup any time of year — even in summer, when I essentially adopt the Korean motto of “fighting fire with fire” — but, frankly, nothing makes me crave of bowl of hot soup more than a cold winter day.
When the mercury falls, I inevitably pick up a spoon. Over the years, I’ve identified dozens of soups that will fuel body and spirit during the bone-chilling stretch from December through March. Here, in no particular order, are seven of my favorites.
Tonkotsu at Hanabi Ramen
Buried under this cloudy pork-based broth is a tangle of noodles so thin and reedy, they look like they might break under questioning. The noodles, made specifically for Hanabi Ramen, are traditional to tonkotsu ramen, says Kenji Hisatsune, chef and owner of Hanabi. He would know. Hisatsune, 61, is a native of Fukuoka, Japan, birthplace of the milky ramen.
You’ll notice one other thing about his noodles: They’re brittle and more al dente than the ones you’ll typically find at ramen shops. This, too, is in keeping with tradition. Back home, the chef jokes, they cook the noodles for a few seconds only, long enough to knock the flour off them. Hisatsune puts just as much thought into the rest of his tonkotsu ramen, a soup that, he figures, requires 20 hours to produce. It makes for a bowl that, I dare say, is unlike any other around here.
$14.49. 3024 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., 703-351-1275; hanabiramensusa.com.
Luosifen at Yanzi Noodle House
At the beginning of the year, chef and owner Audrey “Yanzi” Keenan moved her one-woman show from the utilitarian food court inside New York Mart in Rockville to a modern storefront in a Fairfax strip center. The new space is sleek and casual, accented with chairs and banquettes the color of marmalade, perfect for easing newcomers into Keenan’s signature dish: a river snail noodle soup native to her hometown of Liuzhou in southern China.
Called luosifen, the soup has a reputation for repelling diners with a stank so potent that some folks, perhaps with an aggrieved tongue pressed against their cheek, classify it as a bioweapon. I’m not sure how this disinformation campaign got started, but after one slurp of Keenan’s luosifen, you’ll rail against the injustice of it all. Her stock is simmered into a heady brew with the help of fresh river snails and pork bones, but is accented with so many other ingredients — some sweet, some acidic, some spicy — you can’t begin to identify them all. You don’t need to, either. This is an experience, not a game.
$9.99 to $16.99. 10955 Fairfax Blvd., Suite 108, Fairfax, Va., 301-777-8888; yanzinoodle.com.
Pho No. 1 at Pho 75
The tables at the Langley Park location of this soup institution come equipped with the condiments you expect: plastic squeeze bottles of Sriracha, hoisin and fish sauce, each ready to grab and squirt as the need arises. More add-ins arrive when your pho hits the table: a side plate of bean sprouts, leaves of Thai basil, ringlets of jalapeños (the seeds still clinging to the ribs) and a fat wedge of lime. If you’re like me, you might even order a small bowl of sliced onions in vinegar to complement the soup. This extensive cast of bit players can quickly become extraneous after your first slurp of broth, which is the true headliner at Pho 75. It’s a star turn of exquisite subtlety: a soup with clarity but great depth — sweet, fragrant and smacking of beef.
I always order the No. 1 bowl, in which the broth is partially displaced with slices of eye-round steak, well-done flank, fatty brisket, soft tendon and tripe, each providing its own flavor and texture. Despite the many options to accessorize my pho, I add only a few: a single ringlet of jalapeño for a hint of heat, a few leaves of basil for perfume and a dozen or so slivers of vinegared onions for acid. They contribute minor harmonies to a bowl that sings just fine on its own.
Prices vary by location. 1510 University Blvd. East, Langley Park, Md., 301-434-7844; 1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., 703-525-7355; 771 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, Md., 301-309-8873; 382 Elden St., Herndon, Va., 703-471-4145; 3103 Graham Road, Suite B, Falls Church, Va., 703-204-1490.
Crossing bridge noodle soup at Shi Miaodao Yunnan Rice Noodle
Guoqiao mixian, better known ’round these parts as crossing bridge noodle soup, has its own origin story, which, I suspect, is more myth than fact. Regardless, the tale is about love, devotion and, above all, the importance of rendered chicken fat. In the story, a wife discovers that she can keep her distracted scholar husband’s soup hot by insulating it with a layer of oil and packing the other ingredients in separate containers.
The myth, more or less, justifies the gauzy pools of chicken fat that sit atop the pork broth that serves as the base for every bowl at Shi Miaodao. The name of the Rockville shop, a Chinese import that’s expanding its footprint in the States, basically translates to “10 seconds to arrive” in English. What the phrase means, I’m told, is not that your bowl will land on the table shortly after you order it, but that once you dump the accompanying ingredients into the broth, you will quickly be transported to Yunnan province, home of the soup. I can’t vouch for this mental journey. But I vouch for the sheer delight and deliciousness of these interactive soups.
$10.95 to $14.95. 819 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, Md., 240-386-8596.
Pozole rojo at El Sol Restaurante and Tequileria
The pozole rojo at El Sol is a shade of red that all but signals its intent: The soup will ignite upon contact with your palate. Its blaze is not lethal; it’s more of a steady flame, like a warm hearth in the dead of winter. The spice comes from the combined propulsion of three peppers: chile de árbol, chipotle and guajillo. Their heat is the pulse of a soup whose base is built from pork bones but enriched with the gelatinous magic of pig’s feet.
The key here is the interplay between the broth and the hominy and pieces of fork-tender pork submerged in the liquid. The elements complement each other. They need each other. They mitigate and agitate each other, in endless cycles, until you finally reach the bottom of the bowl, satisfied and fortified to reenter the world outside.
$15.95. 1227 11th St. NW, 202-815-4789; el-soldc.com.
Sopa de res at La Brasita
In mid-December 2020, as nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 30s and our emotional state sank even lower in the ninth month of the pandemic, La Brasita’s owners became our caretakers. On Instagram, the family behind this gracious Salvadoran restaurant suggested that a bowl of sopa de res might “take away the stress [and this cold].” The post ended with a cold-face emoji, its clenched teeth the perfect symbol of the country.
It would be several months before I’d sample chef Lucy Campos’s sopa de res, a dish that her son and restaurant manager, David Campos, tells me is one of El Salvador’s great comfort foods. It would, in fact, be summer, under a sweltering sun that typically drains all desire for hot soup. But this hearty bowl — brimming with big, rough-cut vegetables and hunks of chuck, shank, tenderloin and rib — enveloped me like a security blanket nonetheless.
$14. 7206 Muncaster Mill Road, Derwood, Md., 301-569-6333; labrasita.com.
Classic shoyu ramen at Menya Hosaki
The surface of chef Eric Yoo’s shoyu ramen is a mosaic of charred chashu, wilted spinach, tan shoots of bamboo, a sunny float of soft-boiled egg, a myrtle-green sheet of nori and a single pink-and-white fish cake, that psychedelic swirl known as narutomaki. The toppings are so fetching that, I fear, you may miss the subtle beauty of the chicken-and-dashi broth itself: a tawny liquid, at once transparent and opaque, that seems to refract light like a fine diamond.
Like every ramen chef I know, Yoo doesn’t spill his secrets, but he will allow that he adds chicken fat and aromatic oil (as well as tare seasonings) to the shoyu ramen bowl before pouring in the broth and dashi. As you slurp the housemade noodles, each strand shimmering with broth, you experience something greater than a bowl of chicken ramen. You get a taste of nature amplified — in a way that lets you understand that life itself contains more than we may ever grasp with our limited senses and capacities.
$17. 845 Upshur St. NW, 202-330-3977; menyahosakidc.com.