Let’s get this out of the way: we’re not just talking about chicken noodle soup. In fact, we couldn’t find anywhere that serves the classic on a regular basis — the practical limits of our taste test (sorry, Jaffa). So, unlike our burger and taco competitions which sought to compare very similar dishes, our only criteria for chicken soup was that it was soup, with chicken in it. Perhaps not what the “Chicken Soup” book series had in mind, but nevertheless soothing on a March evening at the tail end of a pandemic.
It also brought more diversity to the table, though not as much latin flair as we would have liked. The demolition of the Sopris Shopping Center took two of the town’s top Mexican restaurants off the map even before Mi Casita closed its doors. Axkawa has a beef-based soup and La Fogata has its rooster soup only on weekends, while menus for Mi Lindo Nayarit and Garcia’s were hard to come by (online ordering, by the way, significantly streamlined the process compared to our taco taste test two years ago).
Two other restaurants did happen to have chicken tortilla as a soup of the day, but they didn’t prove particularly strong contenders against the every-day soups — there’s something to be said for doing one thing well. The main lesson gleaned from the wild cards is that you should package your tortilla strips separately for takeout, or they’ll be soggy by the time you get them home.
“Especially now that we’re doing so much takeout, you don’t know how far they have to drive and when they’re gonna eat the food, so put anything that could change the meal on the side,” explained Shannon O’Gara Standiford, who has spent some time in the food service industry herself and thoroughly sampled the local takeout scene during social distancing.
Which brings us to our panel of judges — basically Shannon and her pod: mom Mary Margaret O’Gara, dad Steve Standiford and family friends Bonnie and John Williams. Under other circumstances, we’d have tried for more diversity, but luckily we still had a wide variety of palates.
“I don’t go that much for spicy afterburner stuff,” John noted. “I grew up in Texas and it wasn’t my fault.”
Shannon, by contrast, had to admit a certain bias toward Asian flavors, of which there were several. Atina’s Chicken Pot Paitan ($16) was praised for its presentation, with rainbow carrots and bits of charred corn, though Mary Margaret “was expecting it to be more flavorful because it’s so beautiful looking.” That could have been on us for not ordering it hotter.
In the duel between Phat Thai’s Tom Kha Kai ($8) and Ming’s Coconut Chicken Soup ($11), the latter came out on top — even though it wasn’t strictly traditional.
“It needs to have a balance of acidity, sweet, salty — that’s the beauty of Tom Kha Gai,” Shannon said.
Already steering a bit away from traditional simplicity with a hint of curry, she thought it could have used a hearty addition like potatoes, but that didn’t stop Ming’s from being a favorite with the whole panel — and with the most generous portion of the bunch, there was plenty for all.
“It’s very smooth. Well balanced,” Steve observed. “The chicken was the best chicken.”
Added Bonnie, “I definitely need to know where this is from.”
For those with a more European palate, the race was between Brass Anvil’s Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice ($9) and White House Pizza’s Chicken Provincial ($10). The former was praised by John and the others thought it would be perfect if you were sick. But White House was universally lauded, coming in a close second to Ming’s in the overall rating. (It’s also the author’s mother’s favorite — at least when the Smithy isn’t offering its chicken green chile.) In fact, it’s the only one Shannon wouldn’t add salt to.
“It’s got a nice balance to it,” she said. “I don’t love the classic herbs — but I don’t feel like this is too overpowering.”
In the end, Mary Margaret had the most correct guesses as to the origin of the soups. The most-guessed source was Carbondale Beer Works, which doesn’t appear to even offer it on a regular basis. Perhaps they’ll be the ones to finally bring us a reliable chicken noodle.