Spooning isn't just romantic, it's downright heart-warming when it applies to the chowders, bisques and broths that come from the caring hands of San Diego's soup-making chefs.
Here are a dozen varieties to help burn off the winter frost about to settle across the city. And though we might not have snow, these recipes for heat let us imagine there's a real winter here...at least a ladle bit.
(The Ultimate!) Hot and Sour Soup
1233 E. Vista Way, Vista
Personable, comfortable, affordable and possessed of a firecracker-hot Szechuan menu capable of knocking you off your feet, Spicy King is the destination when the soul cries out for hot and sour soup. Better than wonderful, this inimitable brew arrives almost boiling in a huge, four-sided casserole. Hot with black pepper, velvetized with beaten eggs and rich with tofu, shredded carrots and more, it sizzles and sings.
Dobson's Bar & Restaurant
956 Broadway Circle, Downtown
A double-sized bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry resides on a corner of the bar at Paul Dobson's legendary restaurant. And every time the kitchen dispatches a puff pastry-topped crock of Dobson's celebrated mussel bisque, the server breaks a hole in the crust and pours in one serious shot of the stuff. Culinary bliss results as the creamy, sensuous broth, enriched with plump mussels, marries the wine to create sublime flavors and aroma.
Candelas by the Bay
1201 First St., Coronado
No surprise to learn that Martin San Roman, the noted French-trained chef who set the tone in Tijuana for two decades, designs the cuisine at this romantic (loads of flickering candles!) restaurant facing the city skyline. Roman's glamorous Crema Fabiola, based on pureed poblano chiles, is distinguished by garnishes like a petite half lobster tail and a tangled nest of fried and shredded sweet potatoes.
Lotus Thai Downtown
906 Market St., San Diego
Serendipitously seasoned with Kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and lime juice, tom yum is an exquisitely tart hot/sour soup that breathes a relaxing warmth into anyone who eats it. As is typical of Thai dishes, the featured ingredient (such as tofu, vegetables or shrimp) is up to you. Dark and mildly spicy, Lotus Thai's tom yum is jammed with good things like mushrooms, thick tomatoes and savory herbs.
1846 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach
A sunshine-bright flavor jumps tartly from the plush avgolemono (Greek for "with lemon") at Café Athena. Wonderfully colorful, the soup is flecked with minced carrots and parsley against a bright yellow shade derived from the egg yolks that thicken rich chicken stock to an elegantly smooth, tongue-delighting texture. It's among the most distinctive soups in Western cuisine.
Bud's Louisiana Cafe
4320 Viewridge Ave., Kearny Mesa
Louisiana cooks go stir-crazy making roux (flour cooked slowly in fat), but once the chore is complete, they have a delicious base on which to build dishes like murky seafood gumbo. At Bud's, a charming hideaway in a Kearny Mesa industrial park near I-15, dark roux adds a moody savor to exceptional, spicy, New Orleans-style gumbo rich in crayfish, shrimp, andouille sausage, okra and peppers.
Butternut Squash Soup
5662 La Jolla Blvd., Bird Rock
New chef George Morris transforms mundane butternut squash into a thing of joy when he brews it into soup. Smoothly textured like a well-phrased compliment, it takes salty notes from pancetta and spicy tones from sliced red chiles. Good to the last spoonful, the soup arrives in an oval, bathtub-shaped dish smeared on one side with "maple brulee," a syrup-flavored meringue that adds welcome sweetness.
Caroline's Seaside Cafe
8610 Kennel Way (formerly Discovery Way), La Jolla Shores
Giuseppe Ciuffa's warming and savory ribolitta, a Tuscan classic, tastes best garnished with Caroline's above-the-beach view of La Jolla Cove, edged by Scripps Pier and aimed at blue skies right to the horizon. Ribolitta means "reboiled" and is a slow simmer of cavolo nero (Italian black cabbage), cannelini beans and many vegetables and seasonings. Aromatic, rustic and soulful, it's finished with croutons and plenty of parmigiano.
Puerto Nuevo-Style Tortilla Soup
Ortega's, A Mexican Bistro
141 University Ave., Hillcrest
Co-owned by former SDPD detective John Haugland, Ortega's celebrates the subtle triumphs of Baja California Coastal cuisine, which turns seemingly simple ingredients into wonders of flavorful complexity. The delicious Puerto Nuevo-style tortilla soup (originally brewed in the Baja's "lobster village" south of Rosarito Beach) enriches deluxe homemade chicken broth with herbs, chiles and roasted tomatoes. Buttery avocado cubes look festive against the red-orange broth, and fried tortilla shreds add distinctive crunch to the fiesta.
Donovan's Prime Seafood
333 5th Ave., Gaslamp
This fine restaurant's opulent setting is the perfect showcase for chef Augie Saucedo's richly irresistible seafood chowder. Complicated to make (flavorings include garlic, thyme and rosemary, for starters), it's easy to eat, especially with Mr. Sinatra crooning on the sound system. Sided by hunks of crusty sourdough, the chowder arrives blisteringly hot, and rich with cream, scallops, clams and bay shrimp. Symphonies of flavors make each spoonful a delight.
2253 Sunset Cliffs Blvd., Ocean Beach
Winter inspires the soups of Germany, many of which have built-in warming elements that comfort when the wind howls down from the icy Alps. In the case of Kaiserhof's ultra-satisfying Goulash soup, genuine Hungarian paprika contributes a sophisticated spiciness, which the server complements with big twists from the pepper mill. The rich red broth hides cargoes of cubed beef and vegetables, and makes you yearn for the sight of snow on the windowsills.
Atop the Lexus Centre
1205 Auto Park Way, Escondido
A bisque is just a bisque, unless it's created by chef Deborah Scott, who designed a show-stopping version of this famous soup to complement Vintana's remarkable location and views. Essentially an essence of lobster that is among the most elegant dishes in classic French cuisine, Scott's version is a little different and decidedly American in tone. Plenty of cream, a sweet splash of sherry and a crisp shrimp-corn fritter distinguish each classy bowl.
San Diego Soup Shoppe
2850 El Cajon Blvd., North Park
Toss an extra two bucks across the counter at this bubbling-hot new soupery on the upper edge of North Park. This amount buys a bread bowl to encase some of the tastiest clam chowder in town, a smooth brew jammed with both chewy, flavorful clams and the cubed potatoes that traditionally make chowder a substantial affair. The soup-soaked bread (called a "sop" in old English, and the origin of "supper") makes a delicious second course.
441 Washington St., Hillcrest
Brazen BBQ's "Best in the West" chili may have inspired the Texas-centric Hillcrest restaurant's take on Louisiana's famous Cajun Gumbo. The Brazen approach to this fabled brew is bold, and yes, Sir, it sure tastes good. Gumbo should be as dark as the mud at the bottom of a bayou but as bright in flavor as the blue skies that follow a hurricane. Brazen meets these standards with a perfect bowl that's spiced to entice.
COOL GIFT: Spice is nice, especially when it comes to Brazen BBQ's award- winning barbecue (1st Place winner in more than 20 barbecue competitions, including FOX 5's). Pour it on for $8.95 per bottle at brazenbbq.com.