SOULFUL SUSTENANCE West End Deli’s White Bean Chili.
"My kingdom for a plate of soup!" a hungry and possibly freezing Anton Chekov wrote in 1890, aboard a Russian steamer crossing the world's oldest lake, Lake Baikal. And while we won't pretend that crossing the Portland peninsula is akin to a Siberian journey (and we tend to eat our soup from bowls, as opposed to plates), the sentiment somehow rings true. When cold, or far from home, or surrounded on all sides by a wintry landscape, we dream almost exclusively of soup-as-sustenance; it is the only nourishment that makes sense when faced with a bleak landscape of the city or heart.
As such, Portland is a great city for soup. We've discovered plenty of delicious liquid lunches (not that kind), and while this is by no means a comprehensive review of those options, it is a survey of some personal highlights. We'd love to hear your favorites.
One surprisingly successful venture is the Caldo Verde at Brian Boru ($7), a pub's take on the traditional Portuguese kale soup. This one combines finely chopped kale, chunks of potato, and slices of the smoky chorizo sausage. These are all fairly typical ingredients in the caldo verde; what makes Brian Boru's interesting is the haddock-broth base, a thin, clear taste that's a nice juxtaposition against the robust flavors of the kale, potato, and sausage. This soup, consumed at one of Boru's wooden tables in back, is perhaps precisely what Chekov would have traded a kingdom for. The other great thing about the caldo verde is that unlike many local restaurants' soup-of-the-day change-ups, this one stays on the menu all the time.
Rosemont Market and Bakery's soup successes are hardly surprising, but one recent offering was uniquely flavorful — the Curried Red Lentil soup, which had a pleasing savory tartness, a deep, mustard color, and a smattering of non-lentil veggies. And the best thing about Rosemont? They understand that soup is best enjoyed with a chunk of bread; when you pay $3.50 for a pint of soup, you'll get one of the bakery's fresh rolls as an accompaniment.
Big Sky Bakery's Public Market House lunch counter also gets the crucial nature of the soup-bread combo. With every bowl ($4.50) or cup ($3.50) of Big Sky's soups, you get a thick slice of the bakery's breads. I have never once been hungry after choosing this lunch option; the ever-expanding (and -changing) meat and vegetarian options are equally filling and rarely miss the mark, flavor-wise. One favorite is the Butternut Squash and Apple soup, creamy and not-too-sweet (get a non-sweetish bread to match the soup's fruity tones). On one of late December's first bitterly cold days, I tried the Beef Stew and was rewarded with sizable chunks of slow-cooked beef and classic stew vegetables in a thickened, but not gluey, base. I was not cold for the rest of the day.
If it's warmth you're after, stop into the West End Deli when White Bean Chili is on the menu. More meat than white beans, and with just a touch of heat to stay on the tongue between spoonfuls, the broth also includes tomatoes and onions, and a flavorful combination of spices with depth and complexity similar to Indian garam masala, though definitely Mexican in aroma. A bowl of that for lunch will make you want to get out the door and make snow angels all afternoon.