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Soup Mission: Finding S.F.'s Best Central American Broths 

Wednesday, Feb 8 2012
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By rights, San Francisco should be deep into soup season, when our space heaters strain to combat the cold leaching through the windows of our Edwardian apartments, and dampness clings to sweaters and bus seats like bad juju. Through January and February, soup is normally a tonic we eat to banish bad humors, both literal and Hippocratic. For weeks now, I've been preparing for the season by eating around the Mission, spooning up caldos, sopas, and pozoles and waiting for the onset of the rains. Yet winter keeps calling in sick, holed up in its living room with the last three seasons of Lost. So if the unseasonal weather keeps holding out, you'll just have to consider soup as a pleasure, not a necessity, one that the Mission's Mexican and Central American restaurants dole out in giant, steaming bowls accompanied by freshly griddled tortillas and wedges of lime.

Gallardos' weekend soups, for instance, make a fine brunch. At this 50-year-old restaurant, still run by the Gallardo family, black-and-white stills from Mexican movies tile the walls in the manner of a 17th-century gallery and the jukebox powers up at mysterious intervals, flooding the room with ranchero. The tripe-y funk of the restaurant's weekend menudo ($7 small, 8 large) may be a little too dense for my tastes, but the restaurant's pozole ($6.50 small, $7.75 large), available on Saturdays and Sundays, is as vivid as the color of its crimson broth. Kernels of floury, soft hominy float on the top like golden bubbles. The soup on its own, with its murmuring chiles and braised-pork depths, isn't complete until you fill the bowl with chopped white onions, shredded cabbage, a fistful of chopped cilantro, and juice from a few wedges of lime, finishing up the pre-meal ritual by crumbling a few buds of Mexican oregano over the top. Doctored up, the pozole has the same cheerful blare of the horns and guitars exploding out of the speakers.

Many of the Mission's soups are as infrequent as food-truck sightings. Chava's, El Delfin, and Gallardos only serve menudo on weekends, for instance, and San Miguel's Guatemalan cak-ick (turkey soup) is only available Saturdays and Sundays. There's a Salvadoran restaurant in Bernal Heights called La Santaneca that serves a rare sopa de chipilín (herb soup) on Wednesdays, but it's always sold out by the time I make it there. And it took several trips to San Jalisco, on South Van Ness and 20th Street, before I remembered that Tuesdays were the day for the restaurant's sopa de albondigas (meatballs) — and then, once I'd tasted it, realized I preferred the restaurant's caldo de camaron, available every day.

The Salvadoran sopa de res ($6.95) at La Santaneca de la Mission (no relation to the other La Santaneca) is an every-night meal, too, but one that illustrates the layers of cooking involved in the Mission's best soups. There is no artifice to the clear beef broth, but it's infused with aromatics, tomato, and herbs, simmered so long that all the collagen in the beef infuses the broth and turns it satiny, even a little sticky on the lips. Just before service, the cooks add great chunks of cooked vegetables. Potatoes and carrots are simmered until they're tender enough to split with a fork, 3-inch lengths of zucchini still green-skinned and firm, and a section of corn on the cob whose kernels still pop when you fish it out of the broth.

The flavor of its Mexican counterpart, El Delfin's caldo de res ($5 small, $7 large), is as dramatic as the restaurant's Aztec-themed murals. Where La Santaneca's soup blushes and hides its mouth with two hands, El Delfin's cola-colored broth swaggers and grunts, its brawny flavor bulked out with garlic, tomato, and cubes of meat the size of mandarin oranges. While the restaurant serves lime on the side for doctoring up the soup, El Delfin's broth doesn't need its acidic bite. Large wedges of chayote squash and thick carrot slices bob on the surface, so you have to hold a knife in one hand and a spoon in the other, occasionally fishing out a bit of beef to roll up in a warm, sweet tortilla.

And then there's the elaborate sopa de gallina ($12.95) at Palacio Latino, a Guatemalan restaurant with high pink walls and tables covered in flowery plastic. Signs on the wall list a dozen varieties of tamales, snacks, and sandwiches for takeout, but the restaurant's sopa de gallina is a sit-down meal. A feast, really, the dish is made from a big old hen that needs to be braised far longer than most North American cooks would have the patience for. The hen yields a rich, golden stock, and then comes out of the soup to do double-duty; once the meat becomes tender, it's grilled up and served on the side. Onions, potato, and carrots are added to the broth, to cook more gently, and cilantro's bright perfume grows soft and nuanced as the herb steeps. Along with the crisp-skinned chicken leg, the waiters bring out a mound of rice, deeply flavored with chicken broth and rendered fat. You can eat the rice with the chicken — there's a surprising amount of flavor left in the bird — or dump it into the soup, followed, of course, by one last flourish of lime.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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