A Melting Pot of Local Soup Offerings
Thick or thin, hot or cold, savory or sweet, soup is a fundamental food. Every culture past and present has embraced a signature soup. One of my favorites, an Italian vegetable broth called aguacotta (literally, cooked water), is said to have been one of the Roman emperor Tiberius' favorites--2,000 years ago. At least, that's what my Neapolitan landlady, Antonella, told me when she taught me how to make it. And it was while renting her unheated apartment in Italy that I first recognized the universal yearning for earnest, amiable, consoling food that is embodied by soup.
Most truly soul-satisfying soups require time and effort: stock-making, chopping, long simmering, reduction. Sometimes it's better just to let someone else do all the work and to enjoy the results for a few bucks a bowl.
Some terrific cold-weather beaters can be found at Korean restaurants--little wonder, considering this is the culture that gave the world the hot pot. Fiery kim chi jigue, a soup of chile-laced pork, tofu, and pickled cabbage, is sure to fight back the January cold; a good local source for this sinus-clearing stuff is U Jung (14-16 W. 20th St.,  230-0422). And I have long been enamored of two diametrically opposite soups at nearby Nam Kang (2126 Maryland Ave.,  685-6237). Jampong is a garlicky, spicy seafood stew full of noodles and tentacles (octopus), along with mussels, shrimp, and other goodies; mild, supremely comforting tuk man doo kuk packs beef dumplings, rice cake, and nangmyon (cellophane noodles) into a large bowl of rich beef broth.
The colder months also make crab soup, both cream and Maryland, all the more delectable. At Charleston (1000 Lancaster St.,  332-7373), the cream-style she-crab soup is to die for (or maybe to die from, given the amount of cream involved). Perhaps it's heresy to praise a fancy-pants South Carolina recipe over local versions of this Free State stalwart, but one spoonful of this silky, lumpy (in the best, loads-of-backfin sense of the word) soup will calm any outrage.
As for naming great Maryland crab soup, where to begin? Most places prepare a decent version of what might as well be our official state soup. The authentic rendition begins with a beef-broth base. Add veggies--corn, tomato, lima beans, chunks of potato (optional), ideally locally grown--and, of course, crab meat, both lump and claw. Whole claws add a true Eastern Shore touch. The Mount Washington Tavern (5700 Newbury St.,  367-6903) serves up a terrific version, and Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn (200 Eastern Blvd., Essex;  687-5994) puts the crab in crab soup the old-fashioned way: lots of it, claws and all.
It's been 10 years since she launched her coffee-bar empire, but I'm still grateful for Donna Crivello's simple but intelligent approach to food. When I returned to Baltimore from Italy in 1992, the newly opened Donna's (2 W. Madison St.,  385-0180, plus 11 other locations) was the only place I could bear to eat. American food tasted adulterated and overprocessed after several years of fresh Mediterranean fare, but Donna's Tuscan white-bean soup saved me from malnutrition while my palate readjusted. The various branches--they've spread everywhere, from downtown to Timonium and beyond--serve a mainly excellent soup selection that changes daily. The creamy potato soup and heavenly roasted red pepper-tomato bisque are especially good. (Caveat: Good as my Donna's experiences have been, other soup-eaters report some dreadful misfires at the Mount Vernon branch.)
If today is Tuesday, then it must be time to eat at Rallo's (838 E. Fort Ave,  727-7067), which serves the best soup deal in town: a generous platter (that's right: not bowl, platter) plus half a loaf of terrific Italian-style bread for $4 or thereabouts (two different soups almost every day, prices vary). Tuesday is bean-soup day, when you can extract piquant tomato-y broth from beneath the most enormous lima beans you've ever seen. The beef stew and the beef-barley soup are both terrifically hearty and satisfying, and Rallo's chicken soup is capable of making the lame walk.
Eastern Europeans know a thing or two about chilly scenes of winter, and the Slavic staple borscht is one of the best soul-thawing foods there is. Ze Mean Bean (1739 Fleet St.,  675-5999) serves a wonderfully tangy version of this beet-cabbage concoction, hot or cold according to season; here's guessing you'll want it hot. Suburban House (911 Reisterstown Road,  484-7775) also serves an excellent bowl of borscht, especially substantial with a nice big boiled potato on the side. This Pikesville institution is also a great place to order matzo-ball soup, the doughy softball dwarfing its bowl of chicken broth. It's the only known cure for the common cold.
Finally, a shout-out to the thom kha kai at Thai One On (10 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson 410-825-0907). This is chicken soup for those already tired of chicken soup, a velvety broth of stock and coconut milk, studded with chunks of chicken, mushrooms, and galanga (a more pungent relative of ginger). It's tangy and rich at the same time, a study in contrasts in the way of Thai dishes. Plus, as an added bonus, the galanga is supposed to cure cold symptoms and purify the blood. Bon appétit!