Getting Its Due

The tale of Duarte's wildly successful "half and half" soup

Since time immemorial — or 1950-something — Ron Duarte's cream of artichoke soup has caused peckish beachcombers who happened down Pescadero way to re-evaluate both their appreciation of this difficult, thorny vegetable and their reluctance to order soup at a bar. (I've never had either of these impediments; I could order hot soup in a dark disco in Miami at 10 in the morning. But that's another story.)

All along, though, there has been another item on the menu at Duarte's (202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, 650-879-0464) — pronounced DOO-arts — getting lower-case second billing on the soup marquee, going largely unrecognized despite a steadily growing (and salivating) following.

As to why the cream of green chile soup has wallowed on the sidelines, playing Jerry Rice to the artichoke's Steve Young, the reasons are fairly apparent: Artichokes are king down here, and anytime you can get a dish that begins with something cultivated from a restaurant's own back yard, you should order it.

Then there's the fact that the ingredients for the green chile soup read more like a who's who of Kraft Foods Inc. than Grandpa's cherished family recipe. (It's actually adapted from a recipe Ron Duarte, grandson of founder Frank, spotted in a publication long ago.) The base is cream of mushroom soup, Ortega chilies, sour cream, and half-and-half — deposit your arteries at the door.

Lately however, there's been a grass-roots movement afoot that's giving newfound (and well-deserved) status to the cream of green chile. Locals and regulars have taken to ordering “half and half,” combining the two soups in a glorious celebration of tart and earthy that will undoubtedly be Duarte's lasting legacy.

Unlike the disturbing yet oddly compelling duet of fried chicken and waffles or the now-ubiquitous Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade), the half and half is served unblended — a big dollop of green chile soup in a surrounding sea of creamy artichoke purée. The effect is something like being in a natural hot spring in the middle of an icy river: You soak in the warm pool for a while, then swim out to the cold water when you get overheated, then move back to the hot water when your head starts to freeze.

The beauty of this method is that by itself, the artichoke soup can be almost too rich, too cloying. But put it in tandem with the chile soup, and your taste buds get just enough of a soak in the tangy pool of Anaheim chilies that you want to swim back to the artichokes for another dip. It's genius.

Chef Tim Duarte, the fourth generation of Duartes to run the tavern (it's been around since 1894, but started serving food only in 1935), says the half and half trend began sometime in the mid-1980s, precipitated by party or parties unknown.

“It was one of those weird chain-reaction things,” he says. “A customer or a waitress tipped somebody off, and they told somebody else, and somebody eyed their plate, and the next thing you know it's the hottest thing.”

These days Tim, his sister Kathy, and their parents Ron and Lynn serve upward of 20 gallons of the combined soup on weekends — leaving scant space for other flavors.

“Nothing personal against the artichoke or the green chile,” Tim confesses, “but I prefer the soup of the day — white bean, seafood chowder, watercress, carrot. I'd love to try out some other ones, but I know if we took one of those two off the menu we'd have a mutiny on our hands.”

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