So there I was thumbing through David Rakoff's latest collection at my favorite bookstore, Phoenix Books, when the smell hit me — a tantalizing waft of earthy greens, chicken broth, and something beany and lemony coming from a cup behind the counter. It was soup. Elixir of the gods. Soother of savage beasts (and breasts). Curer of all ailments, societal and otherwise.
I know I've raved somewhat psychotically about soup before (after all, I've said I could eat hot soup in a dark disco in Miami at 10 in the morning.), but soup is in fact the perfect food. Anyone who thinks differently is a godless communist.
I demanded a taste from bookstore pal and fellow soup-porter Alison, who confided, “This is the best-kept soup secret in town,” as my eyes rolled back and my nostrils flared like Elmer Fudd's sniffing out a rabbit.
So began a weeklong odyssey at Isabella's (1300 Castro, 648-4256), the Noe Valley soup kitchen cleverly disguised as an ice cream parlor. Owner Ray Baluyot, a lawyer by trade until he took over the former Rory's Twisted Scoop in 2002, learned to cook in his native Philippines. Soups came naturally, he says, because growing up he would concoct dishes out of whatever was left from the harvest program his grandfather ran at a local high school. Ray's soups are at once traditional and original, filled with ingredients that vaguely recall some long-ago dish you had at an aunt's house or a neighbor's potluck dinner party.
Baluyot augments his liquid offerings with a nice selection of pressed sandwiches — smoked Gouda and artichoke heart; double tomato and brie; smoked turkey with tomato, jack cheese, and olive tapenade — but it's the soups that really stand out.
Let's start with Monday's vegetarian split pea, which actually turned out to be my least favorite of the fabulous five-day soupathon. Anticipating something greenish, I was met with a hearty borscht more akin to lentils, which would have been fine, only it was laced too heavily with nutmeg. Still, it redeemed itself with a roundup of carrots, tomatoes, and onions that gave it a satisfactory stewlike consistency.
Tuesday's vegan three-bean more than made up for Monday's shortcomings, with an herby (thyme, basil, oregano) and unexpectedly rich broth of great northern, cannellini, and red kidney beans and tomatoes, which could easily have stood up to a meat stock twice its size. Paired with a hefty slice of brown bread, it was a classic fall meal.
Wednesday's corn, potato, and Swiss chard soup turned out to be a lovely yin-yang of summer sweetness balanced against the pleasant terrestrial bitterness of chard.
On Thursday, I was thrillingly reacquainted with kale and white bean, the soup that had first set me on this edible course. Creamy and lemon-tinged, with deep green strips of kale and soft white beans, it reminded me of Greek avgolemono soup — only lighter (and minus the egg).
But it was Friday's chicken and rice that confirmed my suspicion about soup's soul-restoring capabilities. Don't let the humble description fool you: This was a marvelous montage of Eastern and Western flavors, made in the style of jook (Chinese rice porridge) and evocative of Vietnamese pho. Bits of shredded scallions and chicken floated in a thick potage of jasmine and basmati rice that was redolent with garlic, lemon, and ginger. I polished off a bowl and followed it up with a take-home quart for dinner. Afterward, I sat back contentedly, patted my belly, and contemplated how to bring about world peace.