O Broth, Where Art Thou?

Ian tries to beat the heat with...soup?

Aug 15, 2007 at 4:00 am
In one sense, the story of the Original SoupMan is a story about America. This couldn't have happened anywhere but here. It's also a story about the intersection of pop culture and the cold, hard realities of business in the 21st century. And it's a postmodern story, a tale of life imitating art imitating life.

Mostly, though, it's a story about soup.

Once upon a time in New York City, a man named Al Yeganeh opened a restaurant called Soup Kitchen International. Yeganeh was notorious for his gruff manner, but customers flocked to his restaurant because his soups were remarkable.

Among Yeganeh's fans were cast and crew from the popular sitcom Seinfeld. In its seventh season, the show based one of its greatest characters on Yeganeh. The Soup Nazi.

The Soup Nazi was arbitrary and brutal. When George asks why he didn't receive free bread with his soup, the Soup Nazi tells him bread costs $2. George protests. The Soup Nazi raises the price to $3. George protests again. The Soup Nazi has George's soup taken away and utters the now-classic line, "No soup for you!"

The episode made Yeganeh and his restaurant famous. Apparently this didn't sit well with him. It is said that when (the real) Jerry Seinfeld visited Soup Kitchen International the year after the episode "The Soup Nazi" aired Yeganeh yelled at him and then kicked him out of the restaurant.

Really a sensitive artisan misunderstood by the adoring masses, Yeganeh decided to restrict Soup Kitchen International to those whose patronage had preceded the Seinfeld episode. Now desperate soup lovers must wait years to be admitted to his elite circle of devoted customers. Occasionally a spot on Yeganeh's waiting list will be offered on eBay. The reserve is usually set at about $1,000.

No, wait. I made that up.

In fact, Yeganeh did what any sensible entrepreneur would do. He shuttered the original Soup Kitchen International and opened a national franchise called the Original SoupMan. The first St. Louis location opened in March in the Bee Hat Building at the corner of Washington Avenue and Eleventh Street.

It's a small, narrow space. As you enter, the service counter is on your left; a few tables are crammed together along the wall on your right. There are poster-size reproductions of media acclaim for Yeganeh's soups. A TV broadcasts what at first glance appears to be the local news. It's actually a loop of news coverage of Yeganeh, both his initial post-Seinfeld fame and his decision to launch the Original SoupMan franchise.

Of course, there's no footage from "The Soup Nazi" episode. In fact, the second of Yeganeh's six "Rules for the Press" — available at www.originalsoupman.com — is "No 'N' Word."

Yeganeh's "Rules for Customers" are posted in the restaurant:

1) Pick the soup you want.

2) Have your money ready.

3) Move to the extreme left after ordering.

If only it were that easy. On any given day, the Original SoupMan offers six to eight soups from a roster of several dozen varieties. Feel free to ask for samples. (Though I can't imagine Yeganeh or the Soup Nazi giving out samples.) Soups are available as a cup or a bowl. You can pair either with a salad or a half-sandwich in a combo. Soups and the combo meal come with your choice of white or wheat bread and a banana or orange.

I'm a big fan of Seinfeld, so when I looked at the day's soups on a first visit, one selection stood out: mulligatawny.

I ordered a cup of this with half of a three-cheese panini, white bread, a banana and water. The panini was blah: The ratio of focaccia to cheese tilted much too heavily toward the bread, and the cheese itself, though wonderfully gooey, lacked flavor. The slice of white bread was your typical enriched slice of bland, and the banana was at that heavily freckled stage of ripeness. Ugly, yes, but tasty.

But this is a story about soup.

At first, I loved the mulligatawny. It was spicy and complex — curry definitely in the mix, but with a solid backbeat of carrot, onion and celery. It was also salty. Right at the edge of too salty, I thought, but tolerable. After a few more spoonfuls, though, it was too salty.

Yankee bean soup with bacon was so thick it could have passed for porridge. It had a lovely deep, smoky flavor that paired well with a basil, mozzarella and tomato panini. Butternut squash soup was also very thick. Too thick, in fact, with a granular texture reminiscent of baby food. The flavor was intriguing, rich with the autumnal sweetness of butternut squash but with a strong and not unwelcome note of apricot on the finish.

Crab bisque — one of two "Al's Signature Soups" — was my favorite of the soups I tried, buttery sweet and packed with both shreds and chunks of crab meat. Is a cup of it (with bread and a piece of fruit) worth $7.95? Considering how hungry I was just a few hours later, probably not. A combo with a cup of the crab bisque is $10.95, a better value.

Turkey chili was disappointing. There wasn't much to the flavor besides generic chili powder. Though the turkey itself was OK — I liked that it was served in large chunks, rather than ground — I would have preferred meat with more oomph. Cuban black bean soup was downright weird. It tasted like lime yogurt, of all things.

"But, Ian, it's summer. Why the heck are you writing about soup?"

The Original SoupMan does offer a chilled soup each day. Every time I visited, this was borscht: beet red (duh), though the flavor tussled between beet and carrot, with a peppery undertone. It was good, but not as refreshing on a 100-degree as, say, gazpacho might have been. I paired the borscht with a boring turkey, Brie and tomato sandwich — a narrow strip of rind on the Brie offered the most flavor — which reinforced my belief that the Original SoupMan should stick to soups.

Even at that, Seinfeld fans expecting the ecstasy that Jerry and friends experienced might be disappointed. These are good soups, but I certainly wouldn't call them "art," as one of Yeganeh's poster-fied press notices declares. And anyone expecting the Soup Nazi treatment is in for a shock. For a fast-casual restaurant dependent on the downtown lunch crowd, the Original SoupMan is rather inefficient. Sometimes orders are printed on tickets, but during one busy lunch rush, the cashier was shouting orders; confusion ensued. Even when the place wasn't busy, service was slow.

Maybe the Original SoupMan should embrace its Seinfeld heritage so that workers know what customers expect. If Yeganeh doesn't want to show "The Soup Nazi" episode in his restaurants, he should at least consider a national ad campaign. I hear the guy who played Kramer has a lot of time on his hands these days.