Photos and text by Allison Jarrell
It’s no secret that Southern California doesn’t suffer from unbearably cold winters. But even the most warm-blooded of West Coasters can find themselves a bit chilly when the temperature dips below 50 degrees at night.
For those cool winter evenings, why not warm up with some soup? If you’re not up for making a pot from scratch, there’s an array of local stews to choose from. Below are three offerings from South Orange County restaurants that feature a fresh take on classic recipes.
Sundried Tomato American Bistros & Catering
31781 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
821 Via Suerte, San Clemente
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday (Bar stays open until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
There’s a reason Sundried Tomato’s soup is famous around South Orange County. The restaurant and catering company offers a unique twist on the classic tomato soup—one that involves some extra ingredients and prep work.
When restauranteur Rob Quest first opened what began as a catering company, he debuted a sundried tomato marinade with some of his dishes. Eventually, the popular marinade was tested as a soup and was such a big hit, that it inspired Quest to open a restaurant of the same name.
“The soup has been embedded in the history of the restaurant since 1993,” said general manager Saul Cruz. “It’s kind of our trademark.”
Cruz said the marinade base of the soup takes some time to make, as the sundried tomatoes need to be marinated for 24 hours before being mixed in with an array of herbs, olive oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar. The marinade is then blended with milk, onions and a few other ingredients to create the creamy soup that local patrons know and love.
“It’s the marinade that makes the soup, and it’s hard to make the marinade,” Cruz said.
Sundried Tomato serves its namesake soup in cups or bowls, as part of a “half and half” meal accompanied by a salad or sandwich, and even as a sauce in some of their pasta dishes. Cruz said in the fall and winter, their “comfort combo” is especially popular, which features a cup of soup and a grilled cheese with four different cheeses, basil and tomato.
Cruz said restaurant fans should keep their eyes peeled in the near future, as Sundried Tomato is planning on bottling their soup to be sold at local grocers.
The Little Kitchen Asian Café
24831 Del Prado Avenue, Dana Point
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday-Saturday, Noon to midnight on Sunday
For over six years, The Little Kitchen Asian Café in Dana Point has been changing its patrons’ perceptions of what a Chinese restaurant can and can’t serve—one bowl of pumpkin soup at a time.
“Initially, we weren’t too confident, because typically you don’t find pumpkin soup in a Chinese restaurant,” Lian said. “But we wanted to bring something different to the table.”
The Kabocha Pumpkin Soup has been on the restaurant’s menu since day one, and the risk definitely paid off. Restaurant operations manager Chris Lian said the simplistic recipe has become a favorite among regulars, with people often calling head to reserve the soup, which is meticulously made every morning.
“We have an older couple that lives in San Diego, close to La Jolla. Every Sunday, their son brings them up here for the pumpkin soup,” Lian said. “It’s something they enjoy.”
The signature pumpkin soup features California-grown Japanese pumpkins—not to be confused with the ones you carve each October—some cream, a little butter, and a dash of sugar. Packed with vitamins, iron and potassium, the soup achieves the ideal balance between sweet and savory.
Even though the recipe is fairly simple, creating the soup is anything but. Lian said prepping the pumpkins takes quite a bit of time—from removing the outer skin and scraping out the insides, to steaming the firm pumpkins for a couple hours until they’re soft enough to blend. Once the cream and other ingredients are added, chefs boil the soup slowly using low heat to avoid burning the pumpkin.
The tedious process is the reason why the soup is only offered after 4 p.m. It doesn’t keep overnight, so chefs must recreate the sought-after soup from scratch every day.
“We always use fresh ingredients—no shortcuts,” Lian said.
The Little Kitchen also offers traditional Chinese soups—wonton soup, egg drop soup, and a hot and sour soup that’s also a crowd favorite—but don’t miss the pumpkin. It’s sure to be a new winter staple.
Pho Thanh Binh
107 Via Pico Plaza, San Clemente
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Paul Bui, owner and chef of Vietnamese restaurant Pho Thanh Binh, is a firm believer in understanding and appreciating the history, geography and culture behind the food we eat.
Bui is passionate about sharing the history of traditional pho—a Vietnamese noodle soup—and explaining the differences between regional recipes and how the quality of the ingredients makes or breaks authentic, delicious soup.
“Traditional pho is made with beef or chicken,” Bui explained on a recent sunny afternoon. “But I came here, and lots of clients wanted seafood and vegetable pho.”
So Bui accommodated the new requests, while also staying true to his roots over the last few years. The type of pho he serves is from North Vietnam and usually consists of beef or chicken, rice noodles, some onion and cilantro, and beef broth. He also serves his generously-sized bowls of pho with toppings one would commonly find in South Vietnam—bean sprouts, basil, lime and jalapeños. Such additions are used to cool down the soup in the warmer climate, Bui explained.
To achieve the end result—a translucent, savory broth that tastes fresh and not overly-seasoned—beef knuckle bones and marrow cook overnight, or for at least 20 hours. Bui said that while this first step is crucial for adding flavor and nutrients to the broth, many other restaurants will only cook the bones for four or five hours, leaving their broth lighter in color.
Bui then adds a mixture of other ingredients to balance the savory flavor—oxtail, ginger, onion, fish sauce, cinnamon, star anise, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, clove, nutmeg and a bit of sock sugar.
Another point of pride for Bui is the quality of the ingredients he uses on a daily basis.
“In Vietnam, the quality of beef can be very bad,” Bui said. “Even a lot of restaurants around here use young beef from the market. I always use 100 percent Angus beef, so it’s fresh, tender and juicy.”
A bowl of Bui’s seemingly-bottomless pho is more than enough to satisfy even the most intense of hungers. But if you have room left, finish the experience with a sweet Vietnamese iced coffee. You won’t regret it.
To read more of the 2017-2018 “Go.See.Do” special section, read here: