The first thing I learned to cook was soup. It began with lentils, those queer half-beans, windows to the soul: Would they settle into an unpleasant brown sludge, silt clouding the broth at the bottom of the pot? Or could I coax them into silky comfort, rich with olive oil, a drift of lemon zest settling on top like pollen before I stirred it in? The quality of my lentil soup seemed to reveal some essential truth about my self, in the same way I felt the off-kilter clay pots I threw at the wheel reflected a lack of centeredness. I didn’t factor in practice; I didn’t factor in the process of becoming. I was a young person learning to cook. The lentil soup was not so good at first, and then it was better, others enjoyed it. Over the years I stopped following a recipe. Now I make it for myself, barely thinking, and I like it well enough at last.
For a long time, soup was nearly all I made. I baked bread; I tossed a salad in vinaigrette. What more did I need? They were simpler days. I loved a black bean soup enriched with plumped sun-dried tomatoes. There was an African peanut stew, a shiitake-barley, a coconut milk-inflected invention that was designed to use up some kale and sweet potatoes but stayed in the rotation because my roommate couldn’t get enough. I lived on dal for days and made curry mee late into the night when I first moved out on my own, because I could without disturbing anyone.
I don't understand people who don't like soup. It is fundamental. It is the meeting place of nutrition and flavor. It doesn't leave behind many dirty dishes. I would be cheering the arrival of soup season right now, if I didn't believe that every season is soup season.
And so it is deeply strange that when a restaurant called Soup Shack opened in my neck of the woods, I paid it no mind. The name threw me. I imagined chicken noodle and minestrone and cheeseburger chowder dished out of metal vats into Styrofoam cups, accompanied by packets of stale oyster crackers. I imagined the kind of soup I think of as homemade. It was a shack! I already live in one of those!
Then the text arrived, from two friends whose tastes tend to jibe with my own: a picture of a bowl filled with broth, tangled noodles, slices of fatty pork. "We are eating good ramen." Dancing dots. "In JP." I looked up the menu.
People often ask me what my favorite food is, and the answer I give most frequently is: some kind of spicy noodle soup from Asia. It's too hard to pick the exact variety. Soup Shack, it turns out, offers my dream menu. It is composed almost entirely of Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese noodle soups, with a few rice bowls and appetizers thrown in for good measure.
Any of these soups is hard to make well. One might spend a lifetime perfecting just the broth for ramen. The best pho doesn’t come from the place that also offers banh mi, rice plates, and hot pot. These are dishes in which one specializes, to which one devotes oneself. And yet everything I’ve ordered at Soup Shack is either good or very good.
Did I mention I can get it delivered to my house?
The first thing I tried was the khao soi, a Northern Thai soup I find it hard to resist. The broth is rich with coconut milk, fragrant with curry spices, and just fiery enough. There are two textures of noodles, soft and crisp, the latter slowly surrendering their crunch to the soup as you eat. Then they take on a lovely sponginess. There are bites of pickled mustard, sharp and tangy; there’s a lime to squeeze. There’s a whole chicken drumstick just plonked in the bowl, too, for good measure. Soup Shack’s version hits all the right notes.
Then I riffled through the ramen, the pho. Tantanmen, a pork broth ochre with spicy sesame oil, bearing spicy ground pork, seaweed, and more. Even better, the tonkotsu ramen, with its cloudy, deeply flavored pork-bone broth: This and the khao soi are my favorite Soup Shack offerings. On a blustery day, a cold starting to settle in, I order up chicken pho and feel restored. The pho tai, beef broth with slivers of rare steak, makes it through delivery intact. Soup Shack manages to keep ingredients separate and cooked to just the right point that when you finally combine them, nothing is mushy or past its prime.
If I crave the noodle soups of Asia, pho is probably the one I want most regularly, soothing, reinvigorating, and light. There’s an elegance to the clear broth. I like the ritual of shredding fresh herbs in bit by bit as I eat. Andrea Nguyen, author of “The Pho Cookbook” and “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” tells me she eats it this way too. “You can add the chiles, the herbs. You’re getting all these different hits. You can tailor it to whatever your body feels like is going to comfort you at that moment,” she says. “It can be a simple bowl, or it can be ornate and dressed up. It’s nimble and it’s democratic — it’s affordable. There’s a lot of appeal.”
A fellow soup enthusiast, as you can see. "Soup is part of my self-care," she says with a laugh.
We are far from alone. Tribe Soup is mighty. According to a report by market-research firm IndustryARC, the Compound Annual Growth Rate of the prepared soup market in the US from 2018 to 2023 is predicted to be 2.18 percent, with soup generating nearly $16.5 billion in revenue.
Soup Shack gets it. The place is always busy. The space is basic: a narrow room, an open kitchen, stools at the counter. There’s a blackboard that reads “Soup Shack is always a good idea.” The prices are reasonable, about $10-$13 for a bowl. It’s easy to stop in, eat, and be on your way. A second Soup Shack is slated to open in Brookline in November.
I still make soup at home at least once a week. I can’t see that ever changing. But I’m very glad, on a cold night or a warm one, to be able to order in khao soi and tonkotsu ramen. It’s always soup season, and I’m hungry for more.
779 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-477-9805, www.soupshacknoodles.com