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What to do during the Polar Vortex? Go on a Tour de Soup

Feb. 20, 2019 at 6:44PM

So you made it through the polar vortex of 2019. Me too! I had a lot of time to think during those bitter cold days and I thought a lot about my values, my hopes, my dreams. I thought about how I’ve not once accidentally written 2018 on a document yet this year and how this has to be a good omen. Mostly I thought about what hot food I could shove into my gullet to help me get through the day. I know soup is consumed the world over, but I am going to go ahead and claim it has a special salience in the Arctic’s lil’ brother: Wisconsin.

As a frequent purveyor of soup, I want to provide you with a list of the most delectable and easily accessible concoctions to be had in the Milwaukee area because while we made it through the polar vortex, there’s still a lot of winter left, my friends. Just a forewarning: this will not include beer cheese soup because that’s basically cheese dip you are shoveling into your mouth with a spoon and I cannot approve. I know gratuitous food items are the Wisconsin way, but some of us still have shame. But not so much shame I can’t shovel a pound of fries into my mouth. You’ll see.

I’m going to predict right now that soup will have a moment in the coming year. With the popularity of smoothies as an easy way to pack nutrients into your diet, why have we not looked at soup, which is essentially a hot smoothie made with a crapload of softened vegetables. I’ve sold you on it, haven’t I? In any case, soup is a necessity for me right now because I can make a good amount of it that I can eat all week and it is an easily digestible form of vegetables that I can get into my body quickly with a spoon. If there’s anything many of us don’t have time for these days, it’s chewing our vegetables. Just like salads and smoothies, soup can be incredibly versatile; it comes in all different flavors and textures and can be adorned with any variety of vittles. So Saturday, February 9th, 2019, I woke up and decided to go on an epic journey. Today, I decided to go on a Tour de Soup.

An array of some of our soups for the day.
An array of some of our soups for the day.

We started at Blooming Lotus, where I’m pretty sure they recognize me now since I’m there so often, because I’m really into their assorted allergen free baked goods. This is not the last you will hear of them from me as I’m a big fan for many reasons, but this morning we were there for soup, which they have been serving on Saturdays the past month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Today the soup was a vegan tomato soup with asparagus, sweet potato, and fresh basil.

My boyfriend was a big fan of this soup and it was nice knowing exactly what we were going to get with this one: there was no dairy, gluten, or animal products of any sort. Soup is one of those sneaky products that can throw you off if you aren’t careful. I was a vegetarian for about six years and I was constantly asking if an otherwise vegetable soup was made with chicken broth (it often is). In any case, this soup was super (har har) tomato forward and reminded me of the freshness of a garden salsa. The asparagus was pretty subtle, but the fresh basil was a nice herbaceous touch. Next, we swung by Kickapoo Coffee in the Third Ward to get something hot to drink.

Kickapoo has some of the best coffee in the city. They treat their beans right and it shows; the flavor of the coffee really comes through instead of that terrible burnt taste you get from improperly roasted beans. Also, the chocolate syrup they use for the mochas imparts a rich chocolate flavor that isn’t masked by an obscene amount of sugar. ALSO, they have oat milk as a dairy free alternative and it’s delicious nutty flavor is the perfect companion for espresso. Plus, they serve Rishi tea, a local company that produces decoctions with vibrant flavors. The peppermint herbal tea I got today legitimately tingles my mouth when I drink it.  Mmmm. I digress. They have soup you can order here in addition to typical cafe fare. We picked up a cup of curry carrot soup, which was softly sweet with subtle notes of curry spice and ginger. It was topped with pepitas, which is a lovely word to say out loud. Try it. One of my favorite textures is pureed soup. It’s so creamy and smooth and this one was no exception. My only complaint was they could have amped up the spices. Otherwise it was a solid soup. We headed back north to one of my we-are-too-tired-to-cook standbys: Cafe Hollander.

The delicious tomato basil soup from Hollander.
The delicious tomato basil soup from Hollander.

When you think of soup, what do you think of? I think many people conjure up an image of a bowl of tomato soup in their head, often accompanied by a gooey grilled cheese. I’m here to tell you I have a new favorite pairing: tomato soup and french fries. I’m serious. The tomato soup here is near perfection. It’s creamy, spicy, tangy and all around really flavorful. I eat a lot of tomato soups and I don’t know that I’ve had one that’s better than Hollander’s yet in this city. Plus, their frites cone is my favorite junk food and it’s a great side with the soup. I usually get it with the basil aioli and it’s a wonderful pairing. Tomato goes with basil like chocolate goes with peanut butter. Highly recommend. Our dark horse entry for the day comes from City Market up in Shorewood (heyo fellow Shorewood residents!).

On Saturdays at City Market, they have a chicken, butternut squash, and shiitake mushroom soup. It’s AWESOME. It’s not pureed, but it has bite size pieces of everything in a really aromatic broth that has the distinct flavor of tarragon, which pairs wonderfully with the chicken. It’s like an updated version of chicken noodle soup without the noodles and I’m a big fan. It has a hefty serving of vegetables and is beautifully balanced. It’s one of those soups you can eat and feel proud, like you just did something good for yourself. While we didn’t go everywhere around the city today because a. It’s still pretty cold out and b. Our pugs are super demanding if we are gone too long, I want to make an honorable mention of two more soups I’ve had the joy to partake of recently.

Fauntleroy down in the Third Ward has a French onion soup that’s bonkers. To be fair, I’ve never been one for French onion soup, but I couldn’t stop eating theirs when I was there on date night. The waitress informed us the broth in the soup was made with mushrooms instead of beef, as is typical, and I think this is part of the reason I loved it so much. Mushrooms are one of those love/hate foods and I definitely fall in the love side of things. I think they are amazingly versatile and mushrooms impart a delectable umami quality to dishes they are in. This French onion soup tasted ridiculously umami and I gravitate towards the umami on frigid, cold days. My other favorite soup comes from another French spot across the city: La Reve.

La Reve is known for its beautiful pastry case and while the desserts are delicious, I’ve always found their food to be quite solid. The last time I was there, I had a cumin and cauliflower soup and it was fantastic. It was served with some pork product on top and was a creamy puree that I ate in about two minutes flat. What I appreciate about soups is when the breadth of flavor is explored. Cumin does taste great with cauliflower, but I’d never had that combination in soup form. The pork added a flavorful punch to the cauliflower puree. Cauliflower can be quite bland if it’s not paired with appropriate flavors to enhance it. This made sense.

So you heard it here first: soup will be the new thing this year. Okay. So maybe I will be totally wrong about that, but we seem to be cycling through really unobtrusive foods that end up having a major moment: kale, cauliflower, why not soup? Soup is really timeless and I think essential to getting through the rest of winter. It’s a hug in a bowl and we all could use a hug right now after the shit weather we’ve been dealt the past few weeks.

Visit the establishments mentioned in the article:

Blooming Lotus

Kickapoo Coffee

Cafe Hollander

City Market


La Reve

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.