A couple months ago, I set out to find the best soups in Laguna Beach restaurants. A daunting task, but someone’s got to help you through this wet, indoors-only winter we’re having. For my self-assigned assignment, I’ve hit 21 restaurants and have tried more than 35 soups. I cannot lay claim to trying every single soup offering in town (especially keeping up with all those daily soup specials, too), but I think I’ve earned the right to say a thing or two about soup in Laguna Beach. (Be sure to forward this column to all of your soup loving friends, much appreciated.)
Honestly, I’ve been stalling on writing this particular column because it’s going to be a long one. But last Sunday was the last straw – I just can’t keep this knowledge from you any longer.
Last Sunday, when it was (yet again) pouring rain, I ventured out with my friend and his daughter to see if we could hunt down any good rental deals in town (the poor guy has had to listen to me rave about the town for more than a year now; he has no other choice but to move here). After an hour or so of sloshing through curbside rivers and getting soaked to the bone looking at these places, we decided soup might be a nice reward for our efforts.
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I directed our little party to Laguna’s K’ya Bistro because you just can’t go wrong at K’ya – even their SOUPS are top-of-the line here against many of the restaurants in Laguna Beach.
Now, you all know K’ya ranks as one of my favorite restaurants in Laguna Beach – top 2 for sure. They’re still serving up more than 80 reasonably priced small plates, and the fact that they regularly offer FIVE soups on the menu AND an additional Soup of the Day just astounds me . . . especially given that the kitchen for K’ya might be ONE cutting board larger than my tiny, one-butt kitchen in my condo. I seriously don’t know how they do it back there. Watching the amount of food they serve up, and the amount of different food they serve up is something like watching 19 clowns pile out of a VW bug. But, enough about that, let’s get on with the soup.
K’ya Bistro actually houses my #1 favorite soup in all of Laguna Beach, which my friend nabbed for his meal – White Bean Cassoulet. This is usually defined as more of a stew with white beans, some type of meat, vegetables and herbs but I’ve never tasted a recipe close to what Craig has invented here. My friend’s soup came piled high above the rim of the bowl, as Craig usually tosses in huge chunks of sausage, filet mignon or short ribs AND duck breast. Forget all those canned soups that say they “eat like a meal” – they haven’t met K’ya Restaurant’s White Bean Cassoulet. It’s insanely good.
Kendall, my friend’s lovely daughter, ordered up Kya’s Spicy Seafood Chowder, and it proffered a hearty serving filled to the brim with shrimp, white fish, calamari and who knows what else, all shoulder to shoulder in a steamy, aromatic broth. K’ya’s Spicy Seafood Chowder ranks #4 on my list of best soups in Laguna Beach restaurants.
I went for Kya’s spicy Shrimp, Chicken and Sausage Gumbo soup, and it was its usual delicious fare. I couldn’t find another gumbo soup in all of Laguna Beach, but even if there WAS one, I’d still be inclined to rank Kya’s respectful nod to New Orleans as #11 on my list.
Our K’ya dinner last Sunday – two appetizers, three soups, one killer banana bread pudding, one great bottle of wine (they’re all half price on Sundays) AND two cappuccinos came in at $60 even. Seriously? How many gourmet foodie restaurants in Laguna Beach can pull off that kind of friendly pricing?
I know; you’re probably wondering if I really tried any soup anywhere else, so let’s fill in the rest of the Top 12 Soups in Laguna Beach.
(Settle in – this is going to be a long reading.)
#1 – K’ya Restaurant’s White Bean Cassoulet. See above. Oh my.
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#2 – Nick’s Restaurant and the Sunday Soup of the Day – Short Rib Soup. I haven’t yet formally reviewed Nick’s in Laguna Beach, probably because it’s so danged hard to get a seat in the place. Since Day One, the place has been one of the most popular roosts in town, just across the street from our vaunted Hotel Laguna. Nick made some big adjustments on his menu a while back, and it’s definitely paid off. I will say: smallest wine draws in town, but the SOUP is what we’re here to talk about today, and it’s plenty plentiful!
Nick’s is known far and wide for its warm potato salad. I can’t even think of enough adjectives to describe that scoop of heaven – when I buy it in To Go tubs for my parties here at the condo, people are cleaning out the tubs before I can even transfer their contents to proper serving bowls. THIS is what Nick’s puts at the bottom of his short rib soup (so where can he go wrong from there?). From there, though, it’s this crazy, slow-basted beef-based broth, a few veggies and big ol’ slabs of short rib meat. Sadly, they only serve it up on Sundays, so schedule it in your day planner now.
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#3 – El Ranchito Restaurant’s Chicken Tortilla Soup. Now, I recognize that there are about 92 ways to create chicken tortilla soup, and most foodie camps fall into two categories – broth based soup or cream-based soup. Personally, I prefer broth over cream- or thick-broth soups, so Laguna Beach’s El Ranchito’s might not offer your kind of “camp.” I LOVE it though.
El Ranchito’s Chicken Tortilla Soup is a huge serving, for one thing. (The only restaurant to serve a larger bowl of soup in all of Laguna Beach is South Laguna Beach’s Coyote Grill – their version of Chicken Tortilla Soup comes out in something more like a serving bowl for mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.)
El Ranchito’s soup is chuck full of huge strips of chicken, tons of tomatoes, onions and rice, and topped with avocado if you so desire. The broth is made from scratch each day, and it’s a multi-layered taste sensation. I guess and guess again at the base ingredients that go into this stock, but they just give me a cheeky smile and ask if I want more. Yes, please. I easily order this soup and drive all the way to pick it up in its big To Go container at least twice a month.
#4 – Back to K’ya Restaurant for the Spicy Seafood Chowder, already discussed above.
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#5 – Creamy Sundried Tomato Soup at Sun Dried Tomato’s Bistro. The Sundried Tomato restaurant in Central Laguna Beach is one lovely, warm cozy place for a soup date. It’s tucked back in the second block of Forest Ave. from the beach, and Chef Robert Opelle is always coming up with something eclectic and cool. His namesake soup – Creamy Sundried Tomato Soup with Gorgonzola Cheese – is a real beauty. Not too thick, never clumpy, and loaded with a gorgeous blend of herbs with tomato, it’s very filling as well. Make sure you at least order a cup of this with any entrée you try here.
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#6 – House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer’s Lobster and Corn Chowder. Taking a page from its sister restaurant, K’ya, Laguna Beach’s newcomer Big Fish offers no less than 6 “chunky chowders” on its’ menu, from the traditional New England Clam Chowder to the more inventive Hawaiian Fish Chowder in spicy coconut broth. All great – there’s not a bad one in the bunch (and I say this from personal experience!) but the Lobster & Corn Chowder? . . . Come on, what can get better than that? It’s a creamy, light lobster broth loaded to the gills with mongo chunks of fresh lobster, corn, mushrooms, potatoes, onions and a dash of cumin (no less). House of Big Fish slays it.
#7 – K’ya Bistro’s Chicken Tortilla Soup on Monday Nights. Sorry, back to K’ya, but I’ve got to be fair here. This once-a-week offering should be on the regular menu. Still in a rich, chicken broth, this bowl comes absolutely loaded with chicken, veggies and not so much rice (which I happen to admire). It’s topped with cheese and mini fried tortilla strips – so terribly, terribly good. Pull out your day planner and schedule your next Monday night for K’ya. This is one you don’t want to miss.
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#8 – Claes at Hotel Laguna’s Cream of White Asparagus Soup.There’s hardly a better seat in town than a window seat on a rainy day in Claes’ gorgeous establishment in the Hotel Laguna. The big windows of Claes’ sit right on Main Beach, where you can toss in for a nice, quiet lunch and talk about everything walking or swimming by. I’ve seen and tried some various daily specials of Cream of Asparagus at other Laguna Beach restaurants, but Claes has been at THIS one a long time, and it shows. While their version of Cream of White Asparagus soup is super creamy, it’s not overbearing; and while it definitely tastes of asparagus, it’s a beautiful, subtle flavor that melds well with their secret recipe herbs. Spooning this soup just makes you feel spoiled rotten (and who doesn’t need that on a rainy day?).
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#9 – Laguna Beach’s 230 Forest Restaurant’s Maui Onion Soup. Before you formal foodies out there start pelting me with olives, rest assured, I’ve got French 75’s French Onion Soup covered in this column, too. But I happen to love the fresh twist 230 Forest’s Marc Cohen delivers to this centuries-old recipe. Instead of the heavier, saltier fare we all do love in a French onion soup, this is layers and layers of the more aromatic and light-on-its-feet sweet Maui onion. 230 pops in hand-baked Provencal croutons, and slathers the top with Gruyere cheese (which is such an awesome partner to the Maui onion), and bakes till bubbly. Deadly.
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#10 – Thai Bros’ Tom Yum Hot & Sour Soup. This is another longtime nook restaurant in Laguna Beach, but you’ve really got to look for it. Walk 10 steps and you’ll pass the narrow little place on Laguna Ave, about a half block in from PCH. They might be small, but these folks serve up a mighty menu of fabulous Thai fare.
I’ve tried Tom Yum in two other Thai establishments in Laguna Beach, and Thai Bros’ version definitely reigns supreme. It’s just the right amount of cool lemon grass and cilantro, multi-layered spicy broth, and your (hearty) choice of chicken or shrimp. Nothing will keep you warmer on these cold Laguna Beach days and nights, most assuredly.
#11 – Kya’s spicy Shrimp, Chicken and Sausage Gumbo soup, already mentioned way up there at the beginning of this enormous tome.
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#12 – French 75 Bistro’s French Onion Soup. Nope, not just trying to please the traditionalists here – this is a serious and glorious French Onion soup. Piles of super thin-slice onions are always first in the big cooking pots when the prep cooks begin at dawn each day. The rich broth that builds around the onions bubbles and stews all the day long and, frankly, I don’t know how they get anything done with that aroma wafting around the kitchen.
French 75’s French Onion Soup is beautifully presented with big chunky croutons and stringy, melted cheese that keeps the heat in (watch that first spoonful). This is a very hearty serving, but one you don’t want to miss in this venerable Laguna Beach establishment.
The Soup Conclusion . . .and what I didn’t find that you can help me with . . .
So, there you have it, Di’s Top 12 soups in Laguna Beach. I found I was sadly disappointed in the traditional New England clam chowders, and also tried at least 4 versions of minestrone soup and was nonplussed across the board. Perhaps our community of stellar chefs just can’t stand to do the “normal” stuff that most people sip everywhere else … but if you think you’ve found one of these in Laguna Beach, or have a favorite soup you’re sure I’ve missed, be sure to comment here and I’ll give it the ol’ college try.
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