By Michael Nagrant
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write about it. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that piece of wisdom, but I’m sure every cook who’s been on the blunt end of my keyboard strokes feels that way. And it’s true that if I had to go toque to toque with any of the Iron Chefs (save Cat Cora, I kid), I’d probably lose. But, given enough time and space, I’m a pretty damn good cook. And as such, I’ve been tempted to wade into the culinary business and test my practical mettle at times.
That being said, most of my theoretical restaurant concepts aren’t half as good as Roger Ebert’s screenplay for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Does anyone really need a spot inspired by the Bennigan’s Monte Cristo that serves only sandwiches dipped in sweet fritter batter and deep fried? Probably not. However, if you are an interested investor, my email is pretty easy to find via Google.
In the late nineties, while everyone was doped up on the idea of opening clean well-lighted spots filled with steamy lattes and overstuffed mismatched furniture inhabited by Ross Geller and Rachel Green clones, I wanted to open a soup café. Back then, I was a full-on soup freak. For a short time in college I became what I like to call a supermodel vegetarian; i.e. I didn’t know anything about the horrors of commercial slaughterhouses or the alleged water and crop waste created by raising animals for food, but I thought being vegetarian would make me thinner and healthier. Of course, what I didn’t realize is that I’d end up consuming a quarter of the daily output of the Velveeta factory and double orders of super-sized McDonald’s fries as an alternative fuel source.
One of my saving graces during that time was soup. Then again, it was probably my downfall. While I avoided overt meaty options like Campbell’s Chunky Steak and Potato or split pea with gigantic ham bits, when it came to the question of whether chicken or beef stock had been used as a base, I played it like a gay man in the army during the Clinton administration, i.e. “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”
There were plenty of great bowls, but the iconic one for me was the Bay Chowder at Ashley’s Pub in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I must have had a hundred cups of that creamy broth, perfumed with white wine and filled with diced peppers, before I graduated. Those who knew me then might suggest I had so many go-rounds because Ashley’s had more taps than a Gene Kelly movie. While it’s true I loved the beer, the chowder was a magical elixir I could count on to salve a Michigan cold front or another failed biochemistry exam. I did know it was made from seafood stock, but once again, in those days I hewed toward a sketchy conditional vegetarianism (you know who you are) where fish wasn’t considered meat.
But I’d reckoned that nostalgia for good soup did not make for a great business plan and gave up on the idea of opening my own joint. However, maybe I was just ahead of my time. The “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi Al Yeganeh has a killer line of nationally distributed “Soup Man” soups and stores. Michigan has a successful local franchise called Zoup, and locally, we have the Soupbox.
And now we also have the Bucktown Soup Café. Owner Dino Agudo is my kind of guy. Though he’s a Chicago native, he fell in love with the New York soup spots that sustained him while he worked as a lawyer. When he came back to Chicago to work as an Illinois assistant state’s attorney and a Cook County prosecutor (he laughed nervously when I suggested he maybe should have gone after some of his bosses), he found we didn’t quite have the same number of soup stores as Manhattan. So he opened his own spot.
Though the soups are made off-premises, they’re created from Agudo’s rotating collection of ninety recipes. They often include local ingredients, like the Michigan mushrooms in his hearty barley soup.
His tortilla and chicken displays a fiery smokiness from roast ancho chilis. His seafood gumbo doesn’t quite have a thick roux or enough spice to sate my personal tastes, but it’s a well-balanced brew. It better be good. They don’t sell sandwiches or salads at the Bucktown Soup Cafe. The only accoutrement you’ll find here is the hearty slices of Red Hen sunflower-seed-encrusted multigrain bread you get with each bowl.
As a sucker for seafood soup spiked with liquor, my favorite bowl at Bucktown Soup Café is the lobster bisque. Though I was risking third-degree burns should an angry cabbie decide to cut me off, the creamy brew’s sherry nose had me busting the carton open and drinking straight from it on the way home. A bowl like this is inspiring enough to get the old soup-entrepreneurship juices going. In all honestly, though, the bisque was convenient and tasty enough that I’m likely to stick to writing for a long time to come.
Bucktown Soup Café, 1840 N. Damen, (773)904-8364