Here's the thing about pho: Each proponent of this cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine has a rock-solid opinion about its composition, which means that there are countless ways to enjoy this fantastic soup. My favorite? The deeply fragrant versions at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro. Each gigantic bowl is prepared to order, so the slurp-worthy noodles and top-shelf proteins (order the rare ribeye steak, or the beef meatballs) aren't overcooked and everything is tantalizingly fresh.
Leave it to Tilia chef Steven Brown to burnish a contemporary gloss on beer-cheese soup ($8). In Brown's imaginative hands it becomes luxury personified, a silky swirl of lovingly aged white Cheddar and Minneapolis-brewed Fulton Beer's beautifully balanced version of an India Pale Ale. A gentle mustard-infused oil garnish, traces of thyme and an oven-warmed bowl complete this perfect wintertime repast.
At Green Spoon in Minneapolis, most of the menu is tailored for the neighborhood's college crowd, but it's also peppered with Korean-accented dishes that have their roots in home cooking. The fish cake soup, served only at dinner, is a steaming pool of amber-tinted dashi fortified with dried anchovies, soy sauce, seaweed and green onions, and dressed with crepe-like, crab-flecked fish cakes. "It's definitely a popular seller among our Korean crowd," said chef Chris Paddock. "But it's not really something that our American guests order." Their loss.
On winter weekdays, Salty Tart baker/owner Michelle Gayer makes a changes-frequently vegetarian soup "that's based on what everyone is in the mood to eat, and whatever is seasonally available." Lately that means a cauliflower-Parmesan puree, with bits of roasted cauliflower for texture, or an equally flavorful medley of white beans, kale, zucchini and potatoes, each portion ($4, served with a slice of one of the bakery's first-rate breads) carefully reheated to maintain the vegetables' essence.
Be'wiched Deli owners Mike Ryan and Matthew Bickford are not only masterful sandwich makers, but gifted soup artisans. The imaginative selection ($3.50 to $5) changes daily -- it could include a roasted butternut squash garnished with apples and house-cured bacon, or a luscious sunchoke-potato puree -- but the duo always has a knockout minestrone on hand. To order it is to love it.
Macy's and its predecessors have always specialized in timeless fare. The quintessentially Minnesota wild rice soup ($3.95 to $4.95) remains an ultimate comfort food, with mushrooms and sherry notching up the soup's creamy richness, carrots contributing a pop of color and almonds boosting the wild rice's intrinsic nuttiness. Enjoy it with a popover, naturally. (Oak Grill, River Room, Lakeshore Grill, Southdale, Lakeshore Grill, Ridgedale)
The chicken soup pinnacle? It's a tie. Unadulterated goodness reigns at Meritage, where chef/co-owner Russell Klein garnishes a deeply flavorful chicken broth with painstakingly diced carrots, snips of fresh dill and a pair of tender matzo balls ($7). Across town at Yum! Kitchen and Bakery, owner Patti Soskin's crew puts together the ultimate in cold-season comfort, a golden broth accented by garlic and black pepper and filled with egg noodles, juicy chicken and onion ($3.95 to $4.95).
You can find entrepreneur Pam Knutson's all-vegetarian soups in the freezer case at Kitchen in the Market, where lucky shoppers have been known to run into quarts ($11) of a stunner of red lentil-root vegetable-squash soup seasoned with tamari, or the only vegetarian chili I've ever encountered where I didn't miss the beef. I'm kicking myself for not grabbing another quart of Knutson's powerhouse cream of broccoli-Cheddar.
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