Soup is the classic wintertime comfort food: It warms the body, fights the blues and never fails to bring back fond memories of that childhood chicken noodle. In many cases, however, classic quickly becomes commonplace, and soup gets demoted to side dish as diners are faced with the same overly familiar flavors year after year. At these Laguna Beach restaurants, however, chefs are reimagining traditional versions and serving fresh takes that are sure to steal back the spotlight this holiday season.
The chefs at Gu Ramen Taps & Tapas offer nothing if not variety with their overflowing bowls of ramen: With each order, diners are able to choose their desired noodles, spice level, protein and additional toppings. The secret to the noodle soup’s unbeatable flavor, according to General Manager James Thossansin, is the restaurant’s go-to ramen stock, composed of pork bone, chicken bone, vegetables and spices, all simmered together for 18 hours.
For the beginner looking for an authentic, fail-proof choice, the traditional spicy ramen with chashu—barbecue pork—is the way to go. With this bowl, 6 ounces of freshly made ramen egg noodles, sliced slow-cooked pork belly and freshly prepared toppings like corn, spinach and egg are added to the broth before being finished off with naruto (fish cakes), green onions and roasted sesame seeds. To give the dish an extra kick, diners can order spicy chili oil on the side. (949-715-0825)
Spicy Chicken Tortilla Soup
For a truly reimagined classic, look no further than the spicy chicken tortilla soup at La Sirena Grill. While tortilla soup is a conventional dish in Mexican cuisine, restaurant owner Scott Cortellessa explains that at La Sirena, the soup was neither conceived nor created in a traditional way.
“We originally built a chicken taquito recipe in the early days of La Sirena, … [then] we realized that the great liquid that came off of the taquito mixture was a great base for our chicken tortilla soup,” he says. The condensed, slow-cooked mix of chilies, tomatoes, herbs, spices, onion and garlic is seeping with rich, authentic flavor. (949-499-2301; lasirenagrill.com)
Chili fries, cheese fries, even gravy and fries—these are fairly common comfort food dishes. A coastal take on the universally loved smothered potatoes, Slapfish’s chowder fries are the perfect solution for someone looking for soup and a little something more. In this dish, a generous portion of thick-cut natural french fries are topped with a healthy dollop of Slapfish’s creamy clam chowder—made of red potatoes, clams and garnished with bacon. It’s then loaded with more bacon, herbs and Slapfish’s signature spice blend. (949-715-0464; slapfishrestaurant.com)
For a light and simple option, look no further than the pho noodles offered at Big Fish Tavern. While a traditional pho calls for a strong meat-based stock—seasoned with spices like cinnamon, coriander and star anise—this version opts for a much lighter vegetable broth, transitioning the spotlight to the high-quality flavors of the protein and produce: shrimp or tofu, rice noodles, onions, sprouts, sliced jalapeno, cilantro and a squeeze of lemon for kick, all of which are added to the broth when the soup is ordered. The resulting dish, according to chef Marco Vargas, has been a steady staple at Big Fish for years. (949-715-4500; bigfishtavernlaguna.com)
Zinc Café & Market’s menu is full of flavor-packed, healthy takes on beloved dishes. A standout is the vegetarian chili, which is protein-rich, nutritious, and has all of the flavor of the classic meaty version. “We’ve had that chili almost from day one. … [It] is one of our staples,” says owner John Secretan.
The dish starts with array of fresh ingredients, including black beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, jalapeno and chili. These are sauteed; spiced with cumin, oregano, cayenne, coriander and paprika; and slow-cooked for several hours. The stew is then topped with more chopped tomatoes, green onion and sour cream, and served with a garlic knot. (949-494-6302; zinccafe.com)
—Written by Caroline Ruhland | Photos by Jody Tiongco