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December 17, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 17, 2004

New soup for you! New soup for you! (December 17, 2004)

San Francisco Soup Company caters to the lunch-on-the-go crowd

by Mandy Erickson

It hardly seems possible that "Seinfeld"'s Soup Nazi, possibly the most infamous restaurateur in pop culture, could be an inspiration to anyone.

But the ornery character prompted Steve and Jennifer Sarver to start a chain of restaurants that has grown to include nine venues, including one in East Palo Alto.

"We thought soup was a good idea for the San Francisco Bay Area, where people are in a rush, but demand quality food," Steve said.

Fortunately, San Francisco Soup Company workers are an agreeable lot, unlike the Soup Nazi, who banished Elaine for failing to follow soup-ordering directions. As you request your soup cafeteria-style, they let you take all the time you need to choose, even giving out samples.

But like the Soup Nazi's concoctions, the Soup Co. soups are generally quite good, rich in both flavor and texture. The Sarvers' idea of mass-producing quality food works well for soup, because it often tastes better the day after it's made. (The exception is with fresh greens, which lose their luster if they hang out for too long in a broth.)

The soups are all made in a kitchen in San Francisco and shipped to the various venues. Seven signature soups stay on the menu, and five or six specialty soups change daily -- you can check the day's specials on the Web site, Open only for breakfast and lunch during the workweek, the Soup Co. serves everything in disposable containers.

A menu regular, the New England clam chowder ($4.62 for 12 ounces; $5.54 for 16) provided a great lunch on the go. It was full of flavor and satisfying, with plenty of bacon, clams and firm potato chunks. A generous slice of sourdough bread -- real, crusty San Francisco sourdough -- made an excellent companion, especially when dipped in the broth.

Your choice of sourdough or a soft whole wheat-oat bread comes free with the soup. I preferred the sourdough to the other bread, which I found a little too sweet, especially with a savory soup.

Chicken, shiitake and bok choy ($4.16 or $5.08), a specialty soup, was another winner. Big slices of mushroom infused the lightly spicy broth with their meaty flavor, and the chunks of chicken breast were tender. My only complaint with this soup was that the bok choy was limp and a little gray.

The Soup Company's most popular seller, the signature Mexican chicken tortilla ($4.16 or $5.08), was thick and satisfying on its own, though a little bland. But the toppings -- cilantro, cheese and blue corn chips -- gave it a nice kick and interesting texture.

West African peanut ($4.16 or $5.08), a specialty soup, had an interesting, creamy texture with a hint of peanuts and bites of tender chicken. But it lacked something -- possibly pepper or herbs -- to make it more interesting.

The East Palo Alto site, located off the courtyard of the University Circle office complex, caters to the pass-card crowd, i.e. workers from the complex and nearby offices. For those who want to eat in, the restaurant has a large, comfortable seating area, with a wide view of the courtyard fountain. It's a quiet and pleasant place to sip soup, though the decor is a little reminiscent of an airport food court, with its beige-and-black industrial furniture and abstract, multi-colored wall hanging.

One hitch with the soup concept is that if you're a teenager, an amateur athlete or an aerobics instructor -- someone who burns through calories like a grease fire -- even the 16-ounce large bowl won't come close to satisfying.

While the Soup Company addresses this by offering a selection of pre-made sandwiches and salads (a soup-and-salad or soup-and-half-sandwich combo meal is $5.99), these additions do not shine the way their soups generally do.

The tuna salad and roasted vegetable half-sandwiches ($2.75 on their own) both suffered from soggy sandwich syndrome. Though the vegetables stayed crisp, the dressing had seeped into the bread -- always a problem with sandwiches made hours ahead of time.

And while the greens in the spinach and Caesar salad ($2.75) were fresh, the dressing was overly tart. The salads were also annoyingly difficult to eat with a plastic fork in a plastic clam shell.

At their East Palo Alto restaurant, the Sarvers decided to offer an expanded breakfast menu, which includes steel-cut oatmeal -- a fixture at all their locations -- as well as pastries, granola and omelets.

The oatmeal ($2.08 for small; $2.77 for large), made with oat grains that are cut rather than rolled flat, has a thick texture interspersed with the pleasant bite of the grains. It's cooked for an hour, then flavored with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. I found it sweet enough as it was, but you can add extra sugar and cinnamon as well as milk, raisins and granola.

My omelet ($3.95) came out rather flat, but the fillings -- I chose cheddar, ham and tomatoes -- were all quality ingredients and packed a lot of flavor. I was also happy to find toast made from real whole-grain bread rather than the all-too-common white bread disguised with brown dye.

But the favorite on the breakfast table was the ginger, carrot and sunflower seed muffin ($1.75) made by Raison D'etre, a San Francisco bakery. It was moist, redolent of fresh ginger and nutmeg, and my breakfast companion and I tore it apart all too quickly.

San Francisco Soup Company is a great place for office workers to grab a light, quick lunch. But if you have a big appetite, your best bet is to approach the noon meal like a brunch: Order a large soup and throw in a muffin.

Reservations: no
Credit Cards: yes
Alcohol: no
Takeout: yes
Highchairs: no
Catering: yes
Outdoor seating: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: good
San Francisco Soup Company, 1950 University Circle, Ste. 101 in East Palo Alto; (650) 322-7687;
Hours: Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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