Up until last week, it hasn’t much looked like winter here in the Bay Area. Yet winter it is, and with it comes chillier weather, seasonal flus, and (we hope) days filled with rain. There’s little better than a big bowl of soup to sooth a wintry soul: chicken noodle and take-out pho are fine picks, but there is a whole world of Mexican soups hidden amongst the burritos and beer in the Mission. Mexican soups like pozole and menudo are the strongholds, but Salvadoran and Yucatan restaurants each have their own twists on these classics.
We traveled up and down Mission Street to slurp the best soups we could find. Not wanting to limit our search for brunch-only specials, we focused on soups that are available just about any time of day for any kind of soup emergency. Four restaurants and their specialties stood at the top of the pack.
Pozole: Gallardos Mexican Restaurant
It would be hard to understand the transformative power of hominy without tasting Gallardos pozole. Each toothsome kernel offers its own burst of sweet corn flavor, with small pieces slowly drifting off into the deeply porky broth. The hominy thickens, flavors, and enriches the soup, haunting each successive bite, making it impossible to put down the spoon. The pork itself is a delight as well, with large pieces of bone-in meat adding heft and protein to the bowl. Toppings—radishes, cabbage, lime juice—are obligatory, providing textural contrast, bright zip, and a pop of color.
On the weekends, a line forms out the door populated with diners hoping to nosh on their house speciality: birra, spicy braised lamb served with a rich broth. But on a weekday, those soup lovers searching for something other than pozole should seek out the caldo de res (beef soup). The soup is more akin to a pot roast served in broth, with towering hunks of beef shank and short ribs almost overwhelming the subtle broth. Equally large pieces of super soft carrots, potato, corn, and zucchini break up the bounty of beef.
Gallardos itself is a pleasant place to pass the afternoon. Their new space at 18th and Shotwell is bright, airy, and still adorned with huge black and white photos of classic Mexican movie stars. The decor is far from the Tex-Mex kitsch typical of the neighboring taquerias. Best of all, on a quiet weekday afternoon, there are only a few other diners, offering plenty of room to slurp down a transformative bowl of pozole in peace.
Caldo de Pollo: Chava’s Restaurant
If brothy chicken soup sounds like more of a winter cure, head to Chava’s for their caldo de pollo. It is a soup with little fanfare: bone-in chicken, vegetables, and copious broth. But forget the solid bits for a minute. Sip on the broth. Slurp it from a spoon, soak it into a tortilla. Inhale. Let its quiet warmth fill the belly. Then, only then, bite into the miraculously tender chicken breast, tear apart the wings, and savor the vegetables. Chava’s caldo de pollo will not win any awards for creativity, but it’d be my first choice the next time I’m down with the flu.
Chava’s also serves a colorful sopa 7 mares, a seafood soup of shrimp, octopus, fish, scallops, crab, mussels, clam, and squid. The broth, perfumed with shellfish, is far more satisfying than the chewy morsels inside. Flaky white fish is on the dry side, and the clams and mussels gritty. The advertised crab and scallops were hard to find.
Unlike Gallardos, Chava’s is abundant in south-of-the-border décor. Its pleasant tackiness distracts from the bustle of the 24th Street BART across the street, making the restaurant a calm oasis at lunchtime. Service is friendly, but hands-off, a boon to anyone looking to cure a cold with their restorative chicken soup.
Caldo de Res: SanJalisco
For some of the best in Mexican beef soup, take a jaunt down to 20th and Van Ness to bustling SanJalisco. Walking into the beloved Mexican joint feels like stepping into a curious amalgamation of a 1950′s American diner and a wizened Tex-Mex restaurant. A long, Formica countertop anchors the space, which is accented with padded booths, Coco-Cola swag and coffee percolators. Sit down, and you’ll be greeted with a long menu of Mexican staples, all-day breakfast, and if you’re lucky, a mariachi band.
SanJalisco is famous for their chilaquiles, but their soups are far from something to scoff at. On the day of our visit, a chicken-filled pozole verde was on special—a tangy, bright example of the form, abundant with fresh green chiles. The stew is not as rib-sticking as Gallardos’s pork version, but nearly as satisfying. Even better is their caldo de res. Less a fork and knife meal than in other restaurants, SanJalisco’s take is a broth beefy and pure, punctuated with meltingly tender short ribs and properly tender vegetables. Fresh, well-charred homemade tortillas are a fine accompaniment, as is the rice—it is crunchy on its own, but a dip into the warm broth plumps the grains and infuses them with the soul of the soup.
Sopa de Pescado and Sopa de Res: La Santaneca De La Mission
Back up on Mission Street is a small Salvadoran restaurant worthy of its profuse admiration. Yelpers sing praises of La Santaneca De La Mission’s pupusas, but don’t skip the soups—rainy day or not—on your visit.
Sliding into a booth in their crowded, dimly lit dining room is like stepping into a womb-like cocoon. Inhaling whiffs of broth, corn, and cheese wafting out from the kitchen heightens the sense of warmth. This comfort only increases upon the first sips of soup. Try first the fragrant sopa de pescado. Its broth, enhanced with tomato and infused with mysterious Salvadoran spices, is far more complex than fish bones simmered in water. Each successive spoonful reveals more even complexity; it would be easy to get lost in the broth without even trying the fish. Yet the seafood, cooked bone-in and skin on, is a wonder in itself. Just cooked through and robustly seasoned, the pieces of fish are as fine as in any white tablecloth restaurant. Large chunks of hard boiled egg are a fun surprise.
The sopa de res, El Salvador’s version of Mexican beef stew, was also impossible to put down. Where SanJalisco’s beef broth was light, La Santaneca De La Mission’s is marrow rich. Like their sopa de pescado, the beef broth is imbued with Salvadoran aromatics, topped with hearty chopped greens, and shot through with lemon juice. Each element of the soup, from the succulent short ribs to the wholesome vegetables is clearly executed with care. It is possible to love the bites of tender chayote squash just as much as the pieces of beef.
La Santaneca De La Mission
2815 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Hours: Mon-Thu 8:30am-8pm, Fri-Sat 8:30am-10pm, Sun 8:30am-9pm
Soup Price Range: $7.75-$13.75, CASH ONLY