That salty-golden aroma, the rich, steamy chicken broth, the fun of cutting a spoon into your matzoh ball and then letting the chewy dumpling dissolve in your mouth...a good bowl of matzoh ball soup is more than a meal. It's a hug in digestible form.
Although Chicago beats my hometown of Akron, Ohio, by most counts, it lacks one key ingredient close to my heart: the chicken elixir I grew up on, a heavy-on-the-schmaltz joint effort by my grandmother and great-aunt. As far as I'm concerned, there is no substitute on the planet.
With Passover on the horizon and no plane ticket home, I sought the closest thing to my homemade rendition. I'm pleased to say that I found a few out there I would happily serve to Bubbie herself.
This Gold Coast deli counter may not deliver on frills—there are only four tables in the joint, and your soup comes in a Styrofoam bowl whether you're hitting the road or dining in-house—but it garnered first-prize honors. The golden broth, packed with honest chicken-and-vegetable flavor and just the right amount of oil, has a buttery flavor, and the matzoh balls have a satisfying, chewy center. The friendly man who ladled it up tells us that the two chefs who work this magic are 79 and 80 years old, which goes to show that this art takes practice. A bowl plus two bagel chips will run you only $2.75, leaving you plenty of cash to splurge for a piece of chocolate-chunk mandel bread.
Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli
When a restaurant has the confidence to share its recipe with the world, you know you're in for the real thing. Open since 1942, Manny's feeds so many loyal sippers that the chef gives would-be customers the option of brewing their own. A celery bunch gives the broth extra oomph with its lip-puckering vegetable flavor, and a $3.55 bowl comes loaded with a schmaltzy matzoh ball, kreplach and noodles or rice ($5.95 gets you a full quart). Owned by a family with Russian roots who take pride in traditional cooking, Manny's also offers tongue, ox tail stew and other ultra-authentic recipes.
Eleven City Diner
A break from the dimly lit, throwback-decor diner norm, Eleven City mimics the Carnegie Deli-style humongous portions. The broth errs on the clear (read: dull) side, but the matzoh ball cradled within has an outstanding, chewy texture that gets harder and denser toward the center. For us, this is a measure of greatness. You also have the option of a kreplach or noodles in your bowl should you want them. At $3.50, the comfort comes cheap, but hungry folks can pair soup with pastrami on rye for $10.
The must-try version here, the Mish-Mash soup, boasts not only a fat matzoh ball but also kreplach, kasha, noodles and rice...all the better to absorb the tasty broth, if you ask us. A bowl runs about $8, but it's more of a meal than other spots dish out. The big-as-your-head kreplach and matzoh ball, floating in a sea of soup, will challenge even the heartiest appetites. You can also grab a half-gallon to go, or call for delivery after 11 a.m. on weekdays, after 4 p.m. on weekends.
"Some of the younger people, they ask what matzoh ball soup is," says owner Steve Gelman, who runs his family's nearly 70-year-old Lincoln Park diner. "It's like if someone were to ask me what a noodle is. I don't know...it's a noodle." Here the soft matzoh balls float in a chicken broth enhanced with carrots, onions and turnips. Like the corned beef, brisket and the deli's other Jewish-cooking staples, the recipe traveled here with Gelman's family from Poland, and has stood the test of time. In Gelman's words, "It's a tradition thing."A bowl of soup costs $4.50.
For more bowls of matzoh ball, check out:
Kaufman's Bagel and Delicatessen
Ada's Famous Deli and Restaurant
Chalfin's New York Style Delicatessen