Another hard-hitting news item in the newspaper formerly known as the Gazette recently caught my eye. Some shopping mall somewhere had just the thing for holiday shoppers: a psychic who will divine all their gift-giving needs and intuit what would best suit each person on the gift list. I disagree. Harried shoppers don't need to be relieved of arduous decision-making; what they need is soup.
They also need to stay out of shopping malls, but that's another rant. Let's begin again:
Looking for the perfect gift? Wandering agog and groggy through downtown shops? Exhausted by the options in Old Colorado City? Handcrafted into catatonia in Manitou Springs? Revitalize yourself the old-fashioned way: Have some soup.
Within walking distance of that hard-won parking spot you snagged on Tejon Street are some terrific soup options. Try the Smoked Gouda Soup at Phantom Canyon (2 E. Pikes Peak Ave.), flavored with their Phantom ale, a mild golden brew. Sure, it's got six weeks' worth of fat, but you'll walk it off. It'll warm your innards and make you happy.
Or head to Sencha (331 S. Nevada Ave.), where each day offers two soups, one constant, one changing. The constant is a creamy mushroom, jazzed up with a hint of sherry. Although the broth is vegetable-based, the assorted mushrooms impart an earthy, almost beefy flavor. Two of the changing soups that we sampled were lentil and a cheese soup made with Monterey Jack. (See fat-allotment remark above.) The lentil was less exciting (as lentils tend to be) than the mushroom; the cheese soup was sublime. All soups are served with a wedge of crusty peasant bread that tasted as though it had been brushed with saltwater before baking, a bread baker's secret way to a perfect crust. Be sure to request your soup hot if, like me, you want the tip of your tongue to remember lunch. I think the fear of a McDonald's-ish hot-coffee lawsuit has made cowards of many restaurants. Too often soups are served at a tepid temperature.
Northward but still downtown, I recommend two spots for soup rejuvenation: Poor Richard's (324 N. Tejon St.) and Dale Street Caf (115 E. Dale St.). Poor Richard's some years back was the penultimate place for soup. While the soups are still good, they're not what they were. Thank goodness the funkiness and friendliness of the place hasn't changed. Of the three soups we tried, two had a certain murkiness, a soup ailment wherein flavors become unbalanced. In the Thai vegetable soup, for example, the peanut flavor overwhelmed the chili afterkick. The proportions seemed off. The vegetables -- baby corn, carrots, broccoli -- were mushy. The Northern Italian bean soup, however, was redolent with tomatoes and fresh basil. The big (and vaguely unpleasant) surprise was the creamy potato soup -- made not with cream but with sour cream. It had large chunks of potatoes, celery, onions and carrots. They need to change the name to minimize palate dissonance -- you know, when you expect one thing and taste another. All soups at Poor Richard's come with slices of Great Harvest's sweet wheat, confirming that man can and maybe should live by bread alone. Well, bread and poetry.
The Potato Soup With Rosemary at Dale Street Caf lives up to its description: a lush texture, bite-sized pieces of potato and celery infused with rosemary. It made a very satisfying snack with its accompanying small crusty roll. The soups change daily, but based on the twin billing of the potato soup and its partner, Pureed Red Pepper and Artichoke Soup, I'd expect any soup here to be fabulous. That something so simple as roasted red peppers and artichokes could turn into soup so sweet and velvety is a tribute to whoever's working the wizardry in their kitchen.
Pureeing is a superb method for thickening soups, blending flavors and creating interesting textures. If your shopping adventures take you westward, head for Adam's Mountain Caf (110 Cañon Ave., Manitou Springs), and hope they have the Curried Cauliflower Soup. This spicy soup is coarsely pureed, so most of the cauliflower is unrecognizable. The carrots, which add a visual and taste sparkle, were added afterward. The other soup we tried was Mushroom Quinoa With Roasted Rosemary Soup, very flavorful and adventurous. Quinoa, a wonderful, nutty grain, unfortunately doesn't have the bulk to last in soup and lost its texture. The folks at Adam's serve Great Harvest rolls with soups and persist in smearing butter atop the rolls, a practice I've never understood. I prefer to meet my butter on a plate.
Around the corner from Adam's, you can find one soup daily at the Manitou Bakery (729 Manitou Ave.), and some are quite delicious. Tomato Bisque and Roasted Butternut Squash With Curry will warm any belly. The chicken noodle uses homemade pasta. Eat your heart out, Campbell's.
Head eastward now toward Old Colorado City. Stop at Wild Ginger Thai Restaurant (3020 W. Colorado Ave.), which bills itself as "the spicy alternative to Southwestern cuisine." It should sell itself on the 10 soups on its menu, five of which have an ethereal blend of chilies, lemon grass and/or coconut milk. The Tom Kha Gai with chicken, tomatoes and mushrooms is especially memorable. Further down Colorado Avenue, stop in and check out the daily soup special at La Baguette (2417 W. Colorado Ave.). French Onion is a regular feature; a French spin on potato soup is another special.
A respite at Gertrude's (2625 W. Colorado Ave.) will revive you; a bowl of their Creamy Tomato Basil Soup will make your mouth sing. The Potato and Corn Chowder gets a zing from green chili; the West African Vegetable Soup combines butternut squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and carrots in a spicy peanut broth and finishes with a hint of magic. All soups come with a loaf of the homemade bread of the day, often an interesting herb and cheese bread.
You've no excuse now to cut that shopping short. You'll return to the streets with new vigor, focus and enthusiasm. Just stay out of the malls, and you'll be fine.