The Soup Loop
Souper Jenny sets the standard, but cup runneth over with other neighborhood options
As Buckhead's queen of soup, Jennifer Levison can tell you that winter is high season for turkey chili and chicken noodle.
You can find folks waiting in line on a cold day outside Souper Jenny, her restaurant at the corner of East Andrews Drive and Cains Hill Place, to get a warm cup of the “big, thick, chunky style of soup” that this homespun cook has been simmering and sloshing forth since 1998.
Around the time of Seinfeld’s notorious iron-ladled Soup Nazi, the actress needed a daytime gig and decided that Atlanta was lacking a good soup nook, so she opened one. To this day, she still skims from the top of the city's thespian pot to find employees for the popular spot. Her soup-dipping divas' headshots are displayed behind the counter, just like at the theater.
While copycats (including former employees) have hung soup shingles from Midtown to Sandy Springs, Levison's cosy, playfully decorated joint remains the definitive Buckhead soup kitchen. Levison, who lives in the community, feels the 'hood is part of the charm.
“I’ve met a lot of great people who live in this area from all walks of life,” says the restaurateur, who was born in Atlanta, grew up in Los Angeles and studied acting at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. “I especially like these streets back here. They are just sort of these tiny old streets that have been here for a long time. I think that Buckhead has a lot of nooks and crannies that people don’t know about.”
The entrepreneurial single mom plans to open Café Jonah, a coffee-house style place with an “inspirational” gift and book shop upstairs, in mid-February. The new endeavor will serve a mostly organic menu. It is named after Levison’s 7-year-old son, who attends the Galloway School.
This time of year, Souper Jenny ladles out a changing daily menu of six hot soups. Always on the menu are “My Dad’s Turkey Chili,” a Levison family favorite. You might find tomato-basil, chicken tortilla or healthy all-grain and all-veggie choices. Go to souperjennyatl.com to get on the daily email list.
Dinner is served only on Thursdays, when the star is grilled cheese sandwiches. You might see a bunch of young Gleeks in the house early in the evening, then an older crowd muching on Levison's fancier grilled-cheese creations later on. While you may recognize a local actor behind the counter anytime, the only way to get the full cream-of-canary treatment is at one of Souper Jenny’s annual cabarets.
Coming Feb. 12 and Feb. 14 is “Sex, Soup and That Schmuck That Left You: A Valentine’s Cabaret.” Levison will perform, as well as former staffer Wendy Melkonian and general manager Marcie Millard. Tickets are $60 and include dinner and dessert. Levison recruited Millard when they appeared together in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” at Actor’s Express in 2001.
At Stage Door Players last summer, Levison played the acidic Elaine Stritch role of Joanne in the same musical and got to belt the signature anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Here's to them.
One thing you should know about Souper Jenny is that it's cash or check only. There's an ATM machine right by the front counter. 56 East Andrews Drive N.E. 404-239-9023, souperjennyatl.com
Tokyo has the Ginza. Chicago has Miracle Mile. Buckhead has a soup loop, which runs from Souper Jenny’s west of Peachtree to the Corner Café, at Piedmont and East Paces Ferry. Here are some favorite cups.
Café at Pharr’s Clam Chowder. Famous for its chicken salads and the purveyor of a good honest chicken soup, this neighborhood gem not only has the best to-go packaging we encountered but one of the best clam chowders we’ve ever tasted. A fat-rich concoction of cream, potatoes and the essence of clams, it’s the kind of hearty elixir that’s begs to be drunk from a mug. It comes with two slices of baguette and a pack of oyster crackers. Another regular choice is vegetable-beef, though it is, well, Pharr less flavorful. 316 Pharr Road. 404-238-9288, cafeatpharr.com
Café Lapin’s French Onion. Tucked in the corner of Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, chef Mattie Hine’s adorable patisserie has wonderful cookies, quiche and a superb crock of French onion soup. This time of year you might also find carrot (how perfect), butternut squash or chicken vegetable. 2341 Peachtree Road. 404-812-9171. cafelapin.com
The New Yorker Marketplace & Deli’s Chicken and Vegetable. Glistening with just a little schmaltz and chock full of white meat, fresh celery and carrots, this is your definitive Jewish penicillin. And we liked the way the staff of this authentic hole-in-the-wall delicatessen wraps takeout soups in nearly airtight plastic to keep them from spilling on the way home. 322 Pharr Road. 404-240-0260.
The Corner Café’s Potato-Leek. Oddly for a place that sells bread, this casual Buckhead Life Group lunch-only place offers not a crumb with its to-go soups. So if you are carb-crazed you may want to dine in and enjoy the complimentary bread basket. Executive chef Greg Sears was kind enough to share his recipe for his vegan veggie soup (see sidebar). But the soup we really dug was the creamy potato-leek, which contained one perfect Eastern European-style potato dumpling floating on the surface. 3070 Piedmont Road. 404-240-1978. buckheadrestaurants.com/corner-cafe/
Corner Café’s Vegetable Soup
1 tablespoon (or more) extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups zucchini, diced
2 cups yellow squash, diced
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 quart V8 Juice
1 quart tomato juice
1 quart pureed canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 cups cooked white beans
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot. Stir in the zucchini, squash, onion and celery, and cook until translucent, about 15 minutes. Reduce heat and add V8, tomato juice and pureed tomatoes. Stir to incorporate the vegetables. Add thyme, bay leaves and salt and pepper. Simmer for 2 hours, uncovered and stir occasionally. Stir in the cook white beans, taste and adjust seasonings. — Courtesy of Executive Chef Greg Sears
Souper Jenny's Turkey Chili
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, cut into bite-size pieces
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces
1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces
1 green pepper, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces
3 pounds ground turkey
2 tablespoons (or more) chili powder
2 (28-ounce) cans low-sodium chopped tomatoes
1 (16-ounce) can chili beans
1 (16-ounce) can white beans, rinsed and drained
1 (16-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (16-ounce) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
Heat oil in a large soup pot. Add onion and peppers and saute until soft, about 10 minutes. Add ground turkey and cook through. Drain off fat. Add chili powder and stir. Add tomatoes and simmer another 10 minutes. Add beans, brown sugar and cilantro. Simmer until hot. — Courtesy of Chef Jennifer Levison