When I was little and hammered by the flu, my mom always put me on a strict diet of flat 7-Up, saltines, and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. It’s a prescription I’ve followed up to now whenever I’ve got (in her words) the collywobbles, but with the onset of flu season and the weather getting nasty, I started wondering about more appealing medicinal options.
6207 N. Milwaukee
I used to frequent Amitabul, Chicago’s only vegan Korean restaurant, back in the 90s when it was on Southport, but it had fallen off my radar since moving to far-northwest-side Norwood Park six years ago. When I trekked out to the tranquil storefront cafe on a dreary Sunday evening I was burdened by nothing worse than a mild hangover, but I was hoping a bowl of Dr. K’s Cure All Noodle Soup would put me back in fighting trim. Touted as a remedy for colds, flu, sore throats, and, yes, hangovers, the spicy concoction was created by chef Dave Choi (who also owns Jim’s Grill) for frequent customer Linda Krinsky, a chiropractor with severe allergies. For $7.95 you get a steaming bowl of tofu, seaweed, your choice of rice or wheat noodles, and veggies–carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, bean sprouts, zucchini–in a miso broth laced with sinus-clearing doses of cayenne and garlic. Amitabul also offers a “flu soup” of kimchi, garlic, bean sprouts, and tofu in a miso broth. Interestingly, Korean researchers recently announced that they’d successfully treated chickens infected with avian flu with a diet of kimchi, a cure that may have something to do with high levels of lactic acid in the fermented cabbage.
Ssyal Ginseng House
4201 W. Lawrence
Two days later with temperatures plummeting, I was ready for another pick-me-up. The saam gae tang, or chicken ginseng soup, at Ssyal Ginseng House has been praised for its restorative powers on the culinary chat site LTHForum.com, and I was excited to try it for myself. I finally made it to the superbright storefront on Lawrence at 9 PM, and I don’t know if the problem was the late hour, my obvious saam gae tang virginity, or the substantial language barrier, but the soup the very kind waitress brought me seemed a distant relation to the “opaque, earthy-smelling potion” described in a 1997 Tribune story. As promised, it’s a good-size iron pot of literally boiling broth in the middle of which simmers a whole small, naked chicken. The chest cavity of the bird is stuffed with a wad of sticky rice and a couple of tasty red dates, but the broth itself tasted like, well, boiled chicken water with a slightly twiggy aftertaste. After digging around in the bottom of the pot I dislodged a three-inch log of ginseng root and a mushy garlic clove, and I tried to jazz things up with green onions and an unhealthy dose of salt, but even as the tender hen disintegrated in the bowl the whole thing remained resolutely bland. More stimulating were the accompanying panchan (traditional Korean side dishes), including kimchi, daikon, bitter sea greens, and tiny dried silver fish.
1137 W. Argyle
The next night I dragged a friend to Argyle Street for pho, the Vietnamese staple that comforts many a Chicagoan in the dead of winter. At Pho 888, steps from the Red Line tracks, we feasted on the restaurant’s signature dish, pho dac biet. It’s a huge, steaming bowl of rice noodles in beef broth in which float pieces of thinly sliced flank steak and eye of round, plus brisket, a gnarly hunk of tendon, and several unnerving ribbons of bible tripe. The broth is light and delicately nuanced; you can dress it to taste with sprigs of fresh mint and basil, jalapenos, lime, and hot chile sauce. By the time I was done messing with it the soup had developed a complex body and tang, an intoxicating aroma, and an unfortunate gray-green tinge. At $5.45 it’s a mad bargain.
Podhalanka Polska Restauracja
1549 W. Division
When the kimchi-bird flu story broke in the States, sales of sauerkraut went through the roof, with some stores in the midwest reporting spikes of 850 percent. Inspired, I stopped at Podhalanka–an oasis of Polish home cooking in Wicker Park–late in the week for a bowl of Cabbage soup ($2.60). Hot brined cabbage may be as much of an acquired taste as tripe or ginseng, but this tart ochre stew adroitly pulls off a three-way marriage of sour, sweet, and savory, and it warmed my bones in record time. As a palliative it might be too strong for a fragile stomach, but as preventive medicine? Well, I haven’t gotten sick yet.
3107 N. Broadway
The next day I wrapped up with a trip to Lakeview to try the Mish-Mash soup at the Bagel. The curative powers of chicken soup are a source of ongoing debate: some advance the view that it’s a cellular anti-inflammatory, others hold that an amino acid in chicken skin soothes the respiratory tract, and still others think the benefits are purely psychological. Regardless, huge bowls of the “Jewish penicillin” appeared to be the order du jour at the busy diner; one $6.95 portion is enough to soothe a whole sick family. The everything bagel of chicken soup, it includes noodles, rice, kasha, one doughy kreplach, and a matzo ball the size of a regulation baseball; for $8 it’s available by the half gallon to go. But though I’m fond of the concept, the multitude of starches jostling in the bottom of the bowl can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, the Bagel also offers plain old chicken noodle.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.