Passover isn’t until March, which is when discussion of the infinite depths of matzo ball soup always tend to heat up. So it seems a little early to turn much attention to the pairing of fat-bound matzo meal kneidlach and schmaltzy chicken broth, but matzo ball soup seems to be having a moment with the recent opening of three modern delis each with its own interpretations.
But it wouldn’t be right to address these arguably brash upstarts without first acknowledging the old guard. The matzo ball soup at Manny’s is likely the oldest continuously served mbs recipe in the city. “We don’t like to change things,” says owner Dan Raskin, who says the 78-year-old deli sells about 300 balls a day, depending on the time of year. At $4.95 a bowl it adheres to the most common expectations of something bubbe might put in front of you: two dense sinkers wallowing in a vivid yellow chicken stock with a surface pearlescent with schmaltz, salty as hell, but imbued with poultritude. And there’s body to this broth beyond just the fat. When chilled it almost—but not quite—becomes jellied, indicating a good measure of bony collagen.
If Manny’s sets a standard for the way chicken should impart both flavor and texture to soup, Skokie’s 61-year-old Kaufman’s is a surprising disappointment. Two nicely fluffy floaters in a $7.50 quart are done no favors by a thin, dishwater-colored broth that tastes of little but salt. Lots of great stuff at this beloved bakery-deli—just not the soup.
Among the old-timers, Edgewater’s JB’s Deli, housed inside owner Jeff Bendix’s drugstore, is a bit of an oddball itself, but its pale yellow soup base flecked with herbal material and bobbing with thick carrot coins is a happy medium between Manny’s saline intensity and Kaufman’s drab austerity. Its ball, submerged in a $5.59 bowl, is among the densest.
Ursula Siker’s Jeff & Judes was among the most exciting openings last year, period. It’s a Humboldt Park tribute to her native LA’s deli culture, and the mbs itself is in homage to her grandfather, “a known difficult diner originally from Long Island who would send it back if the matzo ball wasn’t big enough.”
Her rigor is admirable: “Our matzo ball recipe was originally derived from The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook,” she wrote to me. “We immersion-blend eggs and schmaltz together until super light and fluffy, then add in baking powder, matzo meal, and a blend of spices, and combine. Let rest covered for around 20-30 minutes, and then portion and shape using wet hands (not too loose, not too tight, or else you run the risk of them exploding in the water or never cooking through). The cook is a bit finicky—you gotta drop the balls into a strong boil and then reduce to a simmer, flipping halfway through, for 15-20 minutes, and of course, we must always sacrifice a matzo ball to make sure they are being cooked all the way through.
“I know there’s a lot of debate on what goes into matzo ball soup—just broth, or maybe veg, chicken, noodles, one big ball or lots of little guys, how you cut the carrots. The list goes on. Depending who you ask you’ll get any combination of the aforementioned, and they will tell you theirs is standard and everything else sacrilege. So here is the true standard, of which anything else is sacrilege: one large matzo ball sitting in chicken broth, with shredded chicken and carrot coins. No garnish, and absolutely no celery.”
However, this is not a minimalist broth. Siker roasts her chicken bones and simmers them for 12 to 16 hours with carrot, celery, onion, garlic, dill, and parsley. She thinks it yields an almost “green” stock, but I think those toasty bones give it an amber depthlessness, nicely balanced, deeply chickeny, and not nearly as dependent on salt as the other contestants.
The most astonishing soup in this lineup is from the West Loop’s Rye Deli & Drink, and I’m a little surprised that Austin, Texas, native Billy Caruso’s “seasonal” soup hasn’t sparked more controversy. The current version’s tennis ball-sized dumplings are made with a mix of blue corn and matzo meal, while the soup itself is more of a stew, thick with shredded chicken and aggressively seasoned with cumin, zaatar, and dill. It comes with printed instructions detailing at-home application of an herb salad garnish with a riot of thinly-sliced, neon-bright beets and radishes that transform any leftovers into a royal purple borscht. It’s ridiculously delicious, but I could see purists rebelling against this assertively cheffy expression. (Does anyone’s bubbe work from a five-page recipe?)
Both Siker and Caruso’s soups remind me of the great mbs at the late Frunchroom in Portage Park, and how an ambitious chef can take regular old granny food to another level. But if you think those are weird, get a load of Uptown’s newish vegan deli Sam & Gertie’s (from the owners of the vegan diner Kalish), which will introduce an all plant-based mbs to its menu this month. At presstime Andy Kalish had yet to provide any intel on how he’ll pull this off, but I’m certainly curious.
Finally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the giant sinker served at Steingold’s but if all of this innovation makes you nervous, you can turn to it for reliable comfort when it reopens at its new Lakeview location early next month. v
Eds. note: This has been updated to correct the location of Rye Deli & Drink to the West Loop.