At this time of year, solace and fortitude are more liable to be found steaming in a soup bowl than sitting naked on a plate. There is no set of circumstances, for instance, that cannot be improved by Irma's caldo de pollo: a fragrant chicken broth in which bob hunks of zucchini, cabbage, potato, corn and crimson bell pepper, all energized by feathery branches of cilantro. Tiny Mexican alphabet noodles make a comforting bonus -- and so does soup auteur Irma Galvan, everyone's favorite mom substitute. Her raffish, festive, plate-lunch spot only seems to get better, and a few restorative spoonfuls of chicken soup illustrates why. (22 North Chenevert, 222-0767.)
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Autumn at Brennan's brings chef Carl Walker's butternut squash soup back to the dinner menu, and not a moment too soon. This dusty-ocher elixir manages to be at once elegant and soulful: its natural squash sweetness electrified by the spicy andouille sausage that has been pureed into the mix. Most squash soups are insipid compared to this one, which captures fall in a single, life-enhancing bowl. (3300 Smith, 522-9711.)
Burger Alert: So what if Caesar salad is the lettuce world's current cliche? Put one on top of a high-quality hamburger, as they do at the River Oaks Burger Joint, and you have the stuff of which addictions are made. This so-called Caesar Burger has crunch and pungency and a fine slide factor, thanks to a garlicky, mustard-shot dressing that coats big shards of romaine. Sharp Parmesan adds exclamation points, and a melt of swiss ties it all together. Ask for your ground Black Angus medium rare, and you'll have a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. This burger has already enjoyed a three-week run as my New Favorite Thing -- which is about a week longer than my New Favorite Things usually last ... and counting. (4074 Westheimer, 993-0100.)
Bread Bulletin: So many fancy new bread boutiques, so little time to determine which loaves are the ones for you. In the interest of speeding the editing process, I give you Three-Seed bread from the brand-new Big Sky Bread Company: dense, sturdy stuff with a discreet trace of molasses sweetness and a haunting texture that comes from jillions of tiny poppy, sesame and sunflower seeds. To taste it in toast form is to find yourself a believer. A two-pound loaf can be had for $3.25 at this first Texas outpost of a Cincinnati (!) outfit, deep in the heart of West U World. (5314 Weslayan at Bissonnet, 667-5900.)
-- Alison Cook