Tunnel Explorer: Soup Cowboy
A line isn't always a good sign.
I love soup. Back when my wife and I were living very much hand to mouth, soup was a constant in our kitchen. It's delicious, economical, and almost endlessly variable. We often employed a technique I learned from my mother's mother's mother, called the Never Ending Soup Pot. Kept on the back burner at a bare simmer, she would add to the pot every day. Scraps and trimmings, whatever was available.
I took a slightly less random approach, but kept the same basic idea, turning a pot of brothy vegetable soup into a creamy soup studded with meat or seafood, into a chowder, over the course of a week. Each day's offering was different enough that it never felt like constantly eating leftovers. To this day, we enjoy the process of creation and innovation that goes so synonymously with soup.
Imagine my excitement, then, when I heard about the opening of Soup Cowboy in the downtown tunnels. A couple dozen varieties of soup, scratch-made daily from fresh ingredients, sounds like a great idea for a downtown lunch joint, offering convenience, nutrition, and variety in a bowl. As soon as word reached me, I made plans to check it out. Due to work conflicts, I didn't make it down for their opening day. This was probably a good thing.
The first thing I noticed about Soup Cowboy was the line. Tucked into the back corner of the food court under Pennzoil Place, the line snaked around Soup Cowboy's small interior space, and out toward the elevators. When I arrived with a colleague in tow, the promise of fresh, vegetarian friendly food enticing her away from the closer environs of the Shops at Houston Center, there were probably about forty people in line. Given that this was a soup joint, and everything was basically already made, I figured that wouldn't be a problem. Soup Cowboy had only been open for a few days, and this was just a sign of the initial positive buzz.
I was wrong. Regardless what buzz had drawn the crowds, it wasn't what was keeping them standing around. In addition to its soup offerings, Soup Cowboy prides itself on its fresh, "hand-carved sandwiches." During my visit, the sandwiches were being constructed by two young men, whom I shall call "The Cutter" and "The Assembler." The Cutter seemed as if this must certainly have been his first job working with food, and quite possibly his first job, period. I timed him. It took six minutes for him to "hand carve" half a link of sausage for my sandwich, knife-hand shaking the whole while. I am in fear for his digits.
I remarked to my companion that they really ought to implement a two-tiered ordering system, with one line for those who are willing to wait for the extra rusticity of hand carved meat, and one for those who simply want a cup of soup. There are two registers. This is doable.
Despite the lines, I was still enthusiastic about trying the place out. The menu sounded promising, and I appreciated the fact that they were stepping out there a bit, offering some soups that seemed a bit unexpected coming from a office-worker lunch spot. There were even two cold soups on the menu, a tomato-based gazpacho and a melon-basil soup.
Intrigued, I opted for a cup of chilled honeydew-basil soup, along with half of a jalapeño sausage sandwich with cilantro aioli. I figured that a refreshing cold soup would pair well with what I hoped would be a spicy sandwich. After The Cutter finished meticulously slicing rustic chunks of sausage and piling them between two very small slices of multi-grain bread (an interesting take on the notion of a half-sandwich), I took my meal to a nearby table, wanting to eat the soup while it was still cold, rather than allowing it to come up to room temp. on the walk back to my office.
The first bad omen was the color of the soup. It was not a vibrant, inviting green. Rather, it was a sort of viscous-looking, semi-transparent split-pea color that did nothing to whet my appetite. It looked dull, flat, and lifeless.
I bent my head into the bowl, hoping for a bright and slightly grassy waft of melon, with a hearty punch of aromatic basil. What I got was perfume. Nervously, I dipped my spoon in and tasted. Perfume, again, but with a cloying onslaught of sweetness.
I know I ordered melon soup, and that I should expect some sweetness, but this was out of control. Maybe, just maybe, it could have worked as a dessert course. It needed something to counterbalance the sweetness, at the very least. Even just a simple jolt of zingy lime would have helped keep this from tasting like an old lady's potpourri sachet soaked in syrup.
The sandwich didn't fare much better. Nothing more than a handful of sausage pieces on dry bread, squirted with a little bit of (admittedly good) cilantro aioli, the sandwich was dry and one dimensional. I'm all for simplicity, but in order for it to work, ingredients and execution have to be impeccable. The sausage was clearly mass-market stuff (I'm guessing Chappel Hill), and the whole thing was assembled slap-dash. I will give them some points for the aioli, which bore the bright green punch of actual cilantro.
After all this negativity, I feel compelled to tell you that I'll be returning to Soup Cowboy. They have some kinks in their ordering system, the service is unreasonably slow, and I was disappointed with my initial meal there. Still, I like the idea well enough to give them another shot, and I knew going in that I was ordering the odd-ball on the menu. Perhaps they do better with the more usual suspects. I certainly hope so. You can expect a follow up post soon. Until then, don't get the melon soup, and skip the sandwiches, or don't say I didn't warn you.
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