For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Of course the restaurant which consistently wins top honors at the huge Chicken Soup Cookoff each year at Congregation Emanu El would place on our list as well. Kenny & Ziggy's simple yet enormous chicken soup with matzo balls is straight-up comfort food, the deli version of chicken and dumplings but with extra schmaltz.
4. Niko Niko's
This isn't just chicken soup -- it's a silky, tangy, almost creamy bowl of citrus-scented heaven thanks to its base of eggs and lemon. It's great for a cold in the dead of winter, but it's even better chilled on a hot summer day. And if you just can't get enough of the stuff at Niko Niko's, take a shot at making it yourself with Dimitri Fetokakis's own recipe.
3. Pho Ga Dakao
Like beef pho, chicken pho is made by boiling chicken bones and other assorted parts for hours on end to form a rich, fatty stock. To that, Pho Ga Dakao adds meat -- light or dark, your choice -- as well as buttery chicken skin and even organ meat if you're feeling adventurous. Chicken hearts and gizzards give the soup a complexity and tangy bite, but it's just as good with plain old breast meat, too. Doctor it up with lime juice, cilantro, mint or Sriracha to your liking, and you're left with a bowl of chicken soup that's as good for a cold as it is for enjoying on its own, rich, chicken-y merits.
You probably wouldn't know it to look at it, but this tiny Cuban/Mexican restaurant with a drive-thru offers up the best chicken tortilla soup in the city. Walk inside, though, and you'll see the chickens rotating on the old-fashioned rotisserie, some of which, we're certain, are the base of the stock that gives El Rey's soups its extraordinary depth of flavor. With the addition of tomatoes, chiles, chunks of chicken, corn, cheese and tortilla strips, you've got a soup that for sheer absolute deliciousness will stand up against the most elegant lobster bisque in town.
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Unlike a standard caldo de pollo or caldo xochitl, the caldo Tlalpeño at Tacos del Julio calls for the addition of a very important ingredient: chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. The dark red chiles come in a little plastic cup full of adobo, allowing you to flavor the broth as you see fit as stocky white squares of queso panela bob throughout the soup. The vegetables are similarly thick: ripe hunks of carrot, avocado and potato are barely covered by the broth in the bowl. Dosed with generous squirts of fresh lime, the caldo Tlalpeño is the kind of stuff that will fully reinvigorate you -- and for less than $4.