BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Darn Good Soup, on the west side of the downtown Square, is like a Baskin-Robbins for the chowder crowd, except it has way more than 31 flavors. Unfortunately, they aren’t all available at once. But the fact that there are nine soups daily — some with meat or seafood, and always vegetarian and vegan options — puts some spice in the day of true Darn Good Soup devotees, who check the website every morning to see which of the 70-plus varieties are on the menu.
Owner Nels Boerner has a simple method for making his decisions. With the exception of a few stalwarts which appear every day — spinach lentil, chicken tortilla, and chili — and a few seasonal choices, Boerner decides which soups to make by pulling the recipe cards from the front of the box and rotating them to the back. In the busy season (think crisp, fall days; blustery storms; snow on the ground; and chill, early spring) it takes about three weeks for the cycle to complete and start over.
The soups are uniformly wonderful. There are hearty soups (Sally’s Spicy Bean and Split Pea with Hickory Ham), exotic soups (Sweet Potato Coconut or Bakso, an Indonesian meatball soup), traditional (yummy potato leek but, oddly, no chicken noodle, which didn’t sell well) and the super creative. Boerner has a penchant for playing around with dishes everyone loves — deconstructing them and reassembling the ingredients in a way that transforms them into a satisfying and wonderful bowl of darn goodness. Who knew that sweet and sour pork, beef bourguignon, unstuffed cabbage, and chicken potpie would all make fabulous soups?
With the exception of a chunk of bread, cookies, Hartzell’s ice cream, and a simple side salad, soup is what you get at Boerner’s restaurant. Darn good soup, yes, but just soup. And that’s no accident. The 50-year-old Boerner has been working in the food industry off and on for almost half of his life (most of that at The Uptown Café.) He loves to feed people but was weary of all the fooferaw (his word) that comes with fine dining. And he knows how particular the restaurant-going public can be, wanting to add a little more this, leave off some of that. Soup, he figures, avoids the fuss. Once it’s in the pot, it’s in the pot — a take-it-or-leave-it dining option that, if it is delicious enough (and it is), people will take with gusto.
It’s a simplifying gamble that has paid off. Most of the time Darn Good Soup is jammed with people queuing up for one of the tables in the small shop or grabbing soup to go. The online menu (darngoodsoup.com) makes deciding what to order easy, and it gives you the skinny (or the fat) on each of the soups Boerner serves up. Even if what you’re craving isn’t on the day’s menu, you can check the ingredients online and take a stab at making it yourself. But since Boerner leaves the “secret spices” out of the ingredient list, you just might want to wait awhile. It’s never long before the card comes to the front of the box once again.