The Best…and the Rest: Matzo Ball Soup
Whether you’ve been celebrating like Don Draper the night before or just need to give your tummy a warm wake-up call, soup in the morning is a cure for the common breakfast. You can keep the greasy spoonfuls of eggs and bacon which do more to enflame than sooth a waking gut because a soothing bowl of soup rarely disappoints and always gets the sea legs firmly back on land.
Perhaps the preeminent choice of comfort in a bowl is matzo ball soup. The mixture of broth, chicken, carrots and noodles envelops the body like a motherly hug.
But it’s the matzo ball itself that is the gold-crusted yarmulke of the dish. Matzo ball soup (MBS) rises or falls on the quality of its golden globe. Thick and dense or small and mushy? That’s probably an age-old argument fought down through many Jewish generations.
According to Joan Nathan’s book Jewish Cooking in America, the original recipe for the dish was created by the mother of Louis B. Mayer, who, of course, formed one of the original “M’s” in the nascent days of MGM Studios. However the matzo (also spelled matzah or matzoh) dates as far back as Passover has been celebrated where the dry, unleavened matzo bread is consumed to symbolize, among other things, the Hebrews’ emancipation from Egyptian enslavement.
Regardless from whence it came, happy stomachs are grateful for MBS and, though versions vary, the soulfulness remains the same. So, in a city rich with Jewish comfort soup, whose bowl is the fairest of them all?
Art’s Deli (Studio City)
The first problem with Art’s MBS is the bowl itself. Roughly the size of a young man’s kneecap, the first several spoonfuls launch soup overboard with only a thin, paper napkin to act as a life raft.
Like ketchup with fries, crispy bagel chips are necessary pairings alongside a bowl to dip and dunk, and insure your carb intake in one morning eclipses its recommend level for the week. Art’s bagel chips are spectacular, starting cracker crisp and then turning perfectly spongy when sopping up the soup.
The ball, however, has little back bone and disintegrates halfway through consumption, leaving floating corpses of matzo meal drowning on the surface. There’s plenty of tender chicken chards and carrot chunks, but only a paltry few wimpy, wispy noodles that spoil the balance of the bowl.
Brent’s Deli (Northridge and Westlake)
To many deliphiles, Brent’s is the Mt. Everest of LA’s pickle-n-rye set. Without a doubt, Brent’s sandwiches usually tower nearly as high as the world’s tallest mountain, and their take on MBS similarly doesn’t disappoint.
First, they’re the only deli that offers a choice of dunking sides: bagel chips, hot rye bread, crispy rye heels or crackers. The bagel chips are first-rate with potato-chip crispness and a sumptuous buttery flavor that adds an extra richness to the broth when dipped.
Then there’s that broth. Brent’s soup is bland in comparison to other places which actually works in their favor to not overwhelm the main attractions in the bowl. The noodles are two inches of silky ribbons. The chicken is generous and succulent. The carrots melt in the mouth. But the real superstar here is the ball itself. Larger than a beer-league softball, the matzo mass stays consistent throughout the meal and never falls apart. The sphere’s rich, sweet corn flavor further infuses the soup with delicious distinctiveness.
Canter’s Deli (On Fairfax in LA)
It might seem blasphemous, but this dark and dingy hipster haunt serves up some of the laziest, priciest deli food in LA. Look no further than their take on MBS. Literally, a matzo ball…in soup. That’s it. No chicken, no carrots, no noodles, no nothing.
With so few elements, you would hope the kitchen would at least nail the ingredients they did include. Wrong. The ball is tepid at the fringes and dead cold in the center. The Canter’s bowl is a good way to start the morning if you hate your job because at least things can’t get worse.
Factor’s Famous Deli (On Pico in LA)
Factor’s is one of the few delis that assert the flavor of the broth more than the surrounding elements. The soup boasts a rich, buttery base with an almost milky color. The richness of the simmered chicken bones is strongly evident and meshes well with the earthy, corny notes of the ball.
It’s a shame that the heartiness of the broth doesn’t render the chunks of chicken succulent. It’s almost as if the two married too late in the process and thus have a chalky relationship destined for annulment. The noodles are also heartier (think Campbell’s chicken noodle soup) than most which detracts from the purity of the ball. Too many thick starches spoil the soup. In addition, the lack of any vegetables (you couldn’t slice a carrot?) leaves the repetition of each bite a little boring.
Jerry’s Famous Deli (Various locations) & Solley’s (Sherman Oaks)
These sisterly spots feature identical menus, prices and quality. To hardcore fans of the genre, this chain lacks a certain authenticity, but snobs be damned, JFD and Solley’s MBS is actually one of the better bowls in the city. First, they have chosen the best bowl size: deep and wide that allows the spoon to easily troll whatever specific elements that next mouthful will enjoy without spilling any broth.
This massive bowl combines tender, white-breast chicken shards with carrot nuggets and thin, silky noodles about the length of a pinky. There’s a nice balance between the ingredients, and the broth has a rich, golden hue that’s full of the chicken’s richness. The matzo ball, however, is too dense, landing in the stomach like a splattering of spackle.
The biggest offense, however, are their baked bagel bites which are often soft or stale, rendering the chips rubber-cement mush.
Junior’s Deli (On Westwood Boulevard near the Westside Pavilion)
Junior’s MBS comes with a menu declaration: “Absolutely the best in town!” That’s debatable, but I can crown them “absolutely the costliest in town” at nearly $9 a bowl.
The ball itself, I admit, is one the city’s best. Bathing leisurely in the broth stains the exterior a rich, golden color. With every bite of matzo, a spritz of chicken juice splashes the tongue like biting into a hunk of gooey Freshen-Up gum. The addition of celery with the carrots is another nice, flavorful touch, but the culprit who prevents Junior’s from having the absolute best is the bird. Generous chunks of dry chicken actually require a second spoonful of soup while chewing to get the nuggets down.
Fromin’s (Santa Monica)
Let’s start with the noodles. Instead of overwhelming the bowl with larger noodles that tend to get in the way, Fromin’s serves up uber-thin shards like the frayed ends of a comfy pair of blue jeans. Smaller noodles provide a sort of net, allowing the warm, rich broth to climb aboard with every spoonful. And the soup is worthy of inclusion in every bite with a savory balance between the saltiness of the chicken and sweetness of the carrots.
Best of all, is the glorious ball. The matzo is rich with golden corn flavors and a subtle hint of nuttiness as if the chef had crushed an almond into the meal. The texture and balance of the orb is spot-on with a softness on the outside that gives way to a density inside allowing the sphere to stay just firm enough all the way to the bottom of the bowl.
Oh, and it’s also the least expensive bowl of the bunch. Mazel nosh.