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Commonly Good

Every culture has its own chicken soup, and L.A. is home to some of the best


They say chicken soup is good for the soul and zings bodily ills like a shot of penicillin. But what kind of chicken soup are they talking about? Is it chicken with noodles, rice or matzo balls? Or could it be pho ga, tom yam kai or sopa de gallina india?

In Los Angeles, it could be any of the above. Chicken soup in this city is as diverse as its inhabitants, who come from all over the world. Thais, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexicans, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Indonesians and many others have stirred their own flavors into the pot.

The noodles twined in the broth might be fine rice noodles. The rice could be rosy Mexican rice. Instead of carrots, celery and potatoes, the vegetables could be straw mushrooms, chayote or green papaya. Fish sauce and hot chiles may replace salt and pepper. Lime juice, coconut milk and turmeric transform the broth. Cilantro, mint and basil add new herbal flavors.

In fact, these soups taste so different from one another, it's hard to tell that they have anything in common. But each is a variation on the same theme: chicken broth, vegetables, meat and spices. And each is the quintessential example of home cooking, wherever home may be.

To get an idea of the range, we made a chicken soup tour of Los Angeles, starting with the simple classic with noodles and moving on to more exotic variations.

Our first bowl is an elite version of chicken vegetable soup from the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills. The full, mellow aroma of the Grill's broth is amazing--just inhaling it makes you feel soothed and nourished. The chicken is juicy. The vegetables, nudged upscale by shallots and leeks, are painstakingly cut into fine shreds. Bits of macaroni add substance. It's real comfort food, and the power people who lunch at the Grill jam in on Mondays to get it. The only other day it's served is Sunday.

The soup comes with a big, crusty heel of sourdough bread and a slab of sweet butter, which is enough for lunch. The appointments are first-rate. You feel naughty scattering crumbs on the starchy white tablecloth and wonder if the waiter is miffed because you haven't ordered anything else. Nevertheless, this aristocratic bowl of soup is just $5.75.

Starring: The Matzo Ball

Our dinner stop is Nate 'n' Al's a few blocks away on Beverly Drive. This restaurant and deli also draws a power crowd. The man at the next table is on his cell phone chatting in film jargon. The good-looking blond guy across the room shows off his biceps with a black T-shirt and wears sunglasses, although it's dark outside.

Like scads of Hollywood famous and other key players, the cell-phone talker is spooning up Nate 'n' Al's celebrated chicken soup with matzo balls. There is no meat in the soup, just broth, dominated by two huge matzo balls so fluffy and light it's a wonder they don't float out of the bowl. You can't find more soothing food than this.

And you can't help but feel good in a place where the waitresses check on you as if they were Mom. They look comforting in their old-fashioned uniforms, white socks and sneakers. I tell my waitress I have a cold and ask if the soup will help. "I hope so," she replies. "Jewish penicillin--isn't that what they say? I hope you feel better soon."

Nate 'n' Al's provides rye bread, sauerkraut, kosher dills and "half-done" (partially cured) dills with the soup. It's quite a meal for $5.25.

Mexico: Bright Flavor

On Day 2, we head to Glendale for lunch at La Cabanita on Verdugo Road. This Mexican restaurant has created a stir with its caldo de pollo, a beautiful bowl of chicken and vegetables topped off with a golden slice of corn on the cob, cilantro and sliced avocado. Along with green beans, carrots, tomatoes, potato, zucchini and chayote, the bowl contains a spoonful of the same red rice that accompanies most main dishes.

A basket of hot, handmade corn tortillas accompanies the caldo, and a little container of lime wedges and chopped onion is tucked against the bowl. To eat it Mexican style, squeeze lime juice into the soup and add onions and salsa to taste. There are two salsas, a dark one of tomatoes and chile de arbol and a bright green blend of serrano chiles and tomatillos.

Owner Francisco Jimenez says the recipe is from his mother, Maria Vazquez. They're from Mexico City. If you can swing it, go for lunch during the week, when the caldo is $5.95 and comes with a plate of rice and black beans and a soft drink. At night and on weekends, it's $7.95 without the extras.

Philippines: A Ginger Zing

On the way back to Los Angeles, it's easy to swing into what street signs designate as "Historic Filipinotown." This area along Temple Street approaching downtown still includes a few Filipino restaurants.

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