Surveying the landscape of chicken tortilla soup in Austin is something I do on a regular basis, normally from the vantage point of my kitchen where I hover over a vat of chicken stock a few times a year whilst constructing my own version.
But I don’t always have the eight hours it takes to make a credible kettle, and that’s when I start pondering which of the 200-plus Mexican restaurants in Austin are currently putting out the best version. This fall, three local establishments make the cut for where to go — outside of my own kitchen — for authentic, satisfying chicken tortilla soup.
Tamale House East
1707 E. Sixth Street
The broth is clear and clean, showcasing some serious kitchen prowess. Garnishes include avocado, molten white cheese and crunchy, yellow corn tortillas strips.
It’s a warm, sunny afternoon at Tamale House East in the old Mexico Tipico location on Sixth Street. The Kinks are playing on the hi-fi, a table of crusty punks are sipping mimosas and admiring their $300 tattoos, and I’m wondering how the cook managed to get an entire chicken’s worth of meat into my bowl.
The broth is clear and clean, showcasing some serious kitchen prowess. Garnishes include avocado, molten white cheese and crunchy, yellow corn tortillas strips. I know the red salsa to be one of the finest in town, so I ladle a ramekin straight into the broth. The soup is profound, the environment pure Austin.
If you squint down the nearby train tracks through the autumn sunshine you can almost imagine what the East Side was like 30 years ago, when raucous cantinas lined the corridor and the cocineras shoehorned a whole chicken in each bowl of soup they vended.
1917 E. Seventh Street
You know you’re in for a good meal when half the men you’re eating with are wearing hardhats and the other half are wearing scorpion cowboy hats. I’m sitting at the crowded lunch counter at La Michoacana on Seventh Street taking the measure of my bowl of chicken soup.
It’s an embarrassment of riches: giant hunks of bone-in chicken jut every which way keeping company with carrots, entire jalapenos, zucchini, tomato, haricot verts (!), pimenton, onion and cilantro. An entire garden of vegetables sits in a broth the color of rich Mexican soil. Off to the side I have a small platter ladled high with rice and a dozen corn tortillas hot off the griddle. I’m a model of temperance so I only eat 10.
The soup is delicious and the kitchen bustles with a trio of mujeres tending to giant steaming cauldrons and bubbling fryers. Hardly a hidden gem, a line slowly grows until several would-be eaters are queued up outside the market, waiting patiently for one of the best bowls of soup in Austin.
4211 S. Lamar
Azul Tequila in South Austin is one of the few restaurants in town that tackles both Tex-Mex and Interior Mexican cuisine. That they do so in a shabby strip mall in a room illuminated by black lights makes it all the more intriguing. I’ve been eating here for years.
The vast bowl of chicken tortilla soup arrives and it’s a beauty. Garnished with slabs of avocado and a hunk off an ear of corn, it’s one of the better looking bowls in town. The broth is austere with tiny globes of fat suspended within. Shreds of white meat chicken accompany the celery, carrots and onion that have been sauteed prior to inclusion in the soup. A small saucer of perfectly cooked rice and wedges of lime accompany the meal.
RL Reeves, Jr. writes the food stories of Texas on ScrumptiousChef.com.