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Concocting a superior soup is no easy task ' in fact, it's one of the defining tests of a chef's mettle. Master the art and you might garner a following like Al Yeganeh, keeper of the Original SoupMan franchise and inspiration for Seinfeld's Soup Nazi character. Lea Hernando, owner of Soups & Stews by Lea, is anything but the splenetic autocrat that television character was. At her restaurant, diners can take their time selecting a soup and, after doing so, move in any direction they wish. Engaging Lea in conversation is also permitted ­' though, word of warning, the banter is likely to turn bawdy.

Yes, she may have a personality as colorful as her souperie's butternut-orange walls, but strong personalities and soup seem to go together like beans and cabbage, as in Lea's three-bean and cabbage soup (8 ounces, $3.70; 12 ounces, $5; 16 ounces, $7; 32 ounces, $9.80), a hearty blend of cannellini, garbanzo and kidney beans in a thick broth infused with just the right amount of sourness. With every order, you'll get enough French bread to feed a famille of four, so if you're the sort who likes to sop, sop away. Along with a set menu of soups and stews, Lea has a daily rotation that ensures variety ' the pumpkin soup (8 ounces, $3.70), was a soothing puree seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper and tarragon, the latter ingredient providing a nice licorice-mint essence. A sampling of the Italian wedding soup failed to arouse my or my Italian dining partner's taste buds, but we both agreed that the Godfather's chicken stew (8 ounces, $4.90; 12 ounces, $5.90; 16 ounces, $7.90; 32 ounces, $11.90) was an offer we couldn't possibly refuse again. Ricotta cheese gave the stew a nice tang, and the thick tomato base with shredded chicken and rounds of black olives added a bit of old-world comfort. The lamb stew, conversely, was an entirely bland and forgettable pulp of carrots, white beans, potatoes and diminutive chunks of lamb.

The website lists nearly 50 different varieties of soup, so you're bound to find some that work and some that don't and have a little fun in the process. I'm hoping that the nutty mulligatawny, oxtail stew and cheese-and-mac are available the next time I pop by. Paninis, wraps and salads are also offered and can be combined with soups and stews for value-priced meals; I thoroughly enjoyed the turkey wrap ($6.85) ' the addition of strawberry marmalade in particular ' as well as the perfectly grilled and ample roast beef panini ($6.85) with sweet peppers and provolone cheese.

Gelato was once offered, but has since been stripped from the menu. (It just wasn't selling, but they'll try their hand at homemade ice cream in the coming weeks.) Unfortunately, no dessert soups were on hand either, but sweet-toothed slurpers could get lucky if they dine on a day when chocolate soup spiced with chipotle or sweet potato'mango soup is offered (check www.soupsandstewsbylea.com for weekly menus).

As part of the ambience, a TV above the serving station loops the Soup Nazi episode from Seinfeld continuously as both an entertaining distraction and an homage to soupdom. But given the eatery's need to attract more patrons (they're considering going lunch-only), the episode may also serve as a reminder of what this soup kitchen aspires to be.

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