When I was a kid soup got a bum rap. It meant Mom was taking a night off (open a can). It meant I was broke (open a can). Or it meant Dad was trying to lose weight (remember the gassy cabbage soup diet craze?).
As I came of age in the restaurant trade soup became a nuisance. A good soup requires time. Keeping it warm requires equipment and consumes precious space. Delivering soup to the table is a nightmare. And frankly, making soup profitable is a rare novelty.
Luckily, I have since befriended culinary mentors who hold a different perspective. They enjoy soup. They cook soup. They served soup at parties and they order soup at restaurants (what?). Warm soups and cold soups; Delicate, hearty and complex soups. I’ve been shown the errors of my way. I now dig soup.
Practical disclosure…My office is in Northeast Ann Arbor, a congested, suburban swatch of earth littered with underwhelming and time-consuming lunch options. I’ve grown to hate the lunch hour. Like a Pavlovian wrecking ball my stomach starts growling by 11:45. Unlike my biorhythms though, I cannot predict my workday. Rarely do I have the luxury of excessive time to spend in pursuit of gastronomic nirvana. “Work Lunch” is about caloric utility.
A few years ago, I made a curious discovery. From my office, it’s dramatically faster to jump on M-14 and speed downtown as opposed to enduring the sequence of traffic on Plymouth-Broadway. It blew my world open. Instead of dreading the thought of getting out for lunch, I was empowered. I started sneaking out, conducting a townie’s treasure hunt for downtown lunch spots. Bi Bim Bops at Eastern Accent (RIP). Taco Tuesday at Sabor Latino. Marks Carts. MARKS CARTS! I found short-cuts. I invented parking tactics. It became a sport and I started timing myself to see how fast I could make the round trip to Le Dog (record time: 23 minutes; legal drivers may find this difficult to replicate). Which brings us to the issue at hand.
Author’s Note: For the sake of this piece, let’s ignore hot dogs. Let’s riff on the basis that Le Dog is primarily a soup counter. Using my unscientific study of the customer line I am going to surmise that over 80% of Le Dogs revenue is derived from soup sales. This is soup joint that sells hot dogs. Not a hot dog stand that sells soup.
It’s a curious thing. Much has been written about the quirky red hut on Liberty, the charming proprietors and the epic-glory that is Lobster Bisque. Le Dog is cherished by Ann Arbor in the way people from Austin passionately cry “Keep Austin Weird.” Still, as I started chatting up friends about Le Dog I found that few, even some hard-core townies had patronized the Main Street branch. That’s an alarming fact when considering that in May 2014 Chef Jules shuttered his iconic Liberty Street stand, consolidating operations on Main Street. Chop-Chop people. Get with the times. Le Dog, or La Soup as I’m wont to call it, is one of Ann Arbors premier culinary treasures…TOP THREE. OK, maybe top 5, still that’s no hyperbole. Treasures need to be protected. Treasures need to be supported. What good is ending global warming (really people, it’s a thing) if the next generation can’t eat at Le Dog? Buy their SOUP!
Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe you’re asking, "how good can it be?" To quote Seinfeld, “they're real and they're spectacular.” Think slow food served fast. Each recipe is made fresh, from scratch with responsibly sourced ingredients. The flavors are rich and textured. Ingredients are forward and deliberate, equally restrained and balanced. Finishing ingredients are added to order, ensuring integrity of taste and texture. Each soup has the potential to become your favorite.
And the vast selection is a storied experience onto itself. In May the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported Chef Jules to have [eight bazillion] unique recipes. Soup flavors rotate at his discretion and availability changes by the hour. It makes every visit an opportunity for discovery, save for Thursday and Friday, the high holy days, when Lobster Bisque anchors the menu. Note, these are not intended as an amuse bouche or single course. Each cup is a full meal replacement. As such they skew towards the hearty; think Marrakesh Stew, Stuffed Pepper Soup, Potato+Leek+Mushroom Bisque with Cream. If you’re in the mood to carb-load you can add a hunk of Zingerman’s Paesano or pretzel.
Sounds pretty amazing, right? The folks behind this must be annoyingly pretentious, right? Au contraire mon frère. While the soups are of note, the humans behind the counters are downright stunning; warm, modest, hard-working and generous spirits with ZERO pretenses. The team embraces each customer as family. And the walls are covered with photos of their own family, making you feel as though you’re visiting a dear relative, not a business. I guarantee, even if you find the soup only modestly pleasing, you’ll become enchanted with desire to support Jules, Ika, Miki and Marolyn.
Over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to study this business. While standing on cue I fight the urge to check my phone and instead watch pageantry of Soup. I quietly laugh as veteran customers educate newbie companions, each with their own version of Le Dog history. I marvel at the staff’s ability to engage regulars and welcome new comers, all while expertly expediting the rigors of service within a space equal to a broom closet. I’ve come to believe that if a high-priced culinary agency were tasked to create a successful, relevant soup counter the result would resemble Le Dog. OK, maybe the signs wouldn’t be hand-scrawled cardboard, still you get the point. This is the real McCoy. Genuine Article.
So there you have it. Yes, I could ramble on for another thousand words sharing charming antidotes about my Le Dog experiences. But why live vicariously though my words. Why not get off your well-groomed biscuit and see for yourself. Create your own memories while you support an Ann Arbor institution. Let’s see to it that Le Dog remains a vital part of our community for another thirty years. BUY THEIR SOUP.
FINAL PSA: Le Dog is a serious CASH ONLY hold-out. Even as Blimpy caves to the pressure of plastic commerce Chef Jules remains staunchly opposed to merchant fees. Respect it. Hit the ATM before you get in line.