Get Soupid: Soup Science Starts at Hale & Hearty

Aw yeah, it’s cold out. It’s almost universally easier to bundle up and stay warm when it’s cold than to stay cool when it’s hot. Layers, balaclavas, $95 heated touchscreen-compatible loss-proof gloves (pick any two aspects) and the single best food this side of phaal curry to warm you up from the inside out: soup. We did some good stuff with pizza science, but with a few of ML’s top soup specialists (and we want your suggestions to add to that list!) it’s time to break soup down and find the best in Midtown.

With $1 Slice-o-Rama, we had some specific criteria on which the target was measured. Since soup alone may not be enough to quell the raging wintry stomach, we’ve expanded a little, but we’re still going by scores per category averaged out for a final score.

Get Soupid has a bunch of soup joints on the list but we want to cover all the good stuff in Midtown! We got some great suggestions and are totally open to more. Does your generic deli make something amazing? Do you have the hole-in-the-wall that Soup Kitchen International was before the Soup Nazi phenomenon? Comment and let us know – they might get a chance to be Soupid like the rest of us!

Our categories for the Get Soupid experience and their examples/explanations including, but not limited to the inclusions below, are:

Value: Is a small a tiny freaking thing or a decent chunk of the meal? Are the ingredients are just basic veggies from a can and crappy meats, or are of worthwhile quality (fresh corn, chunky vegetables, etc.)?
Viscosity: Are the brothy soups too thin? Are the blended soups (like butternut squash, etc.) too thick? Does the mouthfeel reflect the experience of the soup? Is it overblended, not chunky enough, greasy, watery?
Taste: self-explanatory. How much salt does it need, is it too salty, etc.? Does it need hot sauce to bring out some flavor?
Extras: If I’m paying $3 for a piece of bread, is it damn good bread? Do they just throw in saltines? Is it worth paying for a sandwich or can you be full with the soup purchase alone?
Overall: Self-explanatory. The turnover time at ordering, the Soup Nazi vibe of the place, any catchalls that don’t fall into the taste, viscosity, value, and add-ons to the soup. Thermal retention too – is the packaging crap or does it have enough addons to buffer against temperature loss in transit?

I will order soups by using a double-blind from a random number generator: where there are X soups on the menu, I will roll one computer-generated X-sided die twice. I’ll count from the first and then start from the second. So if there’s 17 soups on order and I roll a 12, then a 9, I’ll be ordering soup #4. This is to prevent any personal bias and preference in the soups tested.

I will not order the same type of soup twice for this column; if the random numbers produce a duplicate of a previous soup I will redo the dice rolls. This may sound complex to some but I assure you, it’s basically the root of the hallowed nerd tradition of D&D and other RPGs. It’s all for soup truth.

Since Slice-o-Rama began with the 800lb gorilla in the room with the form of 2 Bros, it makes sense to start with one of the big ones. Hale & Hearty bills themselves on soups, but has been known more for lousy email security. I got a chance to sample their chef-recipe soups from big names and liked a bunch of ‘em. Can they hold up when celebrity chefs are subjected to pure random chance and something like chicken noodle comes up? Only one way to find out.

Hale & Hearty’s got one thing going for it: variety. There were 26 soups on offer today. Our random number generator pointed us at mushroom fagioli as the soup of review from this chain.

Value: The soup is a chunky, thick, dense serving. A 10oz Medium feels like its primary components are beans, veggies, and mushrooms. They didn’t thin down the beany broth part to sell more – there’s kidney and white beans with identifiable bits of sauteed carrots, onions, and celery. The mushrooms are omnipresent and in small chunks. They have a good resiliency when bit, but I can’t quite identify if they’re fresh or canned. They have flavor so I’d err on the side of fresh. The piece of bread is a pretty good sized chunk of sourdough and they have packets of oyster crackers that look triple the size of the ones you get in diners.

The half sandwich is not a massive piece of bread with minimal veggies and fillings, although the individual fillings are minimal. It looks like small slices of turkey, thin foodservice tomatoes, and a few slices of lettuce which is at least romaine and not iceberg crap. There’s real fresh avocado in there and actual pesto (with the omission of pine nuts in favor of walnuts, oh well), and this is definitely a decent amount of food. The real problem, though, is that this whole combo was $9.46. The very top end of the ML limit brings expectations of a great value. This is just a basic value. Would be nice for a cheap soda option but I can live with this, especially since I feel nice and full afterwards. 4 out of 5.

Viscosity: Thick/pureed soups have a pretty thin line to tread between soup and solid. It’s very easy to get wrong and very tough to perfect. That said, the mushroom fagioli errs too much towards the solid. I’m pretty sure whatever stick blender that was taken to the soup should have been set on Low instead of Liquefy and used for a few seconds less.

The beans have been obliterated to the point that, when tilted to 45 degrees, the thinnest beany coating is left on the spoon and the rest just glops endlessly off. Like low-adhesion cheese on a dollar slice, this doesn’t do good things to eating it. I can’t quietly sip this soup, it’s gotta get shoved into the mouth to be consumed. Moreover the chunkiness, while appreciated, is counterproductive to the blended beany bits. The soup doesn’t know if it wants to be a brothy, chunky soup or a pureed, thick soup. Pick one and settle on it, this kind of indecision reflects itself in the production. 2 out of 5

Taste: Porky aroma upon first opening tends towards dry, earthy tones that don’t really stand out all that much. The body of the soup doesn’t lend much to the gray coloring, which doesn’t have enough carrot or other coloring to break it up. The taste is very definitely beany but what happened to the mushrooms here? What could have been a deep, rich earthiness from the shrooms has been rendered into nothing. There’s a bit of thyme in there but it absolutely required at least half a salt packet. I was happy once I dumped the whole packet in there. Don’t even bother with the crappy foodservice pepper packet, it does nothing until you bite down on it. They really need to fresh-grind some in at service or finishing the tureen. I am not exactly the most versed in pasta fagioli soup to begin with but ML commentors have called Hale & Hearty “gringo soup.” This doesn’t do too much. The sourdough tastes like white bread although it has a decent chewiness. 3 out of 5.

Extras: You’ve got options for your extra. Sourdough bread, 7-grain bread, and the aforementioned sack of oyster crackers. The half-sandwich is on ciabatta so it’s not some cheapo crap bread option. Is it the greatest sandwich ever? No, but it’s definitely got fresh veggies and it’s decently filling. The catch on the extras is that the nickel and diming beings after the free piece. An extra piece of bread costs $1. The bread is good, but not dollar good. They at least have utensil proportioning to a science – if you have soup they give you a spoon. No plastic is wasted by giving you a triple set. The basic extras are present here. The sourdough could use some improvement but it’s an extra, not La Brea or your local artisanal hand-startered sourdough with yeast strains derived from San Francisco classics. The thickness of the soup probably helped retain a lot of heat as well. While not a miracle of hot soup over time, the 62-degree atmosphere may have helped a little. The bread and sandwich felt warm, too, so the add-on and extra may constitute a good thermal battery as well. 3 out of 5.

Overall: I’m sure Hale & Hearty has some research into its ordering process, but seriously, dividing up individual products into individual lines? And keeping the coffee line manned at 12:15 PM? I went and ended up in the soup line and asked for my sandwich, but I got sent to the sandwich line. After which it was about 5 minutes to take care of two people in front of me. There’s no line management when you move from A to B. Nobody wants a true Soup Nazi situation but it shouldn’t require planning your soupy attack to ensure maximum ordering efficiency. A soup and sandwich or soup and salad is a logical combination. Treat it as such, Hale & Hearty. 2 out of 5.

Final Score: 2.6/5. Coming out front solely in value pricing, it’s sad that Hale & Hearty’s reputation proves itself. Yes, they’re a chain and yes, they have a meh reputation. Does this prove it? I wish it didn’t. The chef-inspired soups I tried a few months back were amazing examples of getting it RIGHT. The fact that the mushroom fagioli is one of Hale & Hearty’s normal rotation of soups means that this is something they’ve done for a while. It underwhelms without disappointing, but arrives in a proper enough fashion despite having the consistency of overmashed charoset and the appearance of poorly mixed concrete.

Can they do better? Other soups, not subject to this review, have not disappointed – I liked the chef-inspired ones and while overpriced, their gazpacho doesn’t suck. It’s just that this is the bare minimum we expect in soup and they charge close to the absolute ML maximum for the privilege if you want to actually have a filling lunch.

There’s improvements that can be had but I’d take it only from another ML reader to hear that the improvements merit making Hale & Hearty a constant soup destination. If it’s between this and generic deli soups, you at least have options on the menu at Hale & Hearty.

Stick around, we’ll keep ‘em coming! The more suggestions we get, the more soup to slurp in the name of science!

Hale & Hearty, Multiple Locations

8 Comments

  • I love there Sloopy Joe soup but they only serve it once every two or three months.

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    Do we get the sodium count, when available, for these soups? However, it’s probably not fair to out some and not the others.

    Pret is notorious for 1000mg+ sodium per serving soups.

    • That’s a fair call. I’ll do some digging on H&H and edit accordingly. If I can get it, I’ll get sodium amounts for future visits although I don’t expect mom & pop generic delis to post ‘em, and I don’t want to blow my cover and be revealed as a ML contributor by asking too many questions.

      Looks like I’m gonna have to do some Mission Impossible-esque kitchen recon, or at least start buying up soupmakers’ armoires.

  • I don’t think you’ll find any genuine values in takeout soups in Midtown (but it would be a real coup if you do!). Soup is a notoriously overpriced food item in NYC. Yes, this isn’t a recipe site, but it is so easy and far preferable to make a large batch of hearty soup at home (for the cost of maybe 2 small take-out servings) and store it in single-serving containers. (You can even freeze some if the batch is huge.) Plus, you can control the amount of salt/sodium, etc. And soup is easy to heat up in any office microwave. Buying a half-pint or 10 oz of soup for $4+ is just ridiculous.

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    As much as I hate to admit it, their Senegalese Chicken with Peanut may be one of my favorite soups ever

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    I love love love the portuguese kale soup at H&H. Other soups there, less so.

  • You should post the price of the soup alone for a basic 8 or 10 oz cup. That makes comparisons easier. I wouldn’t ever bother with a sandwich at H&H.

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